A tale of two brothers, and the building of a nation

Statue of Saint Václav

For the occasion of September 28, we're here at a place that some people actually call the real centre of the Czech Republic. Not the geographic centre to be sure, but certainly the focal point for much of the Czech Republic’s rocky modern-day history. It’s a statue of a man on a horse (which people call ‘the horse’ when they arrange one of the hundreds of meetings that take place here each day). But it’s of course the man on the horse that has overseen everything over the last hundred years from the declaration of Czechoslovak independence to the various political demonstrations that gravitate here today. Above me is of course Saint Václav, or Wenceslas, from which the surrounding square takes its name, and his likeness has adorned this place for at least three hundred years, in different incarnations. Legend has it that when worse comes to worst for the Czech lands he will come un-petrified, and ride away to quash their enemies – a disconcerting prophesy when one considers the parades of Nazis and Communists that the statue saw come and go. But even in that, there is a good point to be made: this symbol of Czech statehood is indomitable; the legacy of St. Václav rides on through the ages, now for about the 1,076th year.

Statue of Saint Václav
And so who was this patron saint of the Czech Republic? We’re very sure that St Václav lived, we’re rather sure that he was murdered at a fairly young age, and he certainly comes from an age when Christianity was taking hold amongst the pagan Slavs. But almost everything we know about Prince Václav, Duke Wenceslas I, Good King Wenceslaus, comes from legends – a millennium of legends.

There was a prince in Bohemia named Vratislav and his wife was called Drahomíra. A son was born to them and upon his baptism he was given the name Václav. Once he had grown a bit his father the king summoned the bishop and a scribe and the men of the cloth. A mass was sung for him in the Church of Saint Maria and then the bishop put the boy on the corner of the stair by before the altar and blessed him. For this reason we believe that the boy was protected by the mercy of God. His grandmother Ludmila had him taught in Slavic books under a priest, and he grasped their meaning well. Vratislav then sent him to Budeč Castle, where he began to learn Latin books, and grasped them well. When Vratislav died, the Czechs put prince Václav, on the hereditary throne, but he was still young, and so his mother Drahomíra provided for the land and governed the people.

Dr. Petr Sommer,  director of the Centre for Medieval Studies
What can we know of Václav the man, if there ever was such a person? In this programme we’ll be hearing the bits of legends that have survived antiquity, one building upon the other. And to weed out fact from fiction we’ll turn to Dr. Petr Sommer, director of the Centre for Medieval Studies and an expert in ecclesiastical archaeology.

“This is a very difficult task, drawing truth from legends, because it is primarily legends that tell us of the life of Saint Václav. All one can really find is footprints of the truth. Legends are literary devices to be read by good Christians who want examples of how to live in order to achieve perfection. And so of course that is how the legends show Václav: as a perfect Christian who lives as a hermit and a monk, who tears down the gallows and the jails, frees the prisoners and is altruistic. As a monarch – and he was evidently a very capable monarch because he stayed in power for 10 years at a very tough time – he wouldn’t have survived for long if he had truly behaved that way.”

With the grace of God, Prince Václav not only learned books, but was impeccable in his faith. He made benefactions unto the poor, he clothed the naked, fed the hungry, would not allow the widows to be maligned, he loved all people poor and rich, assisted the servants of God, and adorned the churches with gold. Believing in God with all his heart, he did all the good deeds he could in his life. His seat was a comfortable and very modest palace, and from there he tried to moderate the provisions of the law to benefit the people. He was ready to show mercy in his every judgement, and easily excused the guilt of malefactors. He was a simple man whose pure morality stood out. He did not hesitate to promise estates to the upstanding, but he often gave precedence to the village poor who lived in squalor, and he won their favour. He was a parent to the orphaned and a tangible support to those in need of soothing and protection.

Oh, and he was also affable, humble, and strict on himself while tolerant of others, enlightening the ignorant and persuading the misled. Add to that modest, and a great lover of patience, prudent and deliberate, and of course very, very generous, and other saints must be getting red in the face. At least were it not for those pesky truths of inescapable human weakness that defy even a legendary scouring.

“The authors of these early legends of St. Václav could not resist characterising the period with their own comparisons, images or recollections of events that they had either been told of or actually remembered. And thanks to this we reach a credible basis for the legends. We learn that Václav had not a wife but a lover, and with her he had a son. This is something that has been discussed by religious authors since the Middle Ages, and it doesn’t fit the image of an ideal saintly figure. We also learn very realistic details such as that he would engage in wild drinking sessions with his troops. That could not be left like that, and so the legend adds that he awoke with bitter remorse and cursed himself for his actions. But if he was to be a good leader and commander then it’s easy to imagine that one of the ways he kept his coarse-grained troops on his side was by drinking with them. He could hardly have done otherwise.”

It cannot be good to hide the reliable stories we have learned from the gracious attention of lovers of truth, and so let it be told that the young Václav, with heavenly inspiration, on many occasions had visions of things to come, and often revealed them to his confidants. And so it was that once he opened his prophetic lips and told them: “As I lay in bed in the silence of the night I had a grave and mysterious vision that portends the death of my grandmother Ludmila, a saintly and admirable woman, who will be the victim of a mad conspiracy of my mother, who is a pagan both by birth and shameful deed.” And all of his words came to pass. Václav’s mother gathered the cruellest men and asked: “What shall we do? He was meant to be a prince, but he has been corrupted by the priests and has become a monk!“ And she sent the hateful men to her mother-in-law to murder her, they did this, and her soul was sent in glorious martyrdom to the Lord. Then they robbed the priests and exiled them from the land. “From that day on, the blessed Václav received many a threat, demanding that he quit his illusions of God, and they minded him. But he carried his books beneath his clothes and continued to learn the word of God, and quietly mourned their spiritual blindness. When he grew into a man, he gathered all the men, and his mother, and scorned their lack of faith, and said: “Why did you keep me from learning the word of my God, and from serving him alone? Hitherto I have been under your power, but from this moment I renounce my obedience, and want to serve the Lord“. And with that he brought back the clerics and re-opened the churches to great rejoicing, he banished his mother from the land, the Christian faith began to bloom, and the devil suffered a crushing blow.”

Sculpture of Saint Václav  (St Vitus Cathedral),  photo: Barbora Kmentová
According to legend, Václav welcomed back his mother, who wondered at the good deeds he had done, among them building the Chapel of St. Vitus. This is the ambience there today, on any normal day of the week, the Prague Castle courtyard humming with visitors, mostly foreign, taking in the glorious sight of the church and the legendry that is tied to it.

Indeed one of Wenceslaus’ most enduring - real - acts was the erection of this great Bohemian landmark, the defining feature of Prague Castle, the centre of Catholic faith in the Czech Republic, and the resting place of the saint himself. Kateřina Soukupová of the Prague Castle Administration met with me there…

These bones, or rather the intact skull of the saintly king, is the subject of adoration come September 28. Just as Wenceslas himself had once revered the deathly arm of Saint Vitus, so the religious and the patriotic gather at the place of his death to see the remnant of his head. In the morning of that day, the Archbishop of Prague takes up the head – veiled and crowned and set upon the most regal of red pillows, still in dignified condition but for the loss of a few teeth – and travels to Stará Boleslav, where it is solemnly paraded down the street.

There is no reason to believe that Prince Wenceslaus was anything less than a lovely fellow, nor is there cause to doubt he was as saintly as they come. But then as now – in fact then more so than now – the decisions of the church are not without their worldly, political motivations.

“The canonisation of Prince Václav was, of course, the result of multiple interests, and the political interest was very strong. The budding Czech state of the 10th century could not be sufficiently independent without a sufficiently independent clerical organisation. It had to be a Christian state that could hold its own against the major Western states that were suspicious of it. And a Christianised country needed examples in the form of saints, so the story of Václav was very useful for the period. It is a political matter, it is a religious matter, and it was a cultural issue. So it’s an issue of the nascent Czech nation integrating itself into Central and Western Europe.”

At the heart of this transformation from king to saint, was a deed not at all uncommon to the ancient world: murder most foul.

Boleslav was then inveigled by the devil into hatred of his brother, and evil dogs held conference with him, to discuss his brother Václav, as the Jews once did about our Lord Jesus Christ. Václav came to the castle of Boleslav on a Sunday, on the feast of Cosmas and Damian. When afterwards he prepared to leave for Prague, Boleslav detained him and said with ill intent: "Why do you leave, my brother? There is healthy drinking to be done." He would not deny his brother, and so mounted his horse and played a game with his soldiers. When the night came, the evil dogs came to the court again, they called Boleslav to them and said “As he goes to morning prayer, we ambush him." The bells rung early in the morning and Václav, when he heard them, said: "Thanks to God that you let me live to see this morning." He went to mass, and met Boleslav in the gate. “Well you tended to me brother yester evening." The devil then bent to the ear of his brother, and had him answer: "I will tend to you even better now." With that, he struck him across the head with a sword. Václav turned to him and said: "What has taken you, brother?", whereupon he grabbed Boleslav and threw him to the ground. Injured, he released his brother and ran to the church, and as he reached the handle he was set upon by devils, who beat him to death in the door. One of them, Hněvsa, leapt in, and stuck him with his sword in the side. Václav then let go of his ghost with the words: "I release my soul to you, my Lord.

The martyred Václav lies in the glory befit the best of men, while his murderous brother rests in some unmarked, unknown place. In the end though, it may have been Boleslav the Cruel, as he came to be known, who got the short end of the stick. Boleslav was not just a treacherous and conniving thug, if indeed he was at all a murderer (at least one historian posits that the murder may have in fact been an accident). The new king had taken firm control of government and had done it definitively, and he was able to take advantage of his usurped power. He was a capable monarch who managed great feats in his 35-some-odd years on the throne. He led a war against the neighbouring Saxon king Otto I, and didn’t lose. He didn’t win, either, but it led to fruitful cooperation later with the Saxons that allowed him to spread his kingdom east. Czechs at that time were divided into various, regional princedoms that Boleslav was able to homogenise. He was building a state that would last for a thousand years.

“The building of this state was done of course by violence, it wasn’t unification through peace treaties or political agreements, it was hard-handed and bloody – first in the historical area of Bohemia, and then he struck abroad, beyond Krakow, into Red Ruthenia and probably into northern Hungary. Basically, he fought out a huge conglomerated state. By maintaining a constant state of war he kept his troops constantly paid with plunder. These outlying states were very fragile, and they peeled off whenever there was trouble in the centre. But it wasn’t for nothing. The success was the creation of a heartland that lasted throughout the Middle Ages and essentially until today. It created a unified Czech state.”

Really then, looking at the Czech Republic of today with all things considered, who has made the greater impact? Brutal Boleslav or his blessed brother? How important really is St Václav to the greater Czech picture? Dr. Petr Sommer, again:

“The Czech state was completed by the one who murdered him, his brother, Boleslav I. So if we are to consider who had the major influence on the beginnings of Central Europe, well then it would probably be Boleslav, with his political and power plays, rather than Wenceslaus. But then it was Wenceslaus in his second life as a saint, who outdid Boleslav by far and wide, by embodying the Czech state, becoming not just a symbol but a holy protector. Sometimes this was misused, sometimes it was used purely and legitimately, as tends to be the case with historic symbols. But if we compare the importance of Wenceslaus and Boleslav to the Czech state, they don’t compete. Each is important at a different level.”