Saint of the Week: Good King Wenceslas (Václav I of Bohemia)

You best know Václav I of Bohemia (907-935) from J M Neale’s popular hymn, ‘Good King Wenceslas’, wherein the saint looks out and sees a poor man gathering winter fuel, decides to bring flesh and wine and pine logs thither to the man’s home, and as he walks forth with his page, his footsteps are warm to keep warm his page as the night grows darker and the wind stronger.

Tradition tells us that his grandfather, Borivoj I, was converted to Christianity by Cyril and Methodius (saints of the week here), and that Václav’s father, Vratislav I, was himself raised in a Christian setting. Václav’s mother, Drahomíra, was the daughter of a pagan nobleman, baptised at the time of her marriage to Vratislav. When Václav was 13 years old, Vratislav died, and the young man was thenceforth raised by his Christian grandmother, St Ludmila.

In a dispute over the regency, Drahomíra had Ludmila strangled. And according to tradition, she then tried to raise Václav in the old ways.

Around 924, Václav took the reins of power for himself. At this time, Bohemia was under pressure from the Magyars (nomadic linguistic forebears of Hungarians) who kept raiding as well as from the East Frankish kingdom that wanted Bohemia for itself. Early in his reign, he also had to put down a rebellion by a fellow named Radslav. In 929, the East Frankish King Henry the Fowler and Duke Arnulf of Bavaria invaded Bohemia, reached Prague, and exacted tribute from Václav.

In other areas, Václav was known for his Christian piety and established a church to St Vitus, today’s St Vitus Cathedral in Prague. He also had a reputation for being educated and treating the poor well. Hence, J M Neale’s hymn.

In 935, his pagan brother Boleslav invited Václav over for the feast of Sts Cosmas and Damian where he had Václav assassinated. ‘Therefore, Christian men be sure, / wealth and rank possessing, /ye who know will bless the poor / shall yourselves find blessing’? So ends the sad tale of Václav, patron saint of the Czech Republic and one of the many rulers of the Early Middle Ages seeking to establish his kingdom in the midst of the forces of the Franks and various eastern migrations, caught between regents in his youth, greater armies in his adulthood, and his brother at the end. But his blessing was a golden crown to be cast down around the glassy sea.

For your listening pleasure:

Confession: Outside of his having been slain by his pagan brother and Duke of Bohemia, I knew nothing of Václav beforehand and adapted this from the Wikipedia entry.

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