Good King Wenceslaus 

St. Wenceslaus (Vaclav) and Podiven, his assistant


Lewis Williams, SFO 

Artist’s Narrative:
St. Wenceslaus (b.903AD – d.979AD) was declared ruler of Bohemia (Czech Republic) after a coup. Later, his brother Bolelaus was angered that he was superceded as heir to the throne when Wenceslaus begat a son. He responded by murdering his brother at the door of a church September 28, 979 and gained the throne. Wenceslaus asked forgiveness of his brother as his dying wish.

The patron saint of Bohemia, as well as the “Good King Wenceslaus” of Christmas carol fame, Podiven served as his ‘page’, mentioned at the start of that carols’ second verse. Podiven is noted to be the most trustworthy of all his valets. Boleslaus later had him killed to end his spreading stories of the saintly Wenceslaus. His body remained incorrupt despite being hung outdoors on a gibbet for three years.

Wenceslaus was extremely generous. Nightly he made rounds to accomplish charitable work with Podiven at his side. In this icon the snowstorm is representative of the miracle story of the ‘warm footprints in the snow.’ On this night, Podiven complained that he could go no further on his frozen, bare feet. Wenceslaus asked that he trod in his footsteps and his feet warmed immediately.

Jesus in Love Blog Comments:

Dennis O’Neill, author of “Passionate Holiness,” shared with this blog his unpublished research about the loving relationship between Wenceslaus and Podiven.

The earliest accounts of Wenceslaus’ life mention his page — but not the woman who supposedly gave birth to his son in more recent versions. An account written in the late 10th or early 11th century describes the young man who was a “worthy page” and “chamber valet” to Wenceslaus.

It says that Wenceslaus used to wake his page in the middle of the night to join him in doing charitable works. The page is described as “a youth from among his valets who, of all his servants, was the most trustworthy in secret matters. The saint himself truly loved him during his lifetime.”

Wenceslaus was murdered in a coup by his brother at the door of a church on Sept. 28 in the year 935. The records say that Podiven “was often overcome by grief, sorrowing for days on end.” The brother also had Podiven killed to stop him from spreading stories of the saintly Wenceslaus. Both Wenceslaus and his beloved Podiven are buried at St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague.

This icon is dedicated to the memory of Fr. Larry Craig (d.06.10.06) whose countenance served as the model for Podiven. He was known in the Chicago area for his dedication to the Latino community, and his prison ministry. He would stand outside the Cook County Jail through the night, passing out sandwiches and bus passes to surprised inmates who had just been released. In a way, he did Podiven’s work, walking in warm footprints.

His feast day is September 28.

Male voices: The Irish Rovers

Female voice: Loreena McKennitt from “A Midwinter Night’s Dream

Good King Wenceslaus looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath’ring winter fuel

“Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know’st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me bread and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither.”
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather

In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing

Good King Wenceslaus looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath’ring winter fuel

Candice Night from a band called Blackmore’s Night

December 22, 2011  NPR

Even heard in modern synthesizer arrangements, the melody of the carol “Good King Wenceslas” (the spelling of Wenceslas is irregular here) brings the words and images of the story into my head: “Good King Wenceslas looked out / on the Feast of Stephen / When the snow lay ’round about / deep and crisp and even.

Wenceslas was a real person: the Duke of Bohemia, a 10th-century Christian prince in a land where many practiced a more ancient religion. In one version of his legend Wenceslas was murdered in a plot by his brother who was under the sway of their so-called pagan mother.

Following his death, Wenceslas became a saint and martyr revered especially for his kindness to the poor. Meanwhile, the catchy tune to “Good King Wenceslas” was around when people celebrated spring, but the Wenceslas legend hadn’t yet met up with the melody. For centuries, it had been sung in Latin as “Tempus adest floridum” — a springtime song celebrating nature’s powers of rebirth. It had verses in various languages, some of them adventurous in their descriptions of these celebrations.

Almost a thousand years after Wenceslas lived, a 19th-century Englishman by the name of John Mason Neale wrote the now-famous English lyric for the ancient melody.

The history of this Christmas carol is a rich accumulation of music, image and legend that speaks beyond any one religious tradition. Its most basic message is summed up in its final lines: “Ye who now will bless the poor / shall yourselves find blessing.”



For St. Stephen’s Day

Words: John Mason Neale (1818-1866); first appeared in Carols for Christmas-Tide, 1853, by Neale and Thomas Helmore. Neale may have written the hymn some time earlier: he related the story on which it is based in Deeds of Faith (1849). See: The Legend of S. Wenceslaus – John Mason Neale. The historical Wenceslas was Duke Vaclav of Bohemia.
Rev. Neale wrote: “A spring carol of the 13th century.” Words original.

Music: “

Tempus adest floridum” (“Spring has unwrapped her flowers”), a 13th Century spring carol; adaptation by Rev. Thomas Helmore from Piae Cantiones, 1582.

Source: Collected Hymns, Sequences and Carols of John Mason Neale (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914), from John Mason Neale and Thomas Helmore, Carols for Christmas-tide (London: Novello, 1853), and John Mason Neale and Thomas Helmore, Carols for Christmas-tide: The Condensed Vocal Parts (London: Novello, 1854), pp. 37-40.

William Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1995)

Yes, there really was a ruler named Wenceslas. It was not a king, but instead a duke of Bohemia in the tenth century, and his name in Czech was actually Vaclav. On the other hand, the description of him as “good” is completely justified. He was noted for his piety and devotion to the strengthening of Christianity in Bohemia. In 929 his brother Boleslav, who cannot be characterized as good, assassinated Vaclav and succeeded him as duke. By the eleventh century Vaclav was honored as the patron saint of Bohemia, thus allowing Vaclav in a historical sense to have the last laugh on his power-hungry brother.

In the thirteenth century a delightful tune was created someplace in Europe, quite possibly in Scandinavia or another northern part of that continent. In the sixteenth century (1582), the sprightly melody was published in the carol collection Piae Cantiones, accompanied by a spring carol called “Tempus adest floridum” (“Spring Has Now Unwrapped the Flowers”). In the nineteenth century, Englishman John Mason Neale (1818-1866) discovered the tune and in 1853 affixed to it some lyrics based on the story of Wenceslas. By that time the historical Bohemian personage had acquired an entourage of legends. Among these legends was the one about the poor man and the page which Neale wove into a carol. But Neale’s skill at weaving was rather faulty, for the lyrics of “Wenceslas” are, quite honestly, on the horrible side, and have even received negative epithets such as “doggerel.” Two other carols conceived by Neale at about the same time, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (1851) and “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” (1853), were, fortunately, better blessed literarily.

The seven-centuries-old tune, in contrast, is a bit of a marvel of both longevity and musical content. Its flowing spirit belies our usually but largely mistaken impressions that all of the Middle Ages were dull, uncreative, and culturally confining. In addition to its attachment to the flower song, its compelling attractiveness has also caused its linkage with the 1919 carol, “Gentle Mary Laid Her Child.” The twentieth-century lyric, by Canadian Joseph Simpson Cook (1859-1933), is artistically superior to “Wenceslas” and is directly about Christmas. But “Wenceslas,” despite its poor lyrics and its purely tangential connections to the holiday, will probably persevere over all rivals partly because of tradition and partly because of the perverse appeal of its good-natured narrative about feasting and suffering in the winter weather and, most of all, kindness. Although the lyrics, in their strange way, contribute to the song’s success, the bouncy and festive melody is what really makes the carol a perennial favorite. No matter what the words may be, or whether the title is “Good King Wenceslas” or “Pious Duke Vaclav,” just about anything associated with the tune will probably emerge a winner.

Erik Routley, The English Carol (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959)

This rather confused narrative owes its popularity to the delightful tune, which is that of a Spring carol, ‘Tempus adest floridum’, No. 99. Unfortunately Neale in 1853 substituted for the Spring carol this ‘Good King Wenceslas’, one of his less happy pieces, which E. Duncan goes so far as to call ‘doggerel’, and Bullen condemns as ‘poor and commonplace to the last degree’. The time has not yet come for a comprehensive book to discard it; but we reprint the tune in its proper setting (‘Spring has now unwrapped the flowers’), not without hope that, with the present wealth of carols for Christmas, ‘Good King Wenceslas’ may gradually pass into disuse, and the tune be restored to spring-time. Neale did the same kind of thing to another Spring carol, ‘In vernali tempore’ (No. 98; cf. No. 102); but this was not popularized by Bramley & Stainer.

[The paperback version of The Oxford Book of Carols, 1964, has a copy of the Flower Carol, no. 99 on page 212]

Elizabeth Poston, The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols (London: Penguin, 1965)

Product of an unnatural marriage between Victorian whimsy and the thirteenth-century dance carol (Piae Cantiones) Tempus adest floridum. (The time of flowers is at hand/For the flowers are spring up/In everything springlike/All things are expressing themselves./That which the cold had harmed/Is being restored by the head./Throughly much travail/We see this coming to pass.). Unfortunately Dr. Neale also felt the urge to express himself, though it is debatable whether the bizarre results would have become so well known in the present care, but for the doubtful service of their populations by Bramley and Stainer. The tune is in the quick-moving virile measure of the branle family of dance tunes that swept Europe, characterized by a stamp on the heavy minim beats – a typical hurdy-gurdy tune. A late medieval song of similar structure is printed in the New Oxford History of Music (vol. III, p. 357). The Tempus adest floridum tune should be sung in unison, at its approximate speed, not slower that half-note = 120, two strong beats to a bar, with clapping drum, and plucked instruments, and a drone for the realization of the travail Neale’s ponderous moral doggerel has imposed upon a light-hearted spring dance measure. If, treated as this carol should be treated, it sounds ridiculous to pseudo-religious words, this only shows how ridiculous they are in such a contest: ‘Ste-phen’, ‘cru-el’, etc., are bathos on the accented stamp-notes. In spirit, in feeling, as in fact, it is entirely pagan. Danced as ‘twist’, with modern rhythm accompaniment, this tune would be nearer to its authentic style (This is bound to disappoint the people who enjoy wallowing in cumbrous, harmonized settings and Master and Page solos.) The sooner this carol is restored to spring and its rightful treatment, the better.

St. Wenceslaus I: Duke of the Czech Lands

King WenceslasWenceslas was born to the Royal Premysl Dynasty of Bohemia (current part of the Czech Republic). The dynasty united the warring tribes of Bohemia into one duchy. The first known Premysl ruler was Wenceslas’s grandfather, Duke Borivoy I, who made Prague Castle the family seat. He married a Slav princess named Ludmila, and both eventually became Christians. When Borivoy died he was succeeded by his sons, Ratislav and Spythinev. Ratislav was Wenceslas’s father.

Wenceslas was born around 907 in the castle of Stochov near Prague. At first Wenceslas was raised by his grandmother, Ludmila. Then, when he was about 13 years old, his father died. Wenceslas succeeded him as duke. But because he was too young to rule, his mother, Drahomira, became regent. Drahomira was opposed to Christianity and used her new power to persecute followers of the religion. She refused to let Wenceslas see Ludmila because she was afraid they would scheme to overthrow her. Not long after Ratislav’s death, Ludmila was murdered at Tetin Castle – strangled, it is said, at Drahomira’s command. After her death Ludmila was revered as a saint.

But the loss of his grandmother did not stop Wenceslas from seizing power. At the age of 18 he overthrew his mother’s regency, just as she had feared, and began to rule for himself. A stern but fair monarch, he stopped the persecution of priests and tamed the rebellious nobility. He was known for his kindness to the poor. Many of the Bohemian nobles resented Wenceslas’s attempts to spread Christianity, and were displeased when he swore allegiance to the king of Germany, Henry I.

Boleslav I later repented, became a Christian and had Vaclav’s remains enshrined in Prague.