Statue of King Wenceslas
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Wenceslaus I (Czech: Václav [ˈvaːtslaf] ( listen); c. 907 – September 28, 935), or Wenceslas I, was the duke (kníže) of Bohemia from 921 until his assassination in 935, purportedly in a plot by his own brother, Boleslav the Cruel.
His martyrdom, and the popularity of several biographies, quickly gave rise to a reputation for heroic goodness, resulting in his being elevated to Sainthood, posthumously declared king, and seen as the patron saint of the Czech state. He is the subject of Good King Wenceslas, a Saint Stephen's Day carol written in 1853 that remains popular to this day.
Wenceslaus was son of Vratislaus I, Duke of Bohemia from the Přemyslid dynasty. His father was raised in a Christian milieu through his own father, Borivoj I of Bohemia, who was purportedly converted by Saints Cyril and Methodius. His mother Drahomíra was the daughter of a pagan tribal chief of Havolans and was baptized at the time of her marriage.
In 921, when Wenceslaus was thirteen, his father died and he was brought up by his grandmother, Saint Ludmila, who raised him as a Christian. A dispute between the fervently Christian regent and her daughter-in-law drove Ludmila to seek sanctuary at Tetín Castle near Beroun. Drahomíra, who was trying to garner support from the nobility, was furious about losing influence on her son and arranged to have Ludmila strangled at Tetín on September 15, 921. Wenceslaus is usually described as exceptionally pious and humble, and a very educated and intelligent young man for his time.
According to some legends, having regained control of her son, Drahomíra set out to convert him to the old pagan religion. According to other legends, she was a Christian herself; however, very little is known about her rule.
After the fall of Great Moravia, the rulers of the Bohemian duchy had to deal both with continuous raids by the Magyars and the forces of the Saxon duke and East Frankish king Henry the Fowler, who had started several eastern campaigns into the adjacent lands of the Polabian Slavs, homeland of Wenceslaus' mother. To withstand Saxon overlordship Wenceslaus' father Vratislaus had forged an alliance with the Bavarian duke Arnulf the Bad, then a fierce opponent of King Henry; however, it became worthless when Arnulf and Henry reconciled at Regensburg in 921.
In 924 or 925 Wenceslaus assumed government for himself and had Drahomíra exiled. After gaining the throne at the age of eighteen, he defeated a rebellious duke of Kouřim named Radslav. He also founded a rotunda consecrated to St Vitus at Prague Castle in Prague, which exists as present-day St Vitus Cathedral.
Early in 929 the joint forces of Duke Arnulf of Bavaria and King Henry I the Fowler reached Prague in a sudden attack, which forced Wenceslaus to resume the payment of a tribute which had been first imposed by the East Frankish king Arnulf of Carinthia in 895. Henry had been forced to pay a huge tribute to the Magyars in 926 and he therefore needed the Bohemian tribute which Wenceslaus probably refused to pay any longer after the reconciliation between Arnulf and Henry. One of the possible reasons for Henry's attack was also the formation of the anti-Saxon alliance between Bohemia, the Polabian Slavs and the Magyars.
In September 935 (in older sources 929) a group of nobles—allied with Wenceslaus' younger brother Boleslav—plotted to kill the prince. After Boleslav invited Wenceslaus to the feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Stará Boleslav, three of Boleslav's companions – Tira, Čsta and Hněvsa – murdered Wenceslaus on his way to church after a quarrel between him and his brother. Boleslav thus succeeded him as the Duke of Bohemia.
According to Cosmas's Chronicle, one of Boleslav's sons was born on the day of Wenceslaus' death, and because of the ominous circumstance of his birth the infant was named Strachkvas, which means "a dreadful feast".
There are discrepancies in the records regarding the date of St Wenceslaus' death. It has been argued that Wenceslaus' remains were transferred to St Vitus's Church in 932, ruling out the later date; however, the year 935 is now favored by historians as the date of his murder.
There is a tradition which states that Saint Wenceslaus' loyal servant, Podevin, avenged his death by killing one of the chief conspirators. Podevin was executed by Boleslav.
Canonisation and other memorials
Wenceslas was considered a martyr and a saint immediately after his death, when a cult of Wenceslas grew up in Bohemia and in England. Within a few decades of Wenceslas's death four biographies of him were in circulation. These hagiographies had a powerful influence on the High Middle Ages conceptualization of the rex justus, or "righteous king"—that is, a monarch whose power stems mainly from his great piety, as well as from his princely vigor.
Referring approvingly to these hagiographies, the chronicler Cosmas of Prague, writing in about the year 1119, states:
Several centuries later the legend was claimed as fact by Pope Pius II.
Although Wenceslas was, during his lifetime, only a duke, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously "conferred on [Wenceslas] the regal dignity and title" and that is why, in the legend and song, he is referred to as a "king". The usual English spelling of Duke Wenceslas's name, Wenceslaus, is occasionally encountered in later textual variants of the carol, although it was not used by Neale in his version. Wenceslas is not to be confused with King Wenceslaus I of Bohemia (Wenceslaus I Premyslid), who lived more than three centuries later.
An equestrian statue of Saint Wenceslaus and other patrons of Bohemia (St. Adalbert, St. Ludmila, St. Prokop and St. Agnes of Bohemia) is located on Wenceslaus Square in Prague. His helmet and armour are on display inside Prague Castle.
The hymn "Svatý Václave" (Saint Wenceslas) or "Saint Wenceslas Chorale " is one of the oldest known Czech songs in history. Its roots can be found in the 12th century and it still belongs to the most popular religious songs to this day. In 1918, in the beginning of the Czechoslovak state, the song was discussed as one of the possible choices for the national anthem.
Since 2000, the feast day of Saint Wenceslas (September 28) is a public holiday in the Czech Republic, celebrated as Czech Statehood Day.
Wenceslaus in legend
Wenceslaus is the subject of the popular Saint Stephen's Day (celebrated on December 26 in the West) Carol, "Good King Wenceslas". It was published by John Mason Neale in 1853, and may be a translation of a poem by Czech poet Václav Alois Svoboda.
An enduring legend claims a huge army of knights sleep inside Blaník, a mountain in the Czech Republic. The knights will awake and under the command of St. Wenceslaus and bring aid to the Czech people when they face ultimate danger (see also King in the mountain legends). There is a similar great legend in Prague which says that when the Motherland is in danger or in its darkest times and close to ruin, the equestrian statue of King Wenceslaus in Wenceslaus Square will come to life, raise the army sleeping in Blaník, and upon crossing the Charles Bridge his horse will stumble and trip over a stone, revealing the legendary sword of Bruncvík. With this sword, King Wenceslaus will slay all the enemies of the Czechs, bringing peace and prosperity to the land. Ogden Nash wrote a comic epic poem – "The Christmas that Almost Wasn't", loosely based on the same legend – in which a boy awakens Wenceslaus and his knights to save a kingdom from usurpers who have outlawed Christmas.
1994 television film Good King Wenceslas is a highly fictional account of his early life. The film stars Jonathan Brandis in the title role, supported by Leo McKern, Stefanie Powers, and Joan Fontaine as Ludmila.