A prince, a saint and a man of peace. These attributes have followed Wenceslas throughout the centuries and made him the most admired historical figure. His cult, similar to one of Princess Libuše, is ever-present. Charles IV made him a Czech patron, he was a hero for the Hussites and his statue dominates the Prague city centre.
Wenceslas was born in 907, the son of Prince Vratislav I and his wife Drahomira. Little Wenceslas and his younger brother Boleslav were raised by their grandmother Ludmila who didn’t approve of Drahomira’s heathen descent. Ludmila was a resolute Christian and she passed this on her grandsons. According to chroniclers and legends, Drahomira felt betrayed as a mother, because she wasn’t allowed to see her sons, and so she had Ludmila strangled in 921.
In the same year, Wenceslas’ father died and the young man became prince. He immediately had his grandmother’s remains buried at the Prague Castle and had Drahomira imprisoned.
From the beginning of his reign, Wenceslas was very supportive of the Church, which started forming as an institution in the Czech Princedom. Chroniclers point out that he was an excellent warrior, but the truth is, that he lost to Henry the Fowler, one of the biggest German (Eastern-Franc) kings. Wenceslas didn’t want to continue fighting and so he paid him a very high peace tribute every year.
Some historians are optimistic and call this a sign of pacifism, others call Wenceslas a coward. Politically though, it was the best thing to do as the relations between Czechs and Germans became rather warm. As a sign of friendship, Wenceslas built the Romanesque rotunda of St Vitus at the Prague Castle. Vitus was a religious icon in Sachsen and Henry the Fowler even had the saint’s remains buried in the Prague rotunda. Four centuries later, the rotunda was rebuilt into the Gothic Cathedral that we know today.
Although the young prince was very popular among his people, there was a strong opposition fronted by his brother Boleslav. Power-thirsty and aggressive Boleslav didn’t agree with Wenceslas’ peace politics and wanted to fight the Francs. He took his mother’s example and had his older brother killed. This happened on 28th September 935, the date being one of the most significant Czech holidays.
After Wenceslas’ death, Boleslav took over the Prague Castle and became prince. He buried his brother in the St Vitus Rotunda. Today, the remains can be found in St Wenceslas Chapel, built by Charles IV. Boleslav was a very capable ruler. He underwent 14 years of war against the German and refused to pay the peace tribute. Later he joined forces with the German king against the Hungarian tribes that were once again heading towards Europe.
Due to his martyr death, Wenceslas was officially canonized in the 10th century alongside his grandmother Ludmila. His legend reached many countries, even England. Anne, daughter of Charles IV, married English king Richard II and brought with her the song about Good King Wenceslas, today a favorite Christmas carol. Wenceslas remains a mysterious figure, some think of him as a pale faced man who spent most of his time in prayer and study. Latest researches reveal that he wasn’t very well-educated, that he was probably married and had a son. But this probably won’t change anything about the way we see the favorite Prague resident. St Wenceslas is a legend, not a historical figure.