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Wenceslas Who?

11 Dec 2019

One of our favourite Christmas carols is a story of a King with a rather peculiar name. We were curious as to who this King was and how the carol came about, so we thought we’d have a look!

‘Good King Wenceslas’ is a Christmas carol that tells a story of a Bohemian king going on a journey and braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (December 26, the Second Day of Christmas also know in the UK as Boxing Day). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king’s footprints, step for step, through the deep snow.

The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia or Svatý Václav in the now Czech Republic who lived between 907–935 AD. The name Wenceslas is a Latinised version of the old Czech language “Venceslav”.

In 1853, English hymnwriter John Mason Neale wrote the “Wenceslas” lyrics, in collaboration with his music editor Thomas Helmore, and the carol first appeared in Carols for Christmas-Tide, published by Novello & Co in 1853. Neale’s lyrics were set to the melody of a 13th-century spring carol “Tempus adest floridum” (“The time is near for flowering”) first published in 1582.

Wenceslas was considered a martyr and a saint immediately after his death in the 10th century, when a cult of Wenceslas rose up in Bohemia and in England. Although Wenceslas was, during his lifetime, only a duke, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I (962–973) posthumously “conferred on him the regal dignity and title and that is why, in the legend and song, he is referred to as a “king”.

Wenceslas is not to be confused with King Wenceslaus I of Bohemia (Wenceslaus I Premyslid), who lived more than three centuries later.

With lyrics that embody all that’s wonderful about the spirit of Christmas, whether you are of any world faith or of none, be sure to take the story and sentiment of looking after those less fortunate with you into 2020!

Good King Wenceslas ‘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, tho’ the frost was cruel, When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel. “Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know’st 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 flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither: Thou and I shall see him dine, when we bear them thither.” Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together; Through the rude 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, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy 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, wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

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