Saint of the Day – 28 September – St Wenceslaus (907-935) King of Bohemia, Martyr – also known as Vaceslav, Vaclav, Wenzel, Wenceslas, Václav. (907 at Prague, Bohemia (in Czech Republic) – 28 September 929 by assassination). Patronages – brewers, Bohemia, Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia, Moravia, Prague, Czech Republic, archdiocese and the city. Attributes – banner, crown, eagle, staff, soldier, horse, armour.
St Wenceslaus was born around the year 907. His father Duke Wratislaw was a Catholic but his mother Princess Dragomir practiced the native pagan religion. She would later arrange the murders of both Wenceslaus and his grandmother Ludmilla, who is also a canonised saint. During his youth, Wenceslaus received a strong religious education from Ludmilla, in addition to the good example of his father. He maintained a virtuous manner of living while attending college near Prague, making significant progress both academically and spiritually. But with the death of his father Wratislaw, the devout young nobleman faced a spiritual and political crisis.
His mother Dragomir, who had never accepted the Catholic faith, turned against it entirely. She seized her husband’s death as a chance to destroy the religion his parents had received from Sts Cyril and Methodius, through methods that included purging Catholics from public office, closing churches and preventing all teaching of the faith. Dragomir’s Catholic mother-in-law Ludmilla urged Wenceslaus to seize power from his mother and defend their faith. His attempt to do so resulted in the division of the country into two halves: one ruled by Wenceslaus, advised by Ludmilla; the other ruled by Wenceslaus’ younger brother Boleslaus, who had absorbed his mother’s hatred of the Church.
Wenceslaus, who would have preferred to become a monk and not a duke, fortified himself in this struggle through fervent prayer, extreme asceticism, charitable service and a vow of chastity. Meanwhile, his mother carried out a plot to kill Ludmilla, having her strangled in her private chapel. St Ludmilla’s liturgical feast day is 16 September.
The Bohemian duke also faced the threat of invasion from abroad, when Prince Radislaus of Gurima demanded that Bohemia submit to his rule. When Wenceslaus sought to avoid a war by challenging him in single combat, two angels are said to have appeared, deflecting the javelin thrown at Wenceslaus and immediately inspiring Radislaus to drop to his knees in surrender.
During his period of rule, Wenceslaus received the relics of several saints from the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, who also conferred on him the title of “King Wenceslaus.” But some noblemen of his own country resented the saintly king’s strict morals and allied themselves with Dragomir and Boleslaus. Wenceslaus’ brother sought to appear as a peacemaker, inviting the king to his realm for a celebration. When Wenceslaus was praying in a chapel during the visit, Boleslaus’ henchmen attacked and wounded him. Boleslaus himself delivered the final blow, killing his brother by running him through with a lance. St Wenceslaus died on 28 September 935.
Emperor Otto responded to St Wenceslaus’ death by invading Bohemia and making war against Boleslaus for several years. He succeeded in conquering the region and forced Boleslaus to reverse the anti-Catholic measures he and his mother had taken. There is no evidence that Dragomir, who died soon after the murder of St.Wenceslaus, ever repented of killing her family members. Boleslaus, however, came to regret his sin when he learned of the miracles that were taking place at his brother’s tomb. He moved St Wenceslaus’ body to a cathedral for veneration by the faithful.
St 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’ death, four biographies of him were in circulation. These hagiographies had a powerful influence on the High Middle Ages conceptualisation 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 vigour.
Referring approvingly to these hagiographies, the chronicler Cosmas of Prague, writing in about the year 1119, states:
But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.
Several centuries later the legend was claimed as fact by Pope Pius II.
The hymn “Svatý Václave” (Saint Wenceslas) or “Saint Wenceslas Chorale” is one of the oldest known Czech hymns 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. His feast day is celebrated today while the translation of his relics, which took place in 938, is commemorated on 4 March.
Since 2000, the feast day of Saint Wenceslas is a public holiday in the Czech Republic, celebrated as the Czech Statehood Day.
Good King Wenceslaus
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 blow stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good 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.