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Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia

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Wenceslaus I
Wenceslaus adored by his niece-in-law Emma (from the 10th-century Gumpold's Codex)
Duke of Bohemia
Reign13 February 921 −
28 September 935 or 929
PredecessorVratislaus I
SuccessorBoleslaus I
Bornc. 907[1][2][a]
Stochov,[b] Bohemia
Died28 September 935
(aged c. 28) or
28 September 929
(aged c. 22)
Stará Boleslav, Bohemia
Basilica of St. Wenceslaus in Stará Boleslav, St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague[4]
FatherVratislaus I
ReligionChalcedonian Christianity

Wenceslaus I (Czech: Václav [ˈvaːtslaf] ; c. 907 – 28 September 935), Wenceslas I or Václav the Good[5] was the Prince (kníže) of Bohemia from 921 until his death, probably in 935. According to the legend, he was assassinated by his younger brother, Boleslaus the Cruel.

His martyrdom and the popularity of several biographies gave rise to a reputation for heroic virtue that resulted in his sainthood. He was posthumously declared to be a king and patron saint of the Czech state. He is the subject of the well-known "Good King Wenceslas", a carol for Saint Stephen's Day.


Wenceslaus was the son of Vratislaus I, Duke of Bohemia from the Přemyslid dynasty. His grandfather, Bořivoj I of Bohemia, was converted to Christianity by Cyril and Methodius. His mother, Drahomíra, was the daughter of a chief of the Havelli, but was baptized at the time of her marriage. His paternal grandmother, Ludmila of Bohemia, saw to it that he was educated in the Old Slavonic language and, at an early age, Wenceslaus was sent to the college at Budeč.[6]

In 921, when Wenceslaus was about 13, his father died and his grandmother became regent. Jealous of the influence Ludmila wielded over Wenceslaus, Drahomíra arranged to have her killed. Ludmila was at Tetín Castle near Beroun when assassins murdered her on 15 September 921. She is said to have been strangled by them with her veil. She was at first buried in the church of St. Michael at Tetín, but her remains were later removed, probably by Wenceslaus,[7] to the church of St. George in Prague, which had been built by his father.[8]

Drahomíra then assumed the role of regent and immediately initiated measures against Christians. When Wenceslaus was 18, those Christian nobles who remained rebelled against Drahomira. The uprising was successful, and Drahomira was sent into exile to Budeč.


Seal of Wenceslaus I

With the support of the nobles, Wenceslaus took control of the government.[8] He "reined in the dependent dukes who had become restive under the regency and used Christianity to strengthen his state."[9]

After the fall of Great Moravia, the rulers of the Bohemian Duchy had to deal both with continuous raids by the Magyars and the forces of the Saxon and East Frankish king Henry the Fowler, who had started several eastern campaigns into the adjacent lands of the Polabian Slavs, homeland of Wenceslaus's mother. To withstand Saxon overlordship, Wenceslaus's father Vratislaus had forged an alliance with the Bavarian duke Arnulf, a fierce opponent of King Henry at that time. The alliance became worthless, however, when Arnulf and Henry reconciled at Regensburg in 921.

Early in 929, the joint forces of Duke Arnulf of Bavaria and King Henry I the Fowler reached Prague in a sudden attack that forced Wenceslaus to resume the payment of a tribute first imposed by the East Frankish king Arnulf of Carinthia in 895.[10] Henry had been forced to pay a huge tribute to the Magyars in 926 and needed the Bohemian tribute, which Wenceslaus probably refused to pay after the reconciliation between Arnulf and Henry.[citation needed] Another possible reason for the attack was the formation of the anti-Saxon alliance between Bohemia, the Polabian Slavs, and the Magyars.

Wenceslaus introduced German priests into his realm and favoured the Latin rite instead of the old Slavic, which had gone into disuse in many places for want of priests.[6] He also founded a rotunda consecrated to St. Vitus at Prague Castle in Prague that was the basis of present-day St. Vitus Cathedral.


Wenceslaus flees from his brother who is wielding a sword, but the priest closes the door of the church (from Gumpold's Codex)

In September 935, a group of nobles allied with Wenceslaus's younger brother Boleslav plotted to kill him. After Boleslav invited Wenceslaus to a celebration of the feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Stará Boleslav, three of Boleslav's companions (Tira, Česta, and Hněvsa) fell on the duke and stabbed him to death.[11] As the duke fell, Boleslav ran him through with a lance.[8]

According to Cosmas of Prague, in his Chronica Boëmorum of the early 12th century, one of Boleslav's sons was born on the day of Wenceslaus's death. Because of the ominous circumstance of his birth, the infant was named Strachkvas, which means "a dreadful feast".[11]

There is also a tradition that Wenceslaus's loyal servant Podevin avenged his death by killing one of the chief conspirators, an act for which he was executed by Boleslav.[12]

The assassination of Wenceslaus has been characterized as an important turning point in early Bohemian history, as the rule of Boleslav I saw him renounce the Franks, centralize power in Bohemia and expand the territory of the polity.[13]


Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia
Statue of Saint Wenceslaus in St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague. The head of the statue apparently fits the measurements of Wenceslaus's skull.
Bornc. 907
Prague, Bohemia
Died28 September 935
Stará Boleslav, Bohemia
Venerated inCatholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church
Major shrineSt. Vitus Cathedral, Prague
Feast28 September
AttributesCrown, dagger, burning eagle on a banner
PatronagePrague, Bohemia, Czech Republic

Wenceslaus was considered a martyr and saint immediately after his death, when a cult of Wenceslaus grew up in Bohemia and in England.[14] Within a few decades, four biographies of him were in circulation.[15][16] These hagiographies had a powerful influence on the High Middle Ages concept of the rex justus (righteous king), a monarch whose power stems mainly from his great piety as well as his princely vigor.[17]

Referring approvingly to these hagiographies, the chronicler Cosmas of Prague, writing in about the year 1119, states:[18]

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.

Several centuries later this legend was asserted as fact by Pope Pius II.[19]

Although Wenceslaus was only a duke during his lifetime, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously "conferred on [Wenceslaus] the regal dignity and title", which is why he is referred to as "king" in legend and song.[6]

The hymn "Svatý Václave" (Saint Wenceslaus) or "Saint Wenceslas Chorale" is one of the oldest known Czech songs. Traceable to the 12th century AD, it is still among the most popular religious songs in the Bohemian lands. In 1918, at the founding of the modern Czechoslovak state, the song was discussed as a possible choice for the national anthem. During the Nazi occupation, it was often played along with the Czech anthem.[citation needed]

Wenceslaus's feast day is celebrated on September 28.[20][21] On this day, celebrations and a pilgrimage are held in the city of Stará Boleslav, whereas the translation of his relics, which took place in 938, is commemorated on 4 March.[22] Since 2000, the September 28 feast day has been a public holiday in the Czech Republic, celebrated as Czech Statehood Day.

In legend[edit]

Cardinal Miloslav Vlk with the skull of Saint Wenceslaus during a procession on 28 September 2006

Legends of Wenceslaus began to appear around the second half of the 10th century, several decades after his death, and spread throughout both Bohemia and abroad, including Italy, Germany, and even Russia. Such legends include the first Old Slavic legend from the 10th century, the Latin legend Crescente fide, Gumpold's legend, and Christian's legend.[23]

According to legend, one Count Radislas rose in rebellion and marched against King Wenceslaus. The latter sent a deputation with offers of peace, but Radislas viewed this as a sign of cowardice. The two armies were drawn up opposite each other in battle array, when Wenceslaus, to avoid shedding innocent blood, challenged Radislas to single combat. As Radislas advanced toward the king, he saw by Wenceslaus's side two angels, who cried: "Stand off!" Thunderstruck, Radislas repented his rebellion, threw himself from his horse at Wenceslaus's feet, and asked for pardon. Wenceslaus raised him and kindly received him again into favour.

A second enduring legend claims an army of knights sleeps under Blaník, a mountain in the Czech Republic. They will awake and, under the command of Wenceslaus, bring aid to the Czech people in their ultimate danger. There is a similar legend in Prague which says that when the Motherland is in danger or in its darkest times and close to ruin, the equestrian statue of King Wenceslaus in Wenceslaus Square will come to life, raise the army sleeping in Blaník, and upon crossing the Charles Bridge his horse will stumble and trip over a stone, revealing the legendary sword of Bruncvík. With this sword, King Wenceslaus will slay all the enemies of the Czechs, bringing peace and prosperity to the land.[24]


Wenceslaus is the subject of the popular Saint Stephen's Day (celebrated on December 26 in the West) carol "Good King Wenceslas". It was published by John Mason Neale in 1853, and may be a translation of a poem by Czech poet Václav Alois Svoboda[citation needed]. A supposed American spelling of the duke's name, "Wenceslaus," is occasionally encountered in later textual variants of the carol, although it was not used by Neale in his version, and in the U.S. the name usually is spelled Wenceslas, as in the carol.[25] Wenceslaus is not to be confused with King Wenceslaus I of Bohemia (Wenceslaus I Premyslid), who lived more than three centuries later.

Statue of Saint Wenceslas on the eponymous square in Prague

At the beginning of the Hussite Wars Wenceslaus’s name was often invoked, and it was only later that he was overshadowed by Hussite warrior Jan Žižka. Later, even when the Hussites and Protestants gained the upper hand in Bohemia and the cult of Wenceslaus faded, he still remained a venerated figure throughout Bohemia, with Jan Hus himself often referencing Wenceslaus in his sermons.[26] During the reign of Charles IV, Wenceslaus’s image as a saint and martyr was often employed by Charles in his enterprises both at home and abroad, and in later years when the systematic Germanization of Bohemia began, Wenceslaus came to be considered a representation of the Czech national consciousness.[27]

An equestrian statue of Saint Wenceslaus and other patrons of Bohemia (St. Adalbert, St. Ludmila, St. Prokop and St. Agnes of Bohemia) are located on Wenceslaus Square in Prague. The statue is a popular meeting place in Prague. Demonstrations against the Communist regime were held there.[28]

His helmet and armour are on display inside Prague Castle.[29]

In popular culture[edit]

The lavish 1930 silent film St. Wenceslas was at the time the most expensive Czech film ever made.

Ogden Nash wrote a comic epic poem, "The Christmas that Almost Wasn't" (1957), in which a boy awakens Wenceslaus and his knights to save the kingdom of Lullapat from usurpers who have outlawed Christmas, with elements from the legend of Wenceslas.[30]

The 1994 television film, Good King Wenceslas, is a highly fictional account of his early life. The film stars Jonathan Brandis in the title role, supported by Leo McKern, Stefanie Powers, and Joan Fontaine as Ludmila.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Most frequently cited year of birth; other cited years are 908[3] or 911.
  2. ^ According to legend; otherwise the place of birth is unknown.[3]


  1. ^ "Wenceslas I". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2022-05-11.
  2. ^ "Sep 28 – St Wenceslaus (907–929) martyr". CatholicIreland.net. 2011-09-28. Retrieved 2022-05-11.
  3. ^ a b "Svatý Václav se narodil u nás, tvrdí obyvatelé Stochova na Kladensku" (in Czech). iDnes. 2011-09-28. Retrieved 2022-05-11.
  4. ^ "Ostatky sv. Václava jsou po 1076 letech zpět ve Staré Boleslavi". Deník.cz (in Czech). Deník.cz, Czech News Agency. 2014-05-18. Retrieved 2022-05-11.
  5. ^ Christiansen, Rupert. "The story behind the carol: Good King Wenceslas", The Telegraph, 14 December 2007
  6. ^ a b c Mershman,Francis. "St. Wenceslaus." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 8 January 2016
  7. ^ Ott, Michael. "St. Ludmilla." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, [1910]. 2016
  8. ^ a b c Butler, Alban. "St. Wenceslas, Duke of Bohemia, Martyr", The Lives of the Saints, Vol. IX 1866
  9. ^ Agnew, Hugh LeCaine. The Czechs and the Lands of the Bohemian Crown Palo Alto, California: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 2004. n.p., ISBN 9780817944926
  10. ^ Bohemia to the Extinction of the Premyslids, Kamil Krofta, The Cambridge Medieval History: Victory of the Papacy, Vol. VI, ed. J.R. Tanner, C.W. Previt-Orton and Z.N. Brook, (Cambridge University Press, 1957), 426.
  11. ^ a b Newton, Michael. "Wenceslaus I (907–935)", ABC-CLIO, 2014 ISBN 9781610692861
  12. ^ Gibbs, C.H., "Good King Wenceslaus", The Mitre, Volume XXXVII, No. 3, December 1929, p. 8, University of Bishop's College, Lennoxville, Quebec
  13. ^ Štefan, Ivo; Stránská, Petra; Vondrová, Hana (2016). "The archaeology of early medieval violence: the mass grave at Budeč, Czech Republic". Antiquity. 90 (351): 759–776. doi:10.15184/aqy.2016.29. ISSN 0003-598X. S2CID 164175193.
  14. ^ Describing the Codex Gigas, a thirteenth-century manuscript from Bohemia in the Swedish National Library in Stockholm, it is stated: "All this bears witness to the outstanding importance of the cult of Vaclav in Bohemia at the time of the Devil's Bible's compilation. Moreover, all three festivals are inscribed in red ink, denoting their superlative degree."
  15. ^ The First Slavonic Life (in Old Church Slavonic), the anonymous Crescente fide [cs] (in Latin), the Passio sancti Venceslavi martyris (in Latin) by Gumpold, bishop of Mantua (d. 985), and Vita et passio sancti Venceslai et sancte Ludmile ave eius (in Latin) (The Life and Passion of Saint Václav and his Grandmother Saint Ludmila) by Strachkvas (Kristián) as described in the Kristiánova legenda [cs].
  16. ^ Wolverton, Lisa (2001). Hastening Toward Prague: Power and Society in the Medieval Czech Lands. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0812236130. Retrieved 2013-11-20 – via Google Boeken.
  17. ^ "Defries – St. Oswald's Martyrdom". Mun.ca. Archived from the original on 2013-11-09. Retrieved 2013-11-20.
  18. ^ Book I of the Chronica Boëmorum, Quoted in Wolverton, op. cit.
  19. ^ "Good King Wenceslas". Kresadlo.cz. Retrieved 2013-11-20.
  20. ^ September 28/October 11 Archived 2014-11-29 at the Wayback Machine. Orthodox Calendar (PRAVOSLAVIE.RU).
  21. ^ Martyr Wenceslaus the Prince of the Czechs. OCA – Lives of the Saints.
  22. ^ March 4/17 Archived 2014-11-29 at the Wayback Machine. Orthodox Calendar (PRAVOSLAVIE.RU).
  23. ^ "Latin Legends of Czech Saints: Vitus, Prokop and Wenceslas". Library of Congress.
  24. ^ Košnář, Julius (2008). Staropražské pověsti a legendy. Prague: Nakladatelství XYZ. p. 289. ISBN 978-80-86864-86-0.
  25. ^ Wencesla-us is the Mediaeval Latin Second Declension form of the name.
  26. ^ Odložilík, Otakar (1929). "Good King Wenceslas: A Historical Sketch". The Slavonic and East European Review. 8 (22): 120–130. JSTOR 4202365.
  27. ^ Scales, Len (2019). "Wenceslas Looks Out: Monarchy, Locality, and the Symbolism of Power in Fourteenth-Century Bavaria". Central European History. 52 (2): 179–210. doi:10.1017/S0008938919000141. S2CID 165576967.
  28. ^ "St. Wenceslas Monument in Prague", Prague.cz
  29. ^ "Prague Castle: St Wenceslas Chapel". Prague Castle. Retrieved 2015-01-30.
  30. ^ Ogden Nash, The Christmas that Almost Wasn't, Little, Brown and Company, 1957 OCLC 1211904
  31. ^ Good King Wenceslas (1994) at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata

External links[edit]

Preceded by Duke of Bohemia
Succeeded by