Good King Wenceslaus, Saint Stephen and Martyrdom
But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.
Cosmas of Prague, writing in 1119 about Saint King Wenceslaus
It has always seemed appropriate to me that the hymn Good King Wenceslaus, written in 1853, ties together Saint Stephen and Saint King Wenceslaus. Saint Stephen is the original martyr of Christ, the first of that glorious line of Christians who have testified to their Faith in the God who died for them by surrendering their own lives for Him. The Apostles had cut poor figures indeed on the night when Christ was betrayed, and Saint Stephen heroically and unforgettably demonstrated a better example, that would be followed by the Apostles themselves who later died as martyrs. Bravery in the face of a martyr’s death takes a great deal of courage and faith, and we Catholics have ever honored our martyrs.
Wenceslaus was born in 907 into a turbulent time and place. The eldest son of Duke Vratislaus I of Bohemia, Bohemia was a country that was only beginning to convert to Christianity and was riven by conflicts between pagans and Christians, Germans and Czechs. His mother Drahomira was the daughter of a pagan tribal leader and had only converted at the time of her marriage. His father’s father was a Christian convert.
At the death of his father, in battle, in 921, his paternal grandmother, Ludmilla, briefly held the regency. His mother, Drahomira, who was a real piece of work, remained a pagan at heart, and had Ludmilla strangled. (Ludmilla, who had always been noted for her charity and her strong Christian faith, was canonized shortly after her death.) Wenceslaus was now under the control of his murderous mother. In 924 or 925 Wenceslaus began to rule and exiled his mother, understandably enough.
During his reign he was noted for his charity and the strong impetus he gave to the evangelization of Bohemia. He placed strong reliance on Catholic missionary priests from Germany and this stirred resentment not only among his pagan subjects, but among some Czechs. Taking advantage of this opposition, his brother Boleslav had Wenceslaus murdered as he was walking to mass in 935. From the instant of his death, Wenceslaus was hailed as a martyr and swiftly became the patron saint of Bohemia. Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, bestowed the title of king upon him, posthumously. His brother, who would reign for almost four decades, was remorseful for what he had done, helped spread Christianity throughout his kingdom during his reign and venerated the man he had murdered as a saint. His feast day on September 28 is celebrated as a national holiday in the Czech Republic.
According to some of our sources Wenceslaus knew that his brother was plotting his murder but took no action against him. What might be considered a dereliction of duty in a King was not one for a Saint, and Wenceslaus was always more intent on a heavenly crown than he was on his earthly crown. He pledged himself early in his reign to perpetual virginity and left no children of his body behind him. However, all Czechs hail him as the father of their nation, and his martyrdom helped lead the Czechs to embrace the Faith and to solidify their consciousness as a people. God uses martyrs for His purposes, and what can seem foolishness in earthly eyes when a martyr dies is often, even in earthly terms, the highest of wisdom as the centuries pass.