Day of Czech Statehood commemorates patron saint of Czech nation

Saint Wenceslas

September 28th is St Wenceslas Day, commemorating the Czech nation's patron saint, Prince Wenceslas, or Vaclav. He was slain by his own brother in the year 935 near Prague. But Prince Vaclav was not the only man of that name who played an important role in Czech history.

Legend portrays Prince Wenceslas I of the Premyslid dynasty as a pious man and a Christian martyr. Historically, he helped the Czech lands ally themselves with the Saxon king Henry the Fowler and made peace with the neighbouring Germans. The legend of St Wenceslas travelled far and is remembered in the popular English Christmas Carol "Good King Wenceslas".

Although it is his murderous brother Boleslav who is credited with founding the independent Czech state, Saint Wenceslas has become the symbol of Czech statehood. As historian Herbert Brynda says, the legend of St Wenceslas is not without controversy.

"In fact, there are two St Wenceslases: the historic one and the legend. While the historic - real - Prince Wenceslas is fairly uninteresting, the legend has gone through many changes. The legend was artificially created to help the newly born Czech statehood and the Christian church. And that very artificiality caused many of the controversies surrounding the legend of St Wenceslas."

And it's true that over the centuries the legend has been variously rewritten not just by Czech patriots but also by Communists and even Nazi collaborators.

Saint Wenceslas was the first in a sequence of Czech rulers bearing that name. He was followed by princes Wenceslas II, Wenceslas III and King Wenceslas IV, who stood at the beginnings of the 15th century Hussite reformist movement. His father, this country's most famous monarch, Charles IV, was also christened Vaclav, or Wenceslas and only later took the name Charles.

Six centuries later, another Czech called Vaclav became the symbol of anti-communist opposition in Czechoslovakia. Vaclav Havel was elected the country's President in 1990 and was its head of state until 2003. Interestingly, the name of Mr Havel's successor at Prague Castle, the traditional seat of Czech heads of state is also Vaclav. Vaclav Klaus, too, has held important political posts ever since the start of the political and economic transition after the end of the communist regime.

An equestrian statue of St Wenceslas dominates Prague's Wenceslas Square that has played host to the most important events in recent Czech history. The Czechoslovak state was proclaimed here in 1918. Protests against the Soviet-led invasion in 1968 took place there and in 1969 Jan Palach, a young student, set himself alight there in protest of the Soviet occupation. Finally, the demonstrations of 1989 in Wenceslas Square saw the fall of the communist regime.