Posts Tagged ‘Jan Rejzl’

Happy St. Wenceslas Day: the man, the legend, and the song

Thursday, September 28th, 2017

The majestic monument at Wenceslas Square in Prague. The king is the one on the horse.

Not every country’s capital is graced with the kind of public art that inspires silence, awe, and a sense of majesty. Prague is. I remember, walking downtown for the first time in 2008, and seeing the impressive Wenceslas Square, with its dark, massive monument: King Wenceslas on horseback, flanked by the Czech patron saints:  Ludmila, Agnes of Bohemia, Prokop, and Adalbert of Prague. On the base, the inscription: “Svatý Václave, vévodo české země, kníže náš, nedej zahynouti nám ni budoucím.” In English: “Saint Wenceslas, duke of the Czech land, prince of ours, do not let perish us nor our descendants.”

So far he hasn’t. But today is his feast day, and I thought I would honor him with a post. For my curiosity about King Wenceslas (a saint as well as a king) deepened when I visited the austere and spiky St. Vitus Church, built in the 14th century, which includes Wenceslas’ chapel and his relics, after the 28-year-old monarch was murdered by his brother Boleslav in 935 A.D.

I don’t remember how my curiosity resulted in Jan Rejzl sending me his Good King Wenceslas: The Real Story from the U.K. the following year: “In the English-speaking world, the Christmas carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’ is well known. Every year it touches us with the warmth and generosity that is felt at this special time of year – Christmas,” he writes.

“When I came to Great Britain in 1968, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the carol as I knew a little more about Good King Wenceslas. I was able to tell my friends that Good King Wenceslas really existed and that I come from the country he once ruled. Indeed, I was born and raised in the town where his brother Boleslav had his castle. the town is called Stara Boleslav, and is situated where Boleslav’s castle once stood…”

In the carol, the king sees a poor man gathering kindling for warmth on a very cold night. He tells his page:

“Bring me flesh 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.”

Romanesque door knocker at St. Vitus’s Wenceslas Chapel.

Not bloody likely. According to Rejzl, “As Wenceslas wanted his people to be freed from barbarian and pagan practices, he himself lived very modestly. He avoided banquets and overindulgence in food.” So much for the flesh and wine, then. “One legend says that if he indulged in eating and drinking, the next day he went to the church and begged the priests for forgiveness…”

Here’s the rest of the carol:

“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, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

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.”

The footsteps may have been heating pads for the page, but for the king? Not so much, for “it is said in the Kristian’s Legend that Duke Wenceslas went barefoot in winter from castle to castle, visiting churches many times, leaving traces of blood in his footsteps on icy paths.”

The Book Haven makes no claims to saintliness, but certainly in one way we find him a kindred spirit: “I have already reported that he was well educated and indeed he frequently carried a book under his coat, so he could read it in his spare moments.” So do we, Wenceslas, so do we.

Happy St. Wenceslas Day! Find a Czech and celebrate with some Becherovka. In fact, I have some sitting in the fridge from my last trip to Prague. I may indulge in a nip tonight.