Stará Boleslav - the town where St Wenceslas was slain

In this week's Spotlight we will travel to the small town of Stará Boleslav just northeast of Prague. According to legend, it was in this town that the Přemyslid Prince Wenceslas, later St Wenceslas, was slain by his own brother Boleslav in the 10th century.

The fratricide is believed to have happened in the year 935 or 929. It is not even clear whether Boleslav, the younger brother of Wenceslas, was the murderer or whether he just did not prevent the killing from happening. Although there were disputes between the two brothers regarding the process of Christianisation of the country and its relation to its Western neighbours, we will probably never know whether Wenceslas' death was the result of a conspiracy or just an accident. Local historian Nina Nováková.

The Killing of St Wenceslas  (Sculpture by Matyáš Bernard Braun)
"St Wenceslas, or Prince Wenceslas, was murdered probably in 935 but possibly in 929 right at the doorway of the old church of St Cosmas and Damian. Here in St Wenceslas Basilica, you can actually see the authentic spot which today is decorated with a sculpture by Matyáš Bernard Braun. It depicts one of the versions of the killing of St Wenceslas: Prince Wenceslas is seeking a refuge in the church. He is holding on to a door handle and his brother Boleslav is looming over him, about to murder him."

Soon after his death, Prince Wenceslas was worshiped as a martyr and his cult grew strong mainly in the 11th century. The place of his death became a popular pilgrimage site.

"There are two pilgrimage churches in Stará Boleslav within a hundred metres of each other. One is St Wenceslas' Basilica. The basilica actually incorporates an older church from Wenceslas' times, that is the church of St Cosmas and Damian. Today there is a crypt in its place. A few dozen metres away, there is the pilgrimage church of the Ascension of Virgin Mary."

Today Stará Boleslav is one half of a town with the longest name in this country: Brandýs nad Labem-Stará Boleslav. The two towns were merged in the 1960s. While Brandýs was first founded sometime around 1300, Stará Boleslav arose about four hundred years earlier.

"The history of Stará Boleslav is much older. We should look at the town in the context of Central European history. We know that the first historical member of the Přemyslid dynasty, Prince Bořivoj, who was the grandfather of Wenceslas, regarded this settlement and a few nearby fortresses as the centres of the emerging Přemyslid princedom in Bohemia - besides Prague, of course. The name Boleslav comes from Wenceslas' brother who built modern stone ramparts around the town."

It is Prince Boleslav, St Wenceslas' younger brother, whom legend and history accuses of murdering his elder sibling. But what happened on September 28, 935 remains unclear. Nina Nováková.

St Wenceslas' Basilica in Stará Boleslav
"It was in Boleslav where the fratricide took place which has been so defining for the history of the Czech nation. One version says that Wenceslas had been invited here by his brother to attend a baptism ceremony; another says he came to celebrate St Cosmas and Damian Day which fell on September 27th. September 29th used to be Archangel Michael Day, and interestingly, Wenceslas mentioned him before his death. The day in between had no religious significance. So it is quite interesting that the day in between actually became St Wenceslas Day."

St Wenceslas is perhaps the best loved Czech saint; he was a martyr, one of the patron saints of this country and a character who played a key role in the formation of the Czech state throughout the last millennium. It appears his spiritual legacy is more powerful than the prince himself was during his short life of 28 years.

"The real Prince Wenceslas from the first half of the 10th century did not historically have the same significance as his legend and his spiritual character which never ceased ruling the country. Emperor Charles IV himself confirmed that. He said that the St Wenceslas crown, one of the Czech kings coronation paraphernalia, is merely lent to rulers but it still belongs to Wenceslas. As a patron saint he has influenced our history more than he did as a prince who endorsed some kind of foreign policy."

The years since the fall of communism have seen a rebirth of the St Wenceslas cult, and as local historian Nina Nováková says, Stará Boleslav has once again become a pilgrimage site for believers.

"We are very happy that the national St Wenceslas pilgrimage has been re-established. For the third time in a row, the archbishop of Prague, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, has allowed the most precious Czech religious relic, the skull of Prince Wenceslas, to be transported to the scene of the murder. It is quite unusual, because since Wenceslas' remains were moved to Prague Castle on the orders of his brother Boleslav, the skull only found its way back as late as the 14th century in the times of Charles IV and then again in 1929 for the millennium celebrations.

"Now it has been brought back three times in the last three years. The skull is placed in the crypt on the eve of St Wenceslas Day and priests celebrate a vigil and pray along with the cardinal. In the morning, the cardinal carries the skull in his own hands from the authentic place of the murder to the town square where a holy mass is celebrated. So the returns of St Wenceslas seem to be eternal."

The episode featured today was first broadcast on May 16, 2007.