Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia
Barborska Street, Kutná Hora, Czech Republic
Wenceslaus, who is also known as Wenceslas, Vaclav, Vaceslav and Wenzel, was barely out of his teens when he became Duke of Bohemia. And as soon as he did, he faced opposition and conflict over his pro-Christian policies. Opposition and conflict from within his own family. Not that Wenceslaus (or Wenceslas, Vaclav, Vaceslav and Wenzel) wasn’t used to it. He’d grown up surrounded by opposition and conflict. His mother was Drahomíra, and she’d belonged to a pagan tribe called the Havolans. His father was the Christian duke Vratislaus I. When they’d married, Drahomíra had been baptized. But it’s probably fair to say that Drahomíra wasn’t really feeling her new-found Christianity. In 921, Vratislaus I died. Wenceslaus (or Wenceslas, Vaclav, Vaceslav and Wenzel) was Duke. Except, as he was only 14, he needed a regent. And that regent wasn’t to be Drahomíra. Reigning on behalf of Wenceslaus until he came of age would be Ludmilla, Vratislaus’s mother. And a pious, Christian woman. Drahomíra wasn’t impressed. She was worried that under Ludmilla’s influence, Wenceslaus would become even more Christian than he already was. And so, only a few months after Vratislaus had died, Drahomíra had Ludmilla murdered. She was strangled with her own veil. Drahomíra was now regent, and immediately started issuing measures against the Christians. But Wenceslaus was having none of it. A year on, he seized power for himself, despite being only 15. He sent his mother into exile, and started righting the wrongs she’d done his Christian brothers and sisters. While he was in charge, Wenceslaus did many good and Holy things. For instance, he built a church on the site that is now St Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague. But a decade on, and it was over. One afternoon in 935, Wenceslaus was leaving church when his younger brother, Boleslav, ran him through with a lance. It’s said he was in league with Drahomíra herself, and other pagan nobles, to murder the Christian Duke. And so, Wenceslaus died. Killed by his own mother and brother. ‘May God forgive you,’ he said to Boleslav with his last breath. And then a strange thing happened. People started coming from far and wide to the spot where Wenceslaus had been slain. He’d been loved. Much more than dastardly Drahomíra and Boleslav had thought. By the year 984, a feast day was being celebrated for Wenceslaus I, and he was remembered for the strength of his convictions in the face of opposition and conflict. He was made a saint, and to this day, Wenceslaus (or Wenceslas, Vaclav, Vaceslav and Wenzel) is venerated in the Czech Republic for his forbearance and for his backbone. And, of course, there’s the Christmas carol. Good King Wenceslaus. The carol tells of Wenesclaus’ page who is struggling with the cold winter weather and heavy snow. But the page is cheered on by Wenceslaus, who intends to bring wood, food and wine to the home of a poor labourer. The page follows the good king to the home of the poor labourer by stepping into his footprints in the deep snow. In life, Wenceslaus was a duke. Not a king. And the tale is a nineteenth-century invention. But it gets the message across. Here is a man who behaved like a king. And being a king is about much more than wearing a crown.