So who was this Good King Wenceslas bloke whose name is so widely celebrated in song around this time of year? First up, he wasn’t even a king at all. At least he wasn’t while he was alive. What he was was a saint, which some might argue is a step up from mere regality. To be specific, he was Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (Svatý Václav in Czech) who lived, unsurprisingly, in Bohemia from 907 to 935.
Such was his saintliness that The Holy Roman Emperor Otto I made him a posthumous king in recognition of the many good works so fulsomely documented in a profusion of hagiographies published and circulated following his untimely demise at the traitorous hand of his evil brother Boleslav the Cruel (we are really not making this up, in case you were wondering!)
Renowned as a leading provider of alms to widows and orphans and of succour to the downtrodden generally, Wenceslas is best remembered for the very probably apocryphal story of Boxing Day altruism recorded in the ever-popular carol. In a nutshell, the story is as follows. GKW is gazing out across a moonlit winter landscape when he spies some unfortunate peasant scouring the snowy ground for something he can burn back at his hovel. Enquiring of his faithful squire who this obvious alms-target is and where he makes his abode, Wenceslas learns that the man lives “a good league hence, underneath the mountain, right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain, which narrows it down fairly precisely.
Barely pausing for thought, the Good Duke, mandates the sourcing of an aid package to include meat, booze and some quick-burning aromatically resinous pine logs, and sets out through the snow with said page at his side. Before long the faint hearted page is moaning about the rude wind’s wild lament and his own cold feet (shoes, back in 10th Century Bohemia, even where such things were available, were not the highly efficient cold and damp excluding foot coverings we know today). Wenceslas tells his companion to pull himself together and follow in the Dukely footprints, which he promises will help ensure the winter’s rage will freeze the page’s blood “less coldly”. Miraculously this works a treat, and the page discovers that “heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.”
The moral of the story being that “ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.”
In a rather more bellicose vein, the Czechs continue to revere GKW as their patron saint and believe (as with the Arthurian legend here in Britain) that Wenceslas will one day rise again in his country’s hour of need and slay its oppressors (a duty he mysteriously neglected to perform back in 1938). The saintly monarch is said to sleep alongside a huge army of knights inside the Blaník mountain. A local variation in Prague holds that his equestrian statue in the eponymous Wenceslaus Square will come to life and ride across the Charles Bridge to raise his knightly underground army, pausing briefly en route to collect the legendary sword of Bruncvík (currently concealed beneath the capital’s cobbled streets).
So now you know!