12/24/2009

Good King Wenceslas, Not a Brit?

Back in ’06 my wife and I visited the Czech Republic. We spent a day or two wandering around the streets of Prague, which is a wonderful place to visit. As we strolled through the never-ending blocks of shops and cafes, we stumbled on Saint Wenceslas Square.


I had always thought the “Good King Wenceslas” of song was from Britain. It is a British Christmas Carol, right? It seems that the good king was actually Saint Wenceslas I, duke of Bohemia. He may not have even been a king. He came to power in about 925 AD. During this period the Holy Roman Empire dominated the European Continent, with Prague situated its eastern edge.

Wenceslas had a pagan mother, but his father was Christian and he adopted Christianity. He is known as a great warrior, but all I could find on the internet was that he capitulated to the Holy Roman Empire without fighting and agreed to pay them tribute. Maybe he was just smarter than most warrior leaders. He became most famous for running around barefoot across winter’s snow delivering alms to poor widows, prisoners, and sick people, which is really a strange thing for a warrior king to be doing. One can only guess that he was deeply smitten with doing “good works”. This is the part of the legend that was captured in a Czech poem and put to song by John Mason Neala in England in the early 1800 hundreds.

Because of his good deeds and piety, his story spread across Europe quickly. After his death, he became a foremost example of a “Righteous King.” Hence, Wenceslas was known in places as far away as Britain. I propose his Arthur-like traits promoted his popularity, particularly in England and France. His legend even predicts that, like Arthur, he will return with his great sword and defend the land against invaders.

Good King Wenceslas

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho' the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath'ring winter fuel.

"Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know'st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither."
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind's wild lament and the bitter weather.

"Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.
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