St. Wenceslas

September 28 is a national holiday designated as the Day of Czech Statehood, when Czechs celebrate their chief patron saint Wenceslas, who was killed by his brother on this day. In this week's Mailbox, we answer our listeners' questions regarding St. Wenceslas and the Day of Czech Statehood.

And we start with one that is rather popular among those not too familiar with Czech history:

Who was St. Wenceslas, the saint you commemorate with a national holiday?

Maybe we should start off by saying that Wenceslas was a tenth century Bohemian ruler from the Premyslid family who was later pronounced the patron saint of the Czech lands. Compared to other Bohemian rulers, we know very little about the reign of Wenceslas. There is no written documentation of it and everything we know are legends that appeared after his death.

In fact, it was not until after his death that he was considered one of the most important rulers of Bohemia. Towards the end of the tenth century, he was believed to have been a powerful patron looking over his land and people from heaven, ready to come to their aid, should they be in trouble.

But let's start with some basic figures. Wenceslas was born around the year 907 and died on September 28, either in 929 or 935. His younger brother Boleslav murdered him and took over power. Wenceslas was the son of Prince Vratislav and his wife Drahomira, and the grandson of Prince Borivoj and Ludmila. It was his grandparents, especially Ludmila, who influenced him most. They were strong advocates of the new Christian religion and Ludmila was responsible for little Wenceslas learning how to read, write, and speak Old Slavonic and Latin.

After his father's death, his grandmother Ludmila and his mother Drahomira were in disagreement over who should become the new ruler of Bohemia. Drahomira won the fight by having her mother-in-law killed. Her two sons were too young to take over power, so she decided to rule over the people of Bohemia herself. But she was not to enjoy it for long as three years later, in 924, Wenceslas took over power and sent his mother into exile. In honour of his grandmother, he ordered her remains to be brought to Prague.

And that brings us to another popular question. Many of you have written in to ask the following:

What exactly did Wenceslas do during his reign?

As, we've said earlier, there is very little we know about Prince Wenceslas' rule. At the time, power in the Czech lands was gradually moving from Moravia to Bohemia. That was good news for the Premyslid family, which however could not overlook the Germans to the west. Wenceslas soon made friends with German King Henry I and made concessions to the Germans. That is probably one thing that his opposition could not forgive him for.

Wenceslas was also known to have been a kind and fair ruler who ordered all gallows to be destroyed. But most important, is that he brought the Christian religion to his people and was very generous, some say too generous, to the Christian clergy. Thanks to Wenceslas, Bohemia was recognised as part of the powerful and respected European Christian Nations. Over 350 churches throughout the Czech lands were consecrated to him.

Why was Wenceslas killed by his brother?

There are several reasons why Boleslav is said to have killed his brother. Being the younger one, he is believed to have felt left out and always pushed to the background. Boleslav was also unhappy with the concessions Wenceslas made to the Germans, and there was the strong religious belief. With the Moravian rulers losing strength and respect, Boleslav dreamed of a powerful and independent Bohemia that would be respected both at home and abroad. His brother's religion was simply in the way of important political moves.

So, one morning on September 28 - and historians today are still not sure whether it was in the year 929 or 935 - Boleslav had his brother Wenceslas killed. It was a conspiracy. His brother had thrown a party for him at the smaller castle in Stara Boleslav, near Prague. The next morning, the church bells tolled for mass, and Wenceslas, on his way to prayers, was stopped at the gates by his brother. He was attacked and killed. Wenceslas tried to find refuge in the nearby church but found its doors locked.

What is St. Wenceslas' connection to Prague Castle today?

Soon after the death of Wenceslas, the people worshipped him as a martyr. That belief remains until today. Although not being considered a good ruler, as far as his land's political prosperity is concerned, he will always be remembered as a good man who cared about his people and their happiness. St. Wenceslas' connection to Prague Castle today is the St. Vitus Cathedral; his remains are kept in one of its chambers.

In fact, the St. Vitus Cathedral was built during Wenceslas' rule. When German King Henry I gave him the remains of the Patron Saint of Saxony, Saint Vitus, as a gift, he decided to have a Romanesque rotunda built for him, today's St. Vitus cathedral.

And another connection to Prague Castle is the St. Wenceslas Crown. When Bohemian King Charles IV had a new Kings' crown made in the fourteenth century, it was clear it would be called the St. Wenceslas' Crown. Charles IV considered St. Wenceslas to be his personal guardian and wanted to be crowned with this extraordinary piece of craftsmanship that is part of the Bohemian Coronation Jewels today. It still has a significant importance as a holy symbol. Charles IV also had a chapel named after St. Wenceslas built inside the St. Vitus Cathedral.

But it was not only then that St. Wenceslas was important to the Czech people. One can say that the statue of St. Wenceslas on a horse at the top of Wenceslas Square is one of the most important for the Czech nation. In times of both happiness and grief, people gather in front of the statue to share their feelings as one - in 1918, for example, when Czechoslovakia was founded, or in 1939 after the Nazi occupation. During the Prague Spring in 1968 and the Velvet Revolution in 1989, people gathered in front of St. Wenceslas to shed their tears of sadness and later happiness.