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Fact/Fiction: Was King Wenceslas actually any good?

Old news, truthfully retold. Good King Wenceslas might've looked out on the Feast of Stephen, but how good actually was he? We delve in for a festive take on finding the truth

How it was told

“Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen…” and so on. One of our festive favourites was written by Anglican priest John Mason Neale in 1853, set to the melody of Tempus Adest Floridum (The time is near for flowering), which dates back to the 13th century.

It was first recorded in the Finnish book Piae Cantiones, a collection of 74 songs that shot straight to the top of the charts when it was published, given that not many books were printed in 1582. A couple of hundred years later, a copy of the book was gifted by the British envoy in Sweden to Neale. He translated some tracks then penned his own lyrics when it came to this one. His song talks about the king seeing a poor man gathering winter fuel – the issue of fuel poverty as relevant then as now – then braving bitter weather to gift alms on St Stephen’s Day, which falls on December 26, commemorating the first Christian martyr.

It has become a Christmas standard, sung by everyone from Bing Crosby to The Beatles, Hugh Grant in Love, Actually, Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory and every one of us each December. But was he good? Was he even a king? And does it have anything whatsoever to do with Christmas?

Facts. Checked.

First up – Wenceslas wasn’t a king. Nor is that the correct spelling of his name. Wenceslaus was duke of Bohemia in the 10th century (potentially making the carol the original Bohemian Rhapsody) where after leading the government from the age of 18 he became known as Václav the Good. Unfortunately, he had a brother known as Boleslaus the Cruel who invited him to a feast and then, living up to his name, ran him through with a lance.

Almost immediately after his death Wenceslaus was recognised as a martyr and canonised, as well as posthumously crowned a king. Tales of his virtuousness and piety circulated throughout Europe. An early biography describes him “rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.”

Yes, he walked barefoot in all conditions. The snow may well have been deep and crisp and even but that just sounds more painful for walking through.

The carol concludes with a call to bless the poor: “Therefore Christian men be sure, wealth or rank possessing / Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.”

Of course, Boxing Day is now more famous for pilgrims rushing to Christmas sales rather than living up to the spirit of giving. But perhaps the confusion arises because the season in which the story is set was bolted on by John Mason Neale. Tempus Adest Floridum was an Easter hymn and some, such as Elizabeth Poston in the Penguin Book of Christmas Carols, have pointed out that Neale’s “ponderous moral doggerel” does not fit with the jaunty tune, calling it the “product of an unnatural marriage between Victorian whimsy and the 13th century dance carol”.

Today, Wenceslaus’ remains are interred at St Vitus cathedral in Prague. Wenceslas Square in the city is an important meeting place and the site of mass demonstrations against the Communist regime in the 1980s. A legend attached to the statue of the saint in the square says that if the country is ever threatened, it will come to life, raise a sleeping army and bring peace to the land.

Illustration: Miles Cole

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