September 28th – The day of Czech Statehood

 

By Erin Naillon

Wenceslas the Duke

Saint Wenceslas (svatý Václav, in Czech) is a name known beyond the borders of the Czech Republic; most native English speakers are familiar with the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas”. He is the main patron saint of the modern-day Czech Republic.

The real Wenceslas, however, was never a king. He was Duke of Bohemia, born circa A.D. 907. His father, Vratislav I, was a member of the long-reigning Přemyslid dynasty; his mother, Drahomíra, was the daughter of a tribal chief. Vratislav’s father, Bořivoj, was baptized by Saints Cyril and Methodius, missionary brothers from Greece who brought Christianity to the region of the Great Moravian Empire.

Konopiste Chateau Tours from Prague

Ludmila and Drahomira

In the year 921, an event occurred that would have a last effect on Wenceslas and the fate of Bohemia. In that year, Vratislav died. Wenceslas, still a teenager, was raised by Vratislav’s mother, Ludmila. Drahomíra was jealous of Ludmila’s influence over Wenceslas, and the dispute eventually became so fierce that Ludmila left Prague and sought refuge in Tetín Castle. Drahomíra was determined to have sole control of her son, so she hired a group of assassins to strangle Ludmila at the castle. The attack was carried out successfully on September 15, 921; Ludmila was now out of the picture, as far as Drahomíra was concerned.

Church od St. Vitus

In 924 or 925, Wenceslas gained ruling power and exiled his mother. During his short reign, he founded a small church that, over the centuries, grew into the regal St. Vitus’ Cathedral in the Prague Castle complex. Just a few years into his reign, however, Prague was attacked by armies headed by King Henry I the Fowler of Germany and Duke Arnulf of Bavaria. Wenceslas was forced to throw his – and his country’s – lot in with the King. Bohemia fell under German rule, and remained so for some years.

Wenceslas, Boleslav, Drahomíra and Murder

The relentless and ruthless Drahomíra aligned with Wenceslas’ younger brother, Boleslav the Cruel, to assassinate the duke. Boleslav invited Wenceslas to a feast in the town of Stará Boleslav, where he and his three cohorts suddenly unsheathed their swords and gave chase. Wenceslas ran for the door of the nearby church and clung, helpless, to the door handle as the four men cut him down. It is said that Boleslav’s wife gave birth that same day; the baby, a boy, was named Strachkvas (“dreadful feast”). Wenceslas was buried in St. Vitus’ Cathedral, where his remains still occupy the royal crypt.

Boleslav became the ruler of Bohemia, and despite the vicious manner in which he gained power, he is said to have been a good and tolerant ruler. His son Strachkvas was raised religiously and became a clergyman. His daughter Mlada became a nun.
Drahomíra’s fate is uncertain; a popular legend states that, when she decided to leave Prague, her driver stopped the coach and knelt to pray as the church bells rang. Drahomíra angrily ordered the man to ignore the bells and continue to drive, whereupon a crevasse opened in the earth and swallowed coach, horses and Drahomíra. Her screams, the legend says, were heard in the area for centuries.

Wenceslas Honored

An equestrian statue of Wenceslas, flanked by Saints Ludmila, Adalbert, Agnes and Procopius, stands majestically at the top of Wenceslas Square. A legend states that, in time of great danger, the statue will come to life and gallop to Blaník Hill, where an army of knights remain in long-lasting sleep. Wenceslas will awaken the knights and they will bring assistance to the Czechs.  An expanded version claims that, after awakening the knights, the army will ride to the Charles Bridge, where Wenceslas’ horse will stumble and reveal the magical sword of Bruncvík. Wenceslas will take up the sword and lay waste to the enemies of the Czechs.

Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas”

The Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” was written in 1853 by John Mason Neale and Thomas Helmore; the tune was based on a 13th-century melody.

September 28, public holiday

Wenceslas the martyr was canonized soon after his death, due to several miracles that were said to have occurred. In the year 2000, more than a thousand years after his death, Wenceslas’ skull was placed on a red velvet pillow by the Archbishop of Prague to commemorate the declaration of September 28 as a public holiday.


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