Thanks to the popular carol, "Good King Wenceslas," we have traditionally come to associate this saintly monarch with Nativity; the 19th century English verses relate an incident which took place "on the feast of Stephen," celebrated by the Church on December 27. If the incident is legendary, the hero most certainly is not. Outside of his native Czechoslovakia, however, few know the true story of this young Orthodox royal martyr, whose statue today dominates one of the principal squares in his nation's capital.
During the missionary journeys of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the Czech Prince Borivoy and his wife Ludmilla were converted. But their baptism was by no means followed by that of their subjects. Many powerful Czechs were opposed to the introduction of Christianity, as it threatened the privileges and powers of their own idolatrous religion.
The son of Borivby and Ludmilla, Prince Vratislav, married a nominally Christian woman, Drahomira, the daughter of a pagan tribal chief, who held tenaciously to the ancient beliefs. Their first son Vaclavor, as we know him, Wenceslas, [in Russian, Vyacheslav] was born near Prague in 907, and his father began his rule of Czechia in 915. Four daughters and another son, Boleslas, were also born to them.
When Wenceslas was thirteen, his father was killed in a battle. Drahomira took advantage of the confusion and religious animosity to garner the support of the powerful pagan nobility while Wenceslas awaited his majority. During that time, Grandmother Ludmilla arranged to bring up the boy; carefully she formed in his heart the love of Christ and His holy Church with the help of her priest, himself a disciple of St. Methodius. After Vratislav's death those same nobles encouraged Drahomira's jealousy of St. Ludmilla by sly suggestions. "Just look at what this interfering woman has accomplished: your own son is now better fit for a monastery than a throne," Between them they conceived and executed a plan to eliminate the Grandmother's gentle influence. They had her strangled [commemorated as a martyr by the Church on Sept. 16].
Feeling herself now exempt from all Christian duty, the mother reclaimed her son, including him in her idolatrous ceremonies. Secretly, however, Wenceslas continued to celebrate his Christian faith in private services, receiving the Holy Mysteries in the deep of night. His own crops of wheat and wine were contributed for their preparation. Soon, God saw fit to bring the goodness of the young Prince to light, at the same time rewarding Drahomira in kind for her evil accomplishment. Murder, even by a regent, was severely punishable, and an uprising deposed and banished her. Gaining the throne shortly at the age of eighteen, Wenceslas recalled his mother to the castle, heeding the commandment to honor one's father and mother.
His was a well-formed soul and he cherished the peace and safety of his subjects sacrificially: once, to stop continuous murderous raids by his most pernicious enemy, he volunteered to meet him in hand-to-hand combat and let the outcome be the end of the dispute. Ever steadfast in the Faith, he was zealous in good deeds — clothing the naked, giving shelter to pilgrims, and buying freedom for those sold into slavery. His generous love extended to rich and poor alike. To encourage the Christians he undertook the planning and building of churches and was dauntless in his opposition of the nobles who oppressed them. The troubles between the Christian Prince and his pagan nobility were soon to erupt again in earnest.
In addition to his Holy Faith, the nobles resented his friendship with King Henry I, "the Fowler," of Germany. Prince Wenceslas preferred to be ruled by the "suzerainty of the empire," believing King Henry to be the rightful heir of Charlemagne, than to see his country crushed by the Germans if he rejected their rule. King Henry in turn admired the Czech Prince's devotion to the Church, offering to give whatever he might have of interest to the Prince. Wenceslas requested a relic of St. Vitus. Upon receiving it he built a church (now a cathedral) to shelter. The Bohemian nationalists were irritated by this friendship, and chafed at the influence of clergy in their Prince's counsels.
Although Wenceslas was reconciled to his mother, his younger brother Boleslas now began to be troublesome. Having grown up with his mother rather than St. Ludmilla, Boleslas had been more strongly influenced by pagan ideas. Now he fell easy prey to the evil suggestions of the same rebels among the nobility as had encouraged Drahomira to murder her mother-in-law. This wicked band used the occasion of the birth of Wenceslas' first son to stir up jealousy in Boleslas, hissing that should he not act quickly he would lose forever his opportunity for succession to the throne. Some say that the fire of this jealousy was fueled by the lie that Wenceslas was already plotting the murder of Boleslas. In any case, the band of Judases made haste to rise up against their lord.
Knowing the religious fervor of his brother, Boleslas invited him to the feast of Ss. Cosmas and Damian. Though warned of danger, Wenceslas put his trust in God and went, as his custom was, to the church dedicated to the feast at hand — the castle chapel of Boleslas.
After Liturgy the Prince prepared to return home. But his scheming brother dissuaded him: "Why leave, brother? Let us join my knights for a hearty drink!" Still trusting in God, Wenceslas joined the men and stayed the day. At some point he was probably told of his brother's intent. But either he did not believe the wickedness of it or he determined to rest in the will of God. That night as he slept, the shameless brother and his band of infidels charted their course. When bells for matins awoke him, Wencelas gave thanks for his life and health and started for church. Boleslas caught up with him at the gate and they exchanged a few words. Then Boleslas drew his sword. "What has gotten into you, my brother?" cried Wenceslas. One of the henchmen wounded his right arm, and the near-martyr ran for the church. There on the Steps of the holy refuge he was beaten to death by two others; then a fourth pierced his side. Strangely, his blood did not yet sink into the ground. A priest covered his body with a cloth, and his mother was told. One can only faintly imagine the chaotic mixture of grief, terror and remorse that assailed Drahomira then. She ran, crying, to the body of her first-born, gathered him to her, and took him to the priest's house to wash and dress for burial. Then, fearing the duplicity of her younger son, She ran away to Croatia.
Three days after the murder, the blood of the holy martyr gathered itself together and stood above his body in the church in full view of many of the faithful. After his burial, many of his grateful subjects, feeling themselves orphaned, went to his grave to pray. Sources agree that miracles soon began in answer to these prayers, although they differ on the reason for Boleslas's decision to move the body to the church containing the relics of St. Vitus: some say the murderer feared reprisals from the faithful and hoped to hide the miracles behind St. Vitus's name; but others say that he repented of the killing of his Prince and brother, and moved the body to honor St. Wenceslas.
In any event, St. Wenceslas was embraced by the hearts of his subjects as their Patron, and his grave became a popular and fruitful place of pilgrimage. Of the many miracles wrought before the Saint's tomb, we cannot pass over the following:
A certain pagan, who was imprisoned, made a promise to the Lord, saying: "if the Lord helps me for the sake of the good deeds of blessed Wenceslas, I will believe in Christ and give my son into His service." Straightway all of his shackles fell from him. Again and again the guards fastened him down, and again as before his shackles fell from him. Thus he was released and, fulfilling his vow, he studied and was baptized in the Faith, and lived for many more years.
There was in the city a poor woman who was blind and crippled. She went into the church, fell on the ground before the grave of blessed Wenceslas, and prayed until she regained her sight and the use of her arms.
In the Frankish territory there was a certain lame man. He saw in a dream a man dressed in white who woke him, saying: "Rise and go to the city of Prague to the church of St. Vitus; there you will regain your health." When he ignored this, the same man again came to him in a dream and said: "Why did you not carry out my order?" The lame man answered: "I am going, Lord," and he got up and went limping to some merchants and paid them to take him on their cart to the above-mentioned church. There he began to pray and fell on the ground before all present; and by God’s grace his knees, ankles, and feet were healed. He rose and gave thanks to God and blessed Wenceslas, for the sake of whose good deeds it pleased the Lord God to help him.
Through the tender-hearted prayers of St. Wenceslas, this young father of many, O Christ our God, release us from our shackles of sin, heal our souls, and save us!