September 28 – Wenceslaus

Wenceslaus (ca. 907–935) (aka Vaclav) was the son of Vratislaus, the second Christian Duke of Bohemia, and grandson of Borivoj and Ludmila, converts of Cyril and Methodius. His mother was Drahomira, a pagan princess who was baptized just before her marriage, although word on the street was that it never really “took.” Vratislaus died when Wenceslaus was 13, and Ludmila became his guardian and regent, until Drahomira had her strangled. And you thought you had in-law problems.

Wenceslaus was intelligent and pious, so when he ascended the throne at 18 the first thing he did was have his mother exiled (intelligent) but not killed (pious). Like his father before him, he battled and made and broke alliances with the surrounding kinglets (think of a badly played game of Risk with very, very small regions). He was made to pay tribute to King Henry of the Franks, who used it to pay his tribute to the Magyars. Whether the Magyars were paying tribute to someone else, my sources do not say.

Meanwhile Drohomira had not been idle. She roused up various Bohemian nobles to support her second son, Boleslaw (“bowl of cabbage”). (Wenceslaus had earlier put down a rebellion led by a rebellious duke, which presumably earned him some enmity.) Boleslaw invited Wenceslaus to join him for the dedication of the Church of Cosmas and Damien (September 27 in those days) in Stará Boleslav (his egonomously-named stronghold). On the day after the feast Wenceslaus greeted his brother going into the church, saying, “Yesterday you were a good subject to me.” Boleslaw replied, “And today I will be a better,” striking him with his sword. A tussle ensued, three henchmen hurried up, and Wenceslaus was murdered. His last words were the Bohemian for, “Lord into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

Drohomira, perhaps in penitence for her part in the fratricide, came later and buried her son’s body. The stain of his blood could not be washed from the door of the church, but three days later it disappeared of its own accord (the stain, not the door). The church rapidly became a pilgrimage destination. Within three years Boleslaw repented of his crime, and had his brother’s body taken to Prague and buried in the great church, now a cathedral, of St. Vitus (Jun 15), which Wenceslaus had built years before.

Was Wenceslaus a martyr for the Christian faith? Or was his murder merely political? While many believe Drohomira reverted to her paganity after her husband died, it is also true that Boleslaw showed no pagan tendencies, and two of his children, at least, entered religious life. His son Strachkvas (literally, “dreadful feast”) was born on the day of Wenceslaus’s murder, and Boleslaw promised to educate him into the priesthood, which he did. Strachkvas’ sister Mlada became a nun and abbess, and went as her father’s emissary to Rome to ask that Prague be promoted to a bishopric. (Strachkvas was to have been made its second bishop, but died on the day of his consecration.) So if Boleslaw was a pagan, he wasn’t a very good one.

Martyr or no, Wenceslaus was hailed from very early on as a saint, and was granted the title “king” posthumously by Holy Roman Emperor Otto I (perhaps in atonement for his father Henry’s treatment of Wenceslas). A curious legend states that an army sleeps inside the mountain of Blaník, to awake when the Czech lands are attacked by four or more enemy armies (from the four cardinal points). Then the equestrian statue of Wenceslaus in Prague will come alive (important: the horse will be white, not coppery green with pigeon streaks) to lead the ghost army, defeating the enemies before the gates of the city. Wenceslaus was the patron saint of Bohemia and is the patron saint of the Czech Republic, Prague, and brewers.