Encyclopedia of Trivia: Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia

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Friday, 10 May 2019

Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia

Wenceslaus was born in c907 the son of Vratislaus I, Duke of Bohemia.

His mother, Drahomíra, was the daughter of a pagan tribal chief of the Havelli, but was baptized at the time of her marriage.

Wenceslaus' grandfather, Bořivoj I of Bohemia, was converted to Christianity by Saints Cyril and Methodius, the Apostles to the Slavs.

Wenceslaus' paternal grandmother, Ludmila of Bohemia, saw to it that he was educated in the Old-Slavonic language and, at an early age, he was sent to the college at Budweis.

In 921, when Wenceslas was about thirteen, his father died and his grandmother, Ludmila, became regent.

Wenceslaus' mother Drahomíra, become jealous of Ludmila's influence over Wenceslaus and plotted to kill her. When Ludmila heard about the plot, her reaction was calm and philosophical. If by her death the Christian religion could be furthered then it would not have been in vain. She begun to give away all her goods to the poor and proceeded to pray daily that she might meet her fate with dignity. She was finally murdered by being strangled by her veil.

Wenceslaus I became the duke of Bohemia in 921. Renowned for his piety, he founded many churches in Prague, including a rotunda consecrated to St. Vitus at Prague Castle, which exists as present-day St. Vitus Cathedral.

Wenceslaus, probably by Peter Parler, in St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague

Wenceslaus took a vow of celibacy and spent much of his time in acts of piety, affairs of state and prayer. So great was his devotion that he helped sow the corn and gather the grapes from which the bread and wine used at Mass was made.

During his reign Wenceslaus attempted to Christianise his people and encouraged the work of German missionaries. He favoured the Latin rite of the Mass instead of the old Slavic one which had fallen into disuse.

Early in 929, the joint forces of Duke Arnulf of Bavaria and King Henry I the Fowler the king of East Francia (Germany) reached Prague in a sudden attack. The pious Wenceslaus came to an arrangement with the German king to end the war. He placed his duchy under the protection of Germany and resumed the payment of a tribute first imposed by the East Frankish king Arnulf of Carinthia in 895.

This angered some of the Bohemian nobles, who prompted Boleslav, Wenceslaus' younger brother, to get him killed. On September 28, 935, on his way to Mass, Wenceslaus was murdered at the church door. The people were outraged and regarded the martyred duke as a saint.

Murder of Duke Wenceslaus, Liber viaticus (14th century)

Three years later Boleslav, having repented of his deed, ordered the translation of Wenceslaus' body to the Church of St. Vitus in Prague

Wenceslaus was posthumously declared to be a king by Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor, and later came to be seen as the patron saint of the Czech Republic.

The most famous square in Prague is the Wenceslas Square, formerly known as Horse Market. It was renamed Saint Wenceslas square in 1848 on the proposal of Czech writer Karel Havlíček Borovský.

When Church of England priest and hymn writer John Mason Neale came across a long narrative German poem about Wenceslas, a section in which the king walked out into the snow to rescue a poor swineherd particularly struck him. Neale adapted the poem into English and borrowed the tune to go with it from "Tempus Adest Floridum" ("Spring has unwrapped her flowers"), a 13th century spring carol.

"Good King Wenceslas" was included in a 1853 publication Carols for Christmas-tide, by Neale and the Rev. Thomas Helmore (vice-Principal of St. Mark's College, Chelsea). It is now sung as a carol for Saint Stephen's Day.

The story inspired much more than a carol. Neale was so touched by the quality of mercy in the tale of Wenceslas he read that he founded the Society of St Margaret, which still offers care to the poor in their homes.

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