03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Good King Wenceslas: What Will We Risk for Justice?

The Christmas carol we know as "Good King Wenceslas" is a translation of a poem written in 1847 by Czech poet Václav Alois Svoboda that was put to music by John Mason Neale in 1853. Neale was a British scholar and hymnwriter who knew about the real Wenceslas: Václav, the Duke of Bohemia. He was so moved by this man's life that he included the story of Wenceslas in Deeds of Faith, an inspirational children's book he wrote in 1849 about the lives of 16 saints. When Neale wanted to create a carol for the feast of St. Stephen (December 26), the day when the British traditionally give gifts to the poor, it's no surprise that he thought of Wenceslas. He knew that this brave duke had helped the poor, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, protected widows and orphans, freed prisoners, and treated both rich and poor with equal dignity and respect.

Václav, the Duke of Bohemia -- our "Wenceslas" -- lived from 907-935 C.E. He was born in Prague, in the country that was then known as Bohemia, and is now the Czech Republic.

The story of his life begins with his grandmother, the woman who became Saint Ludmilla.

In 874, Ludmilla and her husband, Borivoi, the Duke of Bohemia, converted to Christianity and were baptized by St. Methodius. The members of their entire court were baptized as Christians, as well. However, throughout the rest of the country, most people continued their indigenous religious practices.

Ludmilla and Borivoi had a son, Wratislaw, whom they raised as a Christian. When he became an adult, he married a young noble woman named Drahomira. She was the daughter of the chief of the Veletians, a Slavic tribe that lived north of Bohemia. In time, Wratislaw and Drahomira had a son. They named him Wenceslas (or Václav). Over the years they had five more children: four daughters and a second son, Boleslav.

Ludmilla hoped that her grandson Wenceslas would grow up to be a good Christian ruler. However, Ludmilla was not convinced that her daughter-in-law Drahomira was a truly sincere Christian. So, she decided to oversee Wenceslas' education herself. Ludmilla saw to it that Wenceslas learned Slavonic - the language of the Bohemian Bible translations and Mass liturgies. He also learned to read, write and speak Latin and Greek. In addition, Ludmilla made sure that Wenceslas helped with the annual harvest at her castle. While he lived with her, Wenceslas learned how to make the bread and the wine that was used for Mass. It is reported that taking part in the preparations for Mass was something that he valued throughout his life.

Unfortunately, when Wenceslas was 13, his father Wratislaw was killed in battle. Because Wenceslas was too young to rule, his mother Drahomira acted as regent and governed Bohemia in his stead. When Drahomira became regent, Ludmilla's fears proved to be accurate. Drahomira immediately began to repress Christians and persecute priests in an effort to bring back the indigenous religious practices. Ludmilla fled Prague and returned to her castle at Tetin, where she hoped to live a quiet life of prayer and spend her days serving the poor. But Drahomira saw Ludmilla as a threat. She knew that, as long as his grandmother was alive and could offer her support, Wenceslas would try to rule Bohemia as a Christian country when he became duke. So, in 921 C.E., Drahomira sent two of her loyal nobles to Tetin to assassinate Ludmilla. They accomplished their mission by strangling her to death.

Once Ludmilla was dead, Drahomira insisted that Wenceslas join her in practicing the indigenous religious ceremonies. While he seemed outwardly compliant, Wenceslas secretly continued in his Christian beliefs. When he was 18, the remaining Christian nobles supported Wenceslas in a rebellion against his mother. The uprising was successful, and Drahomira was sent into exile at Budech.

And so, at age 20, Wenceslas became Duke of Bohemia. He based his political rule on his Christian faith. He promised to be faithful to God and to the Church, and he promised to rule with justice and mercy. He pardoned his mother, reinstated the Christian religion in Bohemia, and ended the persecution of the priests.

The people loved him for his generosity, his concern for justice, and his intolerance of oppression. He provided housing and clothing for the poor. It was said that he would bring provisions to the poor in the middle of the night, so they would not be shamed and embarrassed by having others know how destitute they were. He spent long hours in prayer, and his prayer book was well-worn from frequent use.

While the people loved him, many of the nobles were not pleased with this turn of events. They thought that Wenceslas was too religious, and that he was not concerned with the independence of Bohemia. When the young duke signed a treaty with the German king, Henry I, to create a peaceful alliance and avoid further bloodshed, the nobles were furious. They had a different agenda. They wanted Bohemia to be an independent country. So they began to plot against Wenceslas.

This group of nobles was led by Wenceslas' mother, Drahomira, and his younger brother Boleslav. Boleslav was particularly susceptible to the influence of the two nobles who had assassinated his grandmother Ludmilla. The two nobles repeatedly reminded Boleslav that, now that Wenceslas had a son, he was further down the line of succession to the throne. The nobles told Boleslav that, if he did not act soon, he would lose his opportunity to reign over an independent Bohemia. Boleslav's ambitions got the best of him, and he joined the nobles and his mother in their plot against Wenceslas.

On September 27, 935 C.E., Wenceslas went to the city where his brother Boleslav lived. While we was there, he attended Mass to celebrate the feastday of Saints Cosmos and Damian. Wenceslas apparently received a warning that his life would be in danger after the church service, but he replied with a toast to St. Michael: "To St. Michael whom we pray to guide us to peace and eternal joy." After Mass, Wenceslas accepted his brother's invitation to stay for dinner and to spend the night at his castle.

The following morning, while he was again on his way to church, Wenceslas met his brother. As they stood on the church steps, Wenceslas greeted Boleslav warmly and thanked him for his hospitality. Boleslav replied: "Yesterday I did my best to serve you fittingly, but this must be my service today." He attacked Wenceslas with his sword. A struggle began. A number of nobles joined in the fray to support Boleslav, and one fatally stabbed Wenceslas. As he lay dying at the chapel door, Wenceslas prayed, "May God forgive you for this deed, my brother."

Three years after Wenceslas' death, Boleslav had a change of heart and repented. He had Wenceslas' bones moved to the church of Saint Vitus in Prague - the very church Wenceslas had built to celebrate the alliance between the Bohemians and the Germans. The Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I - the son of Wenceslas' ally Henry I - admired Wenceslas so much that he conferred the posthumous title of "king" on the duke. (This is why he is called "King Wenceslas" in the Christmas carol.) Soon after, Wenceslas was officially canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church, and he became the patron saint of the Czech people.

The story of Wenceslas continued to capture the people's imagination. At least four biographies of Wenceslas were published soon after his death, and more followed over the centuries. As Cosmas of Prague noted in 1119 C.E., one of these biographies recorded that, "rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, [Wenceslas] 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." These accounts of Wenceslas' life contributed to the understanding of what it meant to be a "righteous king" in the Middle Ages: a ruler whose power was due to personal faith and integrity as well as physical prowess.

In 1918, a statue of Wenceslas was placed in downtown Prague, and that area became known as Wenceslas Square. Over the years, Wenceslas Square has become a place for Czechs and Slovaks to gather for protests and celebrations. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, nearly half a million Czechs and Slovaks gathered at the statue of Wenceslas and demanded their freedom from the U.S.S.R. The leader of that group became the country's first democratically elected president. He was the tenth and last President of Czechoslovakia (1989-92) and the first President of the Czech Republic (1993-2003). Like the man he admired, that president's name is Václav: Václav Havel.

Since 2000, Wenceslas' feast day, September 28th, has been a public holiday in the Czech Republic. It is celebrated as "Czech Statehood Day," and Wenceslas is honored as the cornerstone of the Czech Republic's existence. In his comments during the celebration of the Wenceslas' feast day on September 28, 2007, Apostolic Nuncio Diego Causero stated:

'Good King Wenceslaus' was able to incarnate his Christianity in a world filled with political unrest. He stood for Christian values and died for them. He has a call for all Christians and men of good will of this Country: to become involved in positive social change and political activity, no matter how much it costs, in order to bring harmony and justice to society.

This holiday season, the feast of "Good King Wenceslas" challenges each of us to consider: Whose footsteps have created the path I am following? How am I involved in positive social change and political activity for a more just world? What am I willing to risk for justice?

Good King Wenceslas by Mary Reed Newland
Butler's Lives of the Saints by Thurston, Herbert, and Donald Attwater
Deeds of Faith by John Mason Neale
"National Pilgrimage to St. Wenceslas," Press Office of the Czech Bishops' Conference website
History of the Czech and Moravian Region website