A Guide To The Saints: The Good King Wenceslaus

Many people are familiar with the Christmas carol, Good King Wenceslaus. But they may not know that he was a real person, a Bohemian duke who lived 1,000 years ago.

"Good King Wenceslaus looked out, on the feast of Stephen." Most people know the Christmas carol about the good king who took food and firewood to a poor peasant during the winter holidays. But they may not know the story behind the song, the story of a Bohemian duke plagued by political intrigue, family feuding, and murder.

"King" Wenceslaus wasn't really a king at all, but the Duke of Bohemia, which is now part of the present-day Czech Republic. When he was born in A.D. 903, Bohemia still struggled between Christianity and paganism. Wenceslaus' father was a Christian and his mother, Drahomira, was a pagan. Wenceslaus chose to follow his father's religion, while his brother, Boleslaus, chose to follow his mother's beliefs.

Wenceslaus succeeded his father as Duke of Bohemia when he was only 15. Because he was so young, his mother served as regent. One of her first acts was to prohibit Christianity. She even murdered Wenceslaus' grandmother, because she was the one who taught her son to follow Christianity. After a couple of years, the people could no longer stand Drahomira's cruelty and asked Wenceslaus to take the throne. He did, making Christianity the official state religion, building churches, inviting German missionaries to the region, and helping the poor.

When Wenceslaus married and had a child, his brother Boleslaus grew jealous as he saw his chances at taking the throne slipping away. So he and some friends plotted Wenceslaus' murder. They knew that Wenceslaus planned to attend Mass for a saint's feast day, and they arranged to meet him at church. He agreed, and they murdered him on the steps of the church. He was declared a martyr and a saint almost immediately.

But what about that song? Where did it come from? Anglican minister John Mason Neale wrote the carol in 1853 as part of a collection of songs for children. Although he had never visited Bohemia, Neale heard the story of Good King Wenceslaus from British soldiers who had returned from Eastern Europe. He set the tale to music to teach children about the virtue of generosity.

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