He’s the subject of a famous Christmas carol – appropriately named Good King Wenceslas - but who exactly is this king? And what does he have to do with Christmas?

The carol tells of a king who, with his page, journeys out into the harsh winter weather the day after Christmas – The Feast of St Stephen – to take food and firewood to a poor man he spots from his castle. While the page falters in his determination, the good king does not – with the lesson that those who bless the poor will themselves be blessed.

St Wenceslas

St Wenceslas depicted in a statue which stands in Prague Wenceslas Square. PICTURE: Balou46/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

The song is apparently based a tale drawn from the life of St Wenceslas (also spelt Wenceslaus and known in Czech as Vaclav), the Duke of Bohemia in the early 10th century.

Born into a Christian home sometime between 903 and 907 AD (his grandfather had been converted and baptized by a Greek missionary St Methodius), his early life was marked with tragedy.

His father died when he was still young and his grandmother Ludmilla, who had become regent, was subsequently allegedly murdered on the orders of his scheming mother, Drahomíra.

Assuming the mantle of regent herself, Drahomíra, the daughter of a pagan tribal chief who had been baptized when she married but is said to have adopted Christianity in name only, was a harsh ruler who is said to have adopted an ant-Christian stance in her policies.

When Wenceslas, who became known as ‘The Good’, came of age and assumed rule for himself, he had his mother exiled.  Faced with the possibility of invasion from Germany, he submitted the duchy to the German King Henry I ‘the Fowler’ in order to avoid war.

He also adopted many pro-Christian policies, encouraging German missionaries in the spread of the Gospel in Bohemia and ensuring churches were built as well as favouring the Latin rite over the Slavonic. There is also a tradition that he took a personal vow of virginity (and some accounts also say of poverty).

But his relationship with the Germans and his pro-Christian policies eventually led to a coup and, on 28th September, 935 (the day now celebrated in the Roman Catholic church as his feast day), a group of nobles led by his younger brother Boleslav (sometimes known as ‘the Cruel’) assassinated him on the  church.

He was considered a martyr and a saint almost immediately after his death and hagiographies of his life soon began to circulate, propagating the idea of the duke as a righteous ruler. He was posthumously made a king by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I (the son of King Henry I ‘the Fowler). A famous statue of him stands in Wenceslas Square in the heart of the Czech capital of Prague.

The carol, which draws on the hagiographies of the saint, takes its tune from a 13th century song but the English words as we now them were published by English scholar and hymnist John Mason Neale in 1853. The connection with Christmas comes from the traditional practice of performing charitable acts on Boxing Day (the Feast of St Stephen) and Neale clearly saw Wenceslas as an exemplar of the attitude which should be adopted on the day (ironically, now, in many Western cultures a day of excessive spending).

And a last note – St Wenceslas shouldn’t be confused with King Wenceslas I, who ruled Bohemia from 1230 to 1253.