By Vladimir Tax, Alena Skodova, Daniela Lazarova, Nick Carey
"Saint Wenceslas, Duke of the Czech Lands, don't let us die, or our successors..." these are the words of the most famous Czech hymn, the so-called St. Wenceslas Chorale which dates back to the 13th century. So who was this Duke of the Czech Land, whom we commemorate today?
Experts say that St. Wenceslas' life can only be reconstructed from later sources - in addition to the Kosmas chronicle from the 12th century those sources are mainly the so-called legends of St. Wenceslas. They are written in Latin and old Slavonic, but they only came into existence several decades after Wenceslas' death, and moreover, they are not too reliable as far as facts are concerned.
According to the latest findings, also based on anthropological research, Wenceslas was born around the year 907 and was assassinated on 28th of September 935, when he was 28 years old.
Wenceslas was the grandson of Prince Borivoj, the first ever baptised member of the Premyslid family, who accepted the Christian faith from the hands of Archbishop Method before 885. His wife Ludmila was an important advocate of Christianity, especially the Slavonic liturgy, and it was Ludmilla who enjoyed the greatest influence on the little boy's upbringing. Wenceslas' parents, Prince Vratislav and his wife Drahomira, both had roots in a Slavic tribe which lived in today's Northern Germany.
Young Wenceslas was - probably unlike his mother - an ardent supporter of the new religion, and he learned reading and writing at a very early age. He spoke Old Slavonic as well as Latin, the international language of the Christian West. Such a degree of education amidst the then rulers was exceptional at those times. After his father's death, Drahomira became the ruler on behalf of young Wenceslas. And she must have been a cruel ruler, for she ordered her mother-in-law Ludmila's murder. Wenceslas took to the throne in 925, and in the same year he sent his mother into exile and had his grandmother's remains bring to Prague.
Vaclav was a firm man, who had an out-of-wedlock son called Zbraslav. He was a good soldier, but he was also well aware of the necessity of political compromises. He was on friendly terms with the powerful German king Henry I, who donated him - as a sign of friendship - the remains of the Saxon patron Saint Vitus, for whom he built a Romanesque rotunda at Prague Castle, which is now St. Vitus cathedral. But Wenceslas' efforts to introduce Christianity to his still pagan country caused bigger and bigger problems.
His brother Boleslav was the most significant representative of anti-Wenceslas opposition, which reproached him for his concessions to the Germans as well as his generosity towards Christian clergy. And it was Boleslav who organised a conspiracy at his castle in today's Stara Boleslav near Prague. On his way to morning prayers, Wenceslav was assassinated in front of the locked door of the local church. Shortly after his death, Wenceslas began to be worshiped as a martyr, people attached many miracles to him and his remains were said to have healing powers.
Soon a cult of St. Wenceslas was created, and Czechs were happy that they had their own saint, who would pray for them at the Divine throne. St. Wenceslas was honoured by Emperor Charles IV in the 14th century as well as by the Hussite reformist movement one hundred years later. Charles IV had a St. Wenceslas chapel built inside St. Vitus cathedral, and during the Middle Ages, more than 350 churches throughout the Czech lands were consecrated to him. The St. Wenceslas crown, a craft masterpiece made of precious stones on the order of Charles IV, which is now part of the Czech crown jewels, symbolises the Czech statehood. St. Wenceslas helped Czechs to enter the family of European Christian nations and he has remained a symbol of the Czech national identity for more than a thousand years.