Good King Wenceslas

In 1853, John Mason Neale wrote the lyrics to “Good King Wenceslas.” They were then put to the tune “Tempest adest floridum,” which was written three hundred years prior. While this Christmas carol does not explicitly mention Jesus’ birth, it does tell the story of a king displaying uncommon generosity at a Christmas feast. In Matthew 25:40, Jesus said, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” The story of “Good King Wenceslas” illustrates a Christian man doing good to “the least of these.”  

Who Was Good King Wenceslas?

Many people assume this king is fictional but the lyrics actually refer to Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, who lived from 907 to 935. Bohemia was a country in the Czech Republic, and over ten million Bohemians are living there today. During their lives, Wenceslaus’ father and grandfather converted from paganism to Christianity and brought Wenceslaus up to worship Christ. However, his mother, the daughter of a pagan chief, tried to turn Wenceslaus back to paganism. She did not succeed, and when Wenceslaus took the throne at eighteen, he had his mother exiled and ruled as a Christian monarch. 

Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude winds wild lament
And the bitter weather

On December 26th (the Feast of Stephen), Wenceslaus, having seen a poor man from his vantage point of the castle tower, wanted to deliver firewood. According to the legend, he went with his page carrying food and firewood to the poor man’s home. 

Fails my heart, I know not how
I can go no longer
Mark my footsteps good my page
Follow in them boldly….
Heat was in the very sod
Which the saint had printed

The page told the king he couldn’t continue in the cold, so the king told him to follow in his footsteps. Then a miracle occurred when the king’s footsteps kept the page warm. 

Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye, who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing?

Proverbs 19:17 states, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and He will reward them for what they have done.” King Wenceslaus I was indeed kind to the poor, and his life serves as an example of this verse in action. 

What happened to King Wenceslaus I?

Half of the kingdom was given to his younger brother Boleslaus, but his brother was not happy with this arrangement. At the urging of his mother, Bolslaus conspired with his noblemen to have Wenceslaus assassinated. The noblemen all stabbed the king, and then his brother ran him through with a lance. The date of his assassination was September 28th, which is now his Saint’s Day. Wenceslas was promoted from duke to king by Otto I of the Holy Roman Empire a few years after his death. His brother earned the nickname Boleslav the Cruel, however, he eventually became known as a decent ruler who regretted killing his brother and joined the church as a clergyman. His son, Boleslaus II, founded the Diocese of Prague, earning him the nickname Boleslaus the Pious. This Christmas story of Wenceslaus’ generosity has served to inspire listers for hundreds of years. As you listen to this song this season, I encourage you to think about ways to help “the least of these” in Jesus’ name. One thing that struck me about Wenceslas was he didn’t only provide the food and firewood, but he took the time to deliver it himself. To listen to the song, click here!