In Prague, it is impossible not to stumble upon a reference to “(svatý) Václav” – that is (St) Wenceslas. For example, Václavské náměstí (Wenceslas Square) bears his name. If you were in St Vitus Cathedral in Prague Castle, you have perhaps looked into Kaple svatého Václava (St Wenceslas Chapel) – where his remains are also kept. There are several statues of St Wenceslas around Prague as well. Naturally, a large one is on the Wenceslas Square where he is riding a horse, and St Wenceslas was depicted even three times among the statues on the Charles Bridge. St Wenceslas is also a figure on 20-crown coin. Who was this man who is also the main patron saint of our country?
Who was St Wenceslas?
Well, he lived in early 10th century. That means that we do not know much. However, because his death roused the interest of many scholars of his time, we still know more than about most other personages of that age.
Unlike many saints, St Wenceslas was not a cleric. He was the Duke of Bohemia of the Přemyslid dynasty. He was the fourth duke whom we know to really exist.
Tale of Wenceslas grandmother, St Ludmila
Early 10th century was quite a cruel time – and it was so also in Bohemia. Ludmila, wife of the first documented Duke, Borivoj I, was murdered in 921 by assassins sent by her daughter-in-law, Drahomíra. Pious Ludmila was strangled and soon became one of the patron saints of the Czech state. According to the legends, Ludmila and Drahomíra had a feud upon the upbringing of Drahomíra’s sons (and Ludmila’s grandsons) Wenceslas and Boleslav. Some suggest it was because difference in religion of the two – Ludmila was a Christian and Drahomíra allegedly a pagan. However, we know for sure that the issue of upbringing was also one of the regency as there were no adult males in the dynasty at that time.
Václav as the Duke of Bohemia
Václav, older of the two brothers, eventually reigned alone. In a country still mostly pagan, he was a devout Christian. He was also very charitable – Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” is about St Wenceslas. Wenceslas acquired the relic of St. Vitus upon which he had built a Romanesque rotund at the core of Prague Castle. The rotund soon became the central church of the country. It was a predecessor of the today St Vitus Cathedral.
Disputes emerged with Boleslav. According to the legends, one of the differences was about the policy towards King of Saxony, Henry the Fowler. Whereas Wenceslas is viewed as duke who was not against paying a tribute and perhaps being a kind of vassal to the Emperor, Boleslav is said to be for utter independence.
Once Boleslav invited Wenceslas to a feast at his home at today Stará Boleslav. On the following morning – 28th September 935 – the brothers met when Wenceslas was heading to the church. After a short exchange of words – Wenceslas probably mocked his younger brother for being subordinate to him – Boleslav drew his sword and attacked Wenceslas. Several Boleslav’s soldiers rushed at the scene and killed Wenceslas who is said to seek sanctuary in the church but the doors remained closed.
Although Wenceslas’ murder seems to be rather improvised, Boleslav continued ruthlessly. A bloodbath ensued as he had his dead brother’s friends killed – with all their family members including children for a good measure. This led to the desired effect as his rule was not disputed by the Czechs. That was a necessity – within few months Boleslav had to defend against the Saxon army. The war dragged for about 15 years. Boleslav succeeded in keeping the independence of Bohemia. To achieve this, Boleslav had to establish a well-functioning rule of the country to maintain a sufficient army. The years after Wenceslas’ death are thus also years of the creation of solid structures of the Czech state.
In several ways, Boleslav did what also Wenceslas would probably have done. He promoted Christianity in Bohemia – he founded the first monasteries and gained a bishopric for Prague. After the war with Saxony, he had good relationship with the mighty neighbour which was also a fundamental of Wenceslas’ foreign policy. In 955, Czech contingent was important part of the Army of King of Saxony Otto I which defeated Hungarians at the Lech River and put their raids throughout Central Europe to an end.
Wenceslas’ pious life and his martyr death had a strong appeal immediately – and Boleslav intentionally helped this by moving Wenceslas’ body to Prague. Several legends were written in the decades after Wenceslas’ death – some perhaps even by eyewitnesses.
Wenceslas was soon regarded as the patron of the Czech nation – the first emblem of Bohemia was a black eagle (svatováclavská orlice – Eagle of St Wenceslas); the lion was used since 12th century. The Czechs soon saw St Wenceslas as the heavenly protector of the Czech state – this is the reason why the Royal crown among the Crown Jewels bears the name of St Wenceslas (svatováclavská koruna). The Czechs prayed to St Wenceslas – the first Czech song from 11th century is Václave, pomiluj ny – “Wenceslas have mercy”.
Five of the Czech kings were named Václav / Wenceslas – including the King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV who was baptised as Václav and acquired the name Charles at confirmation in Paris when he was a boy.
St Wenceslas today
Václav is still quite a popular name for Czech boys – it was the first name of two of the three Presidents of the Czech Republic (Václav Havel and Václav Klaus).
More importantly, the day of murder St Wenceslas day (28th September) is now a national holiday commemoration the Czech statehood. It is celebrated by both Catholic Church as well as by the state – there are addresses of leading politicians, rallies, debates in the TV and so on.
St Wenceslas is a fundamental part of the Czech history and identity. A bit ironic aspect is that though he did much good during his life it is less important than his “second life” – the legend, the perception by the Czechs and deeds made in his name. However, as a symbol, he was unsurpassed in our country. That is why you can encounter him so often in Prague.