Good King Wenceslas
Good King Wenceslas 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
Gathering winter fuel.
Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou knowst 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 flesh and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither.
Thou and I shall see him dine
When we bear them thither.
Page and monarch, forth they went,
Forth they went together,
Through the rude winds wild lament
And the bitter weather.
Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger.
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.
Mark my footsteps, good my page,
Tread thou in them boldly,
Thou shall find the winters rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.
In his masters step 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.
It’s not my intention to go all Bah! Humbug! over Good King Wenceslas as a Christmas carol, but it has to be said that it’s an early example of the “Christmasification” of Christmas; by this I mean that it’s the start of a process of moving the Christmas “story” away from a celebration of the nativity towards a wider celebration of the celebration itself. Wenceslas was already an established historical legend and this carol presents us with that story – the kindly caring monarch who resolves to help the poor and needy at Christmas, and does not neglect the welfare of his servant either. He sets an example that all good Christians should follow: St Stephen’s Day is 26 December, so the carol is traditionally associated with Boxing Day, the day of offering Christmas boxes.
Wenceslas was Wenceslaus I, a Duke of Bohemia in the medieval Holy Roman Empire stretching across much of central Europe. Wenceslaus was born in Prague in the early 900s and the grandson of the first Bohemian duke to convert to Christianity. His mother was from a pagan community but converted to Christianity on marriage; however, when Wenceslaus was 13 his father died and his mother took control of the duchy and began a purge of the eminent Christians. When he was 18 in about 926, Wenceslaus was able to unite the remaining Christian families to rise up and send his mother into exile in Hungary; he divided the duchy so that he and his younger brother would each have their own area of responsibility, and in his area he re-established the Christian faith. It is in this period that the legendary events occurred. In 935 his younger brother led a coup against Wenceslaus to reunite the duchy, and Wenceslas was assassinated. Podevin, the loyal servant mentioned in the carol, avenged Wenceslaus’ death by killing the assassins but he was executed by Wenceslaus’s brother.
Upon his death Wenceslaus was venerated as a martyr and a saint and was made a posthumous “king” by the Emperor, and a cult of Wenceslaus became established in both Bohemia and Britain. The first “King Wenceslaus” of Bohemia didn’t come to the throne until 1230, some 300 years later. The original Wenceslaus is still commemorated by Prague’s Wenceslas Square, and the notable equestrian statue which is flanked by other Czech patron saints.
The carol was written in 1853 by John Mason Neale (1818-1866), and published with a tune dating back the the 13th century that was usually associated with springtime and Easter; the effect makes the carol sound somewhat older than it actually is.
Neale was a clergyman, and from an established family of clergy. He was educated at Cambridge University and was a gifted scholar but suffered from poor health, probably tuberculosis. He wrote several other carols, including Good Christian Men, Rejoice! and translated others from Latin, Greek, and the eastern orthodox tradition. Neale was associated with the Oxford Movement of “High” Anglicanism and sought to move the traditions of the Church of England towards a degree of ritual more commonly associated with the Church of Rome. This was a popular development among parts of the Anglican community but did initiate some of the theological divisions that persist in the Church of England today.
Footer illustration: by Jessie M King (1875-1949)