In this extract from The Book of Christmas, Jane Struthers demystifies the protagonist of a popular Christmas carol.
We sing about him every Christmas in the eponymous carol, which tells us that the ‘good king’ and his page ventured out in the snow on the feast of Stephen (26 December) to take food, wine and logs to a man who was struggling to collect firewood. But most of us haven’t a clue whether this is simply a story or if there really was a Good King Wenceslas.
The carol does concern a real person – Wenceslas, Duke of Bohemia, who lived in the tenth century. Fortunately, bearing in mind its seasonal nature, the carol fails to mention the most memorable fact about the real Wenceslas, which is that he was assassinated in his native Bohemia in 935. He was murdered in a plot that is thought to have been hatched by his brother, the aptly named Boleslav the Cruel. Their mother, Drahomira, may also have been involved. She certainly had criminal form because apparently she had previously arranged for her mother-in-law, St Ludmila, to be strangled.
Although Wenceslas was not a king when he died, later in the tenth century he was posthumously styled Wenceslas I by Otto I, the Holy Roman Emperor. This has the potential to be confusing, because the real Wenceslaus I of Bohemia reigned in the thirteenth century. ‘Good King’ Wenceslas was later canonised and given the feast day of 28 September, which is said to be the day he died. He is now the patron saint of Bohemia, Prague and the Czech Republic. Wenceslas Square in Prague is named after him.
The story of the carol
There were all sorts of tales about Wenceslas’s pious Christian nature. One of these is the belief that he would walk barefoot at night, with only his page for company, to distribute alms to the poor, and this story was commemorated in the carol that bears his name. The carol’s lyrics were written by John Mason Neale, an Englishman, in 1853. They were set to the tune of ‘Tempest Adest Floridum’, one of the spring carols in the Finnish song collection ‘Piae Cantiones’, which was first published in 1582.
The words of the carol itself are a gift to children of every age. They have inspired corny jokes about Good King Wenceslas liking his pizzas ‘deep and crisp and even’, and schoolchildren stifle giggles when they sing ‘heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed’. There is also the almost irresistible temptation to sing ‘gathering winter few-hew-ell’ instead of a more melodious rendition, no matter how often choirs are told not to do this.