Duke Wenceslas of Bohemia: Loving His Neighbor

3 min

Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.

So begins a Christmas carol that is especially beloved in Eastern Europe. This Christmas season, as we prepare to remember the day that the Lord Jesus was born in Bethlehem, let’s also consider an example of a Godly man, a noble prince, who—like the Master—came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.

Beyond the carol that bears this noblemnan’s name, few today know much about “Good King Wenceslas.” The Christmas carol tells of Wencelsas and his act of mercy on the Feast of Stephen, a traditionally recognized holiday on December 26. The duke left his warm, comfortable abode to venture out into the cold night on a mission of mercy to a poor man’s cottage. Although 1,000 years of history stand between us and him, there are a few solid, historical facts that we know about this Bohemian duke who left an enduring example of what it means to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Duke Wenceslas I was born around the year A.D. 907. It was a dark and bloody time when Bohemia was torn by civil war and paganism. His grandfather was one of the early converts from paganism to Christianity. The duke’s father, Vratislas I, was a Christian, but his mother, Drahomíra, was the daughter of a pagan chieftain.

Wenceslas’s father died when he was only a boy, and his paternal grandmother, a faithful Christian lady, assumed the regency. But Wenceslas’s mother, Drahomíra, was very jealous of the influence of her mother-in-law and plotted and accomplished the woman’s assassination. His sinister mother then began enacting laws and regulations against Christianity.

When Prince Wenceslas was eighteen years old, a band of Christian noblemen rebelled against the pagan, illegal rule of Drahomíra and sent her into exile, thus bestowing the rightful title of Duke Wenceslas I upon the young prince. Several important princes and dukes would follow in Bohemian history that would also carry the name Wenceslas.

Throughout his realm, Duke Wenceslas I earned the nickname “The Good” for his deeds of piety and charity. He strived to defend his borders from the invasions of the Hungarian clans called the Magyars. The duke also promoted the expansion of Christianity throughout his dominions. His leadership had a positive impact upon his people; after his death, many stories and legends would spread in remembrance of him. Some of the reports surely are true, while others are questionable.

One story asserted that one of his subjects, a lesser nobleman, rebelled against the rule of Wenceslas and marched against him. Wenceslas, seeking to avoid the effusion of unnecessary blood, challenged the rebel to single combat. When the insubordinate nobleman came against the good duke, he saw a vision of two angels standing at the side of Wenceslas! Awestruck, the rebel threw himself down at the feet of Wenceslas and begged for his forgiveness, which was readily granted.

It is clear that Duke Wenceslas was pious and charitable toward those in need. One of his biographers, John Dubraw, related this about Wenceslas: “He applied himself with great diligence to all manner of charitable offices, in relieving orphans and widows, helping the poor, accompanying their bodies to the grave, visiting prisons, and redeeming captives.”

Duke Wenceslas I was stabbed to death by an assassin hired by his own younger brother who plotted to gain control of the realm. The benevolent duke and ruler was honored as a martyr, and stories of his goodness and mercy still remain a thousand years after his death. A magnificent, equestrian statue of “Good King Wenceslas” stands today in a public square in the city of Prague; the Godly man’s example continues to inspire succeeding generations to deeds of kindness. His most memorable deed and the enduring lesson of charity is recounted in the lines of the traditional carol that bears his name:

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, though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.
“Hither, page, and stand by me, if you know 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 food and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither,
You and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together,
Through the cold 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, my good page, tread now in them boldly,
You shall find the winter’s rage freeze your 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, while God’s gifts possessing,
You who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.

Sources and Further Reference:
Butler, Alban. The Lives of the Saints. Charlotte, NC: TAN Books, 1995.
D’Aubigne, J. H. Merle. History of the Protestant Church in Hungary. Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 2001.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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