The life and times of St. Wenceslas

Photo: archive of Radio Prague

Hello and welcome to a special programme marking Czech Statehood day, which is also the feast day of St. Wenceslas. I am joined for a look at the life of St. Wenceslas – or St. Václav – by Tomáš Petráček, who is a theologian, priest, religious historian, and author with a diocese in the Czech city of Hradec Králové.

Tomáš Petráček,  photo: Tomáš Chlouba,  CC BY-SA 3.0
Thank you very much for joining me today Father Petráček. Wenceslas was Duke of Bohemia during the 10th century. How much do we really know about this historic figure?

“It is exactly thanks to St. Wenceslas that we know anything at all about early Czech history. Because most of our information comes from St. Wenceslas legends. And also there is some information from archaeological discoveries, but those only help us understand more about the Czech society during the 10th century.”

Wenceslas was Duke of Bohemia for a brief period during the early 900s. Bohemia was a Duchy at the time, and became a part of the Holy Roman Empire in AD 1004. So what was the role of a Bohemian duke at this time?

“Bohemia was one of the territories next to the Holy Roman Empire, today’s Germany, but back this was divided into many duchies and kingdoms like Saxony and Bavaria. We talk about the Duke of Bohemia, but we don’t know how exactly this territory was organised. We assume that Wenceslas only controlled the territory of central Bohemia – Prague and the neighbourhood – and the other Bohemian territories were somehow independent, and perhaps dependent on other Slavonic dukes. And perhaps Wenceslas somehow exerted some influence on them, mostly indirectly. So they accepted him as head of the entire territory of Bohemia, but he didn’t control it directly.”

And he was a part of the Přemyslid dynasty, so tell me about this royal family.

“Wenceslas was the third known member of the Přemyslid dynasty. His grandfather Bořivoj was the founder of this Přemyslid territory in central Bohemia and he was also the man who introduced Christianity from Great Moravia. He built his state thanks to the support of Great Moravia, established Christianity in his territory. Probably he and his son, Wenceslas’ father Vratislaus I, served as builders of the Czech early state. At that time, they somehow changed the basic structure of the society from tribal to the early state.”

And Wenceslas’ father Vratislaus died when his son was just 13 leaving his mother Drahomíra temporarily in charge of the Duchy as regent until her son matured... So how successfully did he ultimately assume the reigns at such an early age.

“In this case, we don’t fully understand what that age meant at that time, because they were prepared for leadership from early childhood, so by 15 or 16 they were fully prepared for this task. And it was dynastic politics, so when the time came they had no choice but to take responsibility. The problem was – legends tell us – that his mother Drahomíra was of pagan origins. And so Wenceslas was raised by his grandmother, Ludmila, who was a very pious woman. Probably Wenceslas’ mother ordered Ludmila to be killed...”

So not to corrupt her son with Christian ideas?

“Maybe, because the assassins’ names are Viking. But these are only theories, because there is some time before the death of Bořivoj I, Duke of Bohemia (AD 889) and his wife Ludmila (AD 921). Probably in most countries there was something called the ‘Pagan Reaction’, meaning some time after the formal Christianization part of society didn’t agree with Christianity as the official religion, and they tried to re-establish Paganism.”

Why was Wenceslas such a pious person? Was this unusual for the time?

“We don’t have anything other than the St. Wenceslas legends to go on. This is our only source. And in the picture these legends give us, Wenceslas is very special among all these rulers and kings and dukes. Even among the saints. Because we have several saints who were dukes and rulers, and usually it was enough if they are generous towards the church, if they are just, if they are able to maintain stability in their territory, and if they support the Church. Their personal lives and piety does not play a role, because we are speaking about the Dark Ages when morality was very barbaric and primitive, and Christianity also, because all these people had been Pagan just a few generations ago. So it was very brutal. If you look to the legends, they picture him as a very pious, sophisticated Christian. We can even describe him as exceptionally modern.

“And there is no reason not to trust the legends, because if they had wanted to depict him as saintly, they wouldn’t have needed to include among his character traits the fact that he was pious, devoted, or an educated man. Even this one small detail that he was able to read is very exceptional for the aristocracy or even a ruler of the 10th century.”

And he is said to have taken a particular interest in the poor as well.

Bořivoj I
“Yes. In the legends, we can find what we call ‘topoi’ – the places that replicate from one legend to the other and are everywhere. They tell us certain things. We cannot say whether he did one deed or another, because it is difficult to find historical truths about this time. But in his legends, there are many specific things which are not ‘topoi’ and are very specific for him. There is no reason not to allow that the legends about his interest in the poor are true.”

Being a duke, Where would Wenceslas’ seat of power have been? Would he have been in Prague Castle?

“Yes. At that time, Prague Castle was already a centre of power. That is specific to Czech history that the centre of power has been the same from the beginning. So it is Prague, but there were other important castles in the central Bohemian territory. In recent times, archaeologists have found the remnants of many such large castles. We know that by the beginning of the 10th century, the territory was already much more developed than we thought a few years ago.”

How independent was Bohemia at the time as a Duchy? Today Wenceslas is known for helping to put the Czech people on the map.

“Obviously the rulers of the Roman Empire wanted to have their neighbourhood be quiet and peaceful and under control. So they either tried to control these territories directly or indirectly through dependent dukes and rulers. And there is a kind of dialectic tension between the ambitions of the Roman rulers and these small dukes. Both are vying for as much control as possible. And we cannot apply to that time our modern conception of state sovereignty or similar concepts because it was completely different. They were able to share this sovereignty. So Wenceslas was one of the rulers who was able to control his territory, but he had to somehow express his loyalty to the Empire, with tributes, and a supply of soldiers if they were needed. And, of course, all such dukes tried to give as little as possible and to gain as much power as possible. But also these small rulers and aristocrats in the Bohemian territory were able to use the Holy Roman rulers against the Bohemian rulers. So there was kind of a dialectic power play from all sides to maximise profits and control.”

Wenceslas is known as being a “Good” king, while his brother Boleslaus (Boleslav) is known as being “bad” or “cruel”. But if Wenceslas’ reign was so short, and he ended up being killed by his brother, then he was a good king only in the sense of caring for others, but not necessarily in terms of being able to consolidate and maintain his own power...

“Well, his rule lasted about eleven years.”

That is a long time for those days?

“For the Middle Ages this is not so bad. There are several theories about by Wenceslas was murdered. My favourite theory is that probably he was the heir of the incipient early state. And to introduce the state structures his grandfather and his father (Vratislaus I) had to be ruthless, cruel, and to break the resistance and independent aristocracies and even the free farmers. All these strata of society. Probably Wenceslas could have tried to do otherwise – we have some evidence that he accepted the challenge to build a formal, and real Christian society and to introduce the standards of other neighbouring western European countries like Austria and Saxony. This is only my personal opinion, but I think that the Czech elites of that time were afraid that his policies could be weakening the state. So they eliminated him because they wanted to continue this tough power policy towards the population.

“But in later Czech histography and in the national tradition, he is the eternal ruler of Bohemia; he is the exemplary king and duke. And I think that this is rightly so because his brother Boleslav accepted most of his policies. Especially foreign policy. After 20 years of war he accepted Wenceslas’ policy toward Saxony and the Holy Roman Empire. And also in the country: it was Boleslav and his son (Boleslaus II), who built the bishopric in Prague, the first female convent, and supported the development of Christianity in Bohemia. So sometimes it happens in history that the man who was martyred, his assassins and his enemies actually accept and adopt their policy.”

Why is Wenceslas’ brother known as Boleslaus I the Cruel? Is it because he killed Wenceslas, not because he was necessarily a bad ruler hated by his subjects?

“I said that it took him 20 years to accept his brother’s policies. That is one of the surprises – because Wenceslas’ body was transferred to Prague not long after his assassination (which occurred in Stará Boleslav).”

To St. Vitus Cathedral...

St. Wenceslas Chapel in St. Vitus Cathedral,  photo: Barbora Kmentová
“That’s right. From Boleslav to St. Vitus Cathedral. And why Boleslaus didn’t try to stop the legends and stories around his brother – which naturally did not reflect well on him – we just don’t know. This is one of those mysteries. Maybe the legend was so strong that Boleslaus couldn’t control it so instead he accepted it and used it to help build up the Czech state. At that time, we don’t yet have the name and notion of the Czech state, so any kind of eternal or permanent idea could be used as a symbol in support of the Czech state. And you can even find this in the documents of Charles University, in Prague, where the 14th century Emperor Charles IV, during the foundation of Charles University, is on his knees before St. Wenceslas, who is viewed as the eternal duke and king of the Czech nation. He is the real symbol of the Czech kingdom. and also the Czech crown was placed on the skull of St. Wenceslas. And the acting rulers only borrowed it for special ceremonies. But the right place was on St. Wenceslas’ head.”

And did this elevation of St. Wenceslas, and also perhaps Jan Hus, too, did that really only take on a very strong character during the 19th century Czech nationalism movement? To utilise these figures in support of a Czech independent nation state?

“For most of their history, the Czech lands were actually independent. It is important to note that Wenceslas was a member of the Přemyslid dynasty. And every dynasty sought to have some saint within their own ranks. Especially at the beginning. The Přemyslids had two: Ludmila and Wenceslas, which was very important. But the cult and devotion to St. Wenceslas is much, much older. There is no doubt that during the second half of the 11th century, this St. Wenceslas devotion is already very strongly developed. There are churches, even in Poland. And if you look in the Cosmas Chronicle (or ‘Chronicle of Bohemians’), it is the end of the first quarter of the 12th century. The devotion is already very well developed, and it is during the battles against German armies in 1126 that St. Wenceslas and St. Adalbert (10th century Bohemian missionary) are the ‘leaders’ of the Czech army – the eternal, holy leaders of the Czech army against their enemies, enemies of the Czech state and nation. So the devotion is much older.

“And in comparison with Jan Hus, Wenceslas always had much more unifying potential. He was a universal symbol. Not only for Czechs, but even for Hussites in the 15th and 16th centuries, who accepted him as a very important person of the Czech national tradition.”

Because he was less controversial than Jan Hus? A clear-cut universal “good”?

“Jan Hus is actually a kind of divisive figure, because, of course, for Czech Catholics he is not acceptable in any aspect. But not only for the Czechs, but also for the Germans – there were plenty of Sudeten Germans who had the name Wenzel, accepting Wenceslas as a universal figure supporting the meaning and territories of the Czech state.”

Are there any specific stories of deeds undertaken or words spoken by Wenceslas? Other than nebulous legends, is there anything concrete at all?

“No. Unfortunately not. All we have are the legends. But, as I said, there is no need to question their veracity.”

Are there any specific legends – stories where Wenceslas is described as saying or doing a particular thing?

“Not really. There are some, but they emerged many years after, and so are rather dubious. But archeology can affirm the reliability of legends. Because not long ago they found a mass grave of warrior knights in Budeč Castle (in the Vysočina Region). Dozens of dead warriors killed during a single battle and buried in a mass grave. And nowadays we are able to determine the date when they died. So we know that they died some time immediately after the reign of Wenceslas. This confirms the legends that after his death, the followers of Boleslav persecuted the members of St. Wenceslas’ court and his soldiers and knights.

“And we also have some small stories about Wenceslas. For example, a story about his conflict with the Duke of Kouřim (Radislav): two armies were ready to fight over control – the principle was the acceptance of the sovereignty of the Duke of Bohemia over all of Bohemia. And Wenceslas offered the Duke the chance to determine the matter via a one-on-one duel so as to spare the lives of the soldiers.

“There a few other specific details that confirm that for much of the elite at the time, Wenceslas was viewed as a kind of Christian leader. At this time, Christianity was a kind of ‘prosperity religion’. Believers had to accept the Christian God because he is very powerful. And if we accept him, we will also be successful and rich, and we will be part of this huge territory and Christian civilisation – as these people desired. In their personal lives they had slaves, several women, concubines. They didn’t pray; they didn’t accept Christianity as a day-to-day religious practice. But with Wenceslas, we can see the indicators that he was really a devoted, moral and pious man.”

St. Wenceslas,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
Did he marry? Did he have children?

“That is an interesting question. The legends differ here. Probably he had to marry – one legend tells us that he was forced to marry, and that he had a child. But he also confirmed that he promised not to live his wife, or with women, sexually. So only once to have a son, and heir, but not as part of a normal married life.”

You mean he wasn’t interested in his wife, or women in general?

“Christianity in the 10th and 11th century was modeled on monastery standards. And their attitudes towards sexuality were not very Christian actually. Because Christianity as such accepts that we have corporeal bodies, and that sexuality is good because of reproduction and the body is resurrected and so on. But there were several influences at this time other than Christian, and they tried to live in as ascetic a manner as possible, and this sexual ascetic idea was very strong. So Wenceslas wanted to live as a perfect Christian, and this was modeled on the standards of monks in monasteries. So Wenceslas only accepted sexuality for the purposes of continuing his dynasty, and not for personal pleasure or enjoying marriage or anything like that.

“And one of the theories surrounding the execution of the warriors as Budeč is that they wanted to kill his son and these soldiers died trying to protect him. Maybe in the future, archeology will be able to uncover even more about this time and even about the life of St. Wenceslas.”

What then happened to the Přemyslid dynasty after his brother took over? How much longer did they rule?

“For a long time. Several centuries. Boleslav’s son was – unlike his father – also very pious. Boleslaus II (or Boleslaus II the Pious) tried to further establish Christianity, to give it greater structure, and institutions. The Přemyslids ruled successfully until 1306, so they are very important as the first Czech royal dynasty. But we can say that their golden age was the 13th century with the last four or five Přemyslids.”

Wenceslas died in – it is believed – AD 935. After his death he was declared to be a “king” by the Roman Emperor Otto I, and he was also sainted. Tell me about this process.

“In the early Middle Ages, there were no specific formal procedures to proclaim someone as a saint. This was established later at the beginning of the 13th century. By that time, only the translation of the body was enough – they took the body of the saint and moved it from its original resting place either to another church, or under the altar. This happened very quickly after the death of Wenceslas. But the formal canonisation was much, much later. This was in the Baroque times, but no-one questioned it. It was only a formal judicial procedure, but no-one examined his potential sins during the 10th century and so forth.”

St. Wenceslas,  photo: Kristýna Maková
Because he was a martyr who died for his beliefs.

“Exactly. And he was an exemplary king. Of course, all these canonisations in the Middle Ages are also political. So for the dynasty – excepting Boleslav the Cruel, for whom it must have been embarrassing – it was very good to have such a personality at the beginning of the dynasty of the Czech state.”

And have scientists examined St. Wenceslas’ remains since their burial in St. Vitus? Today, Wenceslas’ skull is still paraded around by Czech cardinals...

“The body has always been there in the St. Wenceslas Chapel (within the cathedral) in the church which was personally founded by him as the Church of St. Vitus. And he accepted the remains of St. Vitus from King Henry of Germany to be kept at the cathedral. And St. Vitus is a kind of saint who is viewed as the patron of statehood, the saint of newborn states, so this was very important as a symbol. And later the cathedral patrocinium (dedication) was made to St. Vitus, and also St. Adalbert and St. Wenceslas too. So now it is the cathedral of all there three Czech patron saints.”

Tomáš Petráček thank you very much for joining us.

“Thank you.”