Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Feast Day: St. Wenceslaus (907-935)

Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia by Peter Palmer
Statue of Saint Wenceslaus in St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague. 
The head of the statue apparently fits 
the measurements of Wenceslaus's skull.
If saints have been falsely characterized as "other worldly," the life of Wenceslaus stands as an example to the contrary: He stood for Christian values in the midst of the political intrigues which characterized 10th-century Bohemia.

Wenceslaus I; c. 907 – September 28, 935), or Wenceslas I, was the ruler (kníže, translated as "duke") of Bohemia from 921 until his death. He is venerated as Saint Wenceslaus and is the main patron saint of the Czech state. Wenceslas is also the subject of the Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas".

He was born in 907 near Prague, son of the Duke of Bohemia. His parents were Duke Wratislaw, a Christian, and Dragomir, a pretended Christian, but a secret favourer of paganism. He received a good Christian education from his grandmother (St. Ludmilla: She is venerated as one of the patrons of Bohemia, and her feast is celebrated on 16 September.). His saintly grandmother, Ludmilla, raised him and sought to promote him as ruler of Bohemia in place of his mother, who favored the anti-Christian factions. Ludmilla was eventually murdered, but rival Christian forces enabled Wenceslaus to assume leadership of the government in 1921. Wenceslaus is usually described as exceptionally pious, humble and, at the time, a very educated aristocrat. He was known for his kindness to the poor. 

His rule was marked by efforts toward unification within Bohemia, support of the Church and peace-making negotiations with Germany, a policy which caused him trouble with the anti-Christian opposition. Many of the Bohemian nobles resented Wenceslas's attempts to spread Christianity, and were displeased when he swore allegiance to the king of Germany, Henry I.
His brother Boleslav joined in the plotting, and in September of 935 (in older sources, 1929) invited Wenceslaus to Alt Bunglou for the celebration of the feast of Sts. Cosmas and Damian (September 26). On the way to Mass, Boleslav attacked his brother, and in the struggle, Wenceslaus was killed by supporters of Boleslav.

Royal Insignia of the Kingdom of Bohemia with the St. Wenceslas Crown

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's death. It has been argued that Wenceslaus's 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's loyal servant, Podevin (see lyrics), avenged his death by killing one of the chief conspirators. Podevin was executed by Boleslav.

Although his death resulted primarily from political upheaval, Wenceslaus was hailed as a martyr for the faith, and his tomb became a pilgrimage shrine. He is hailed as the patron of the Bohemian people and of former Czechoslovakia.

St. Wencaslaus, Patron Saint of Bohemia

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 (writings on the subject of holy people) 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.

"Good King Wenceslaus" was able to incarnate his Christianity in a world filled with political unrest. While we are often victims of violence of a different sort, we can easily identify with his struggle to bring harmony to society. The call to become involved in social change and in political activity is addressed to Christians; the values of the gospel are sorely needed today.
"While recognizing the autonomy of the reality of politics, Christians who are invited to take up political activity should try to make their choices consistent with the gospel and, in the framework of a legitimate plurality, to give both personal and collective witness to the seriousness of their faith by effective and disinterested service of men" (Pope Paul VI, A Call to Action, 46).

Good King Wenceslas - History and English Translation by John Mason Neale in 1853:

The legend, based on the historical King Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, 
"Good King Wenceslas" is a popular Christmas carol about a king who goes out to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (the second day of Christmas, December 26). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by the heat miraculously emanating from the king's footprints in the snow.

In 1853, English hymnwriter John Mason Neale wrote the "Wenceslas" lyrics, in collaboration with his music editor Thomas Helmore, and the carol first appeared in Carols for Christmas-Tide, 1853. Neales' lyrics were set to a tune based on a 13th century spring carol "Tempus adest floridum" ("It is time for flowering") first published in the 1582 Finnish song collection Piae Cantiones.

Neale's Good King Wenceslas (1853):
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.  

Good King Wenceslas on a biscuit tin, made by Hudson, Scott & Sons for Huntley & Palmers, 1913

1 comment:

  1. Wow how interesting! I've never heard of this saint but I love the obscure ones. Thanks for the post!

    For Love of Cupcakes