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 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 will 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.
So, have you every wondered what the story was behind this interestingly named “King Wenceslas?”
Well, let’s shed some light on it for you by sharing the story of how it came about.
Wenceslas was a 10th-century Catholic Duke of Bohemia also known as Vaclav the Good, and was martyred after being assassinated by his wicked brother, Boleslaw the Bad. Wenceslas’s remains are interred in St Vitus’s cathedral in Prague, and he was recently made patron saint of the Czech Republic. His Saint’s Day is September 28.
This carol was written in Victorian Britain by John Mason Neale to a traditional folk tune. It was written in the town of East Grinstead, in the county of West Sussex, at Sackville College where he was staying at the time. The story in the carol is about the King (or Duke) of Bohemia (an area in Central Europe which is now part of the Czech Republic) from over 1000 years ago, seeing peasants, on Boxing Day, from his castle and taking food and wood to them. The story in the carol was probably completely made up! In fact the real story of King Wenceslas (907-935) is rather gory!
Wenceslas’ father was the Duke of Bohemia and a Christian but it’s thought that his mother might have been a pagan. His father died when he was 12 and, as he was not old enough to become Duke until he was 18, his mother took control of the land as regent. During this time his grandmother, Ludmilla, took care of Wenceslas and brought him up as a Christian (she smuggled priests into the house to help teach him). It’s thought that His mother had Ludmilla banished to a distant castle where she was murdered by the Queen’s guards!
Wenceslas was still a Christian after this and learned to read and write, something which was unusual for even a King/Duke in those days! He had local Bishops smuggled in at night to teach him the Bible. When he reached 18, Wenceslas took control of his dukedom. He then defended Bohemia from a couple of invasions by Dukes of neighboring regions and legend says that he banished his mother and her pagan followers from his castle.
Wenceslas put in a good education system and a successful law and order system, so the parts of the carol story about him being a kind King are certainly true!
After four years of happiness, when Wenceslas was 22, his brother Boleslav, became very jealous of Wenceslas and plotted (possibly with the pagan followers of their mother) to kill Wenceslas. Boleslav invited Wenceslas to celebrate a saint’s day with him, but on the way to the Church, Wenceslas was attacked and stabbed to death by three of Boleslav’s followers!
The (fictitious) story told in the song was written by a Czech poet Václav Alois Svoboda in 1847. He wrote many ‘manuscripts’ that tried to prove that Czech literature was much older and more developed than it really was. The poem was written in three languages, Czech, German, Latin, and was called ‘Sankt Wenceslaw und Podiwin’ (Saint Wenceslas and the Crocheteer). The Poem found it’s way into the UK in the 19th Century where JM Neale put the translated words to the tune of a 13th century spring carol ‘Tempus Adest Floridum’ (‘It is time for flowering’) that was came from a collection of old religious songs called ‘Piae Cantiones’ that was published in 1582 in Sweden/Finland!