Wenceslas I (Václav I), duke of Bohemia, was murdered on this date in 935, purportedly in a plot by his own brother, Boleslav the Cruel. Because he is a saint of the Catholic church his feast day falls on the day of his death. The Czech Republic now (since 2000) celebrates today as Czech Statehood Day as well. His martyrdom, and the popularity of several biographies, quickly gave rise to a reputation for heroic righteousness and piety, resulting in his being canonized and posthumously being elevated from duke to king. He is the subject of the carol “Good King Wenceslas,” written over 900 years later, in 1853. Not many of the facts of his life can be fully verified historically. Most of what I present here is legend.
Wenceslas was son of Vratislaus I, duke of Bohemia from the P?emyslid dynasty. His father was raised in a Christian milieu because his father, Borivoj I of Bohemia, was purportedly converted by Saints Cyril and Methodius. His mother Drahomíra was the daughter of a pagan chief of Havolans, and was baptized at the time of her marriage (but never really converted).
In 921, when Wenceslas was thirteen, his father died and he was brought up by his grandmother, Saint Ludmila, who raised him as a Christian and acted as regent while he was a minor. A violent dispute between the fervently Christian regent and her daughter-in-law drove Ludmila to seek sanctuary at Tetín Castle near Beroun. Drahomíra, who was trying to garner support from the nobility, was furious about losing influence over her son and arranged to have Ludmila strangled at Tetín on September 15, 921. According to some legends, having regained control of her son, Drahomíra set out to convert him to the old pagan religion. According to other legends, she was a Christian herself; however, very little is known about her.
After the fall of Great Moravia, the rulers of the Bohemian duchy had to deal with continuous raids by the Magyars and the forces of the Saxon duke and East Frankish king Henry the Fowler, who had started several eastern campaigns into the adjacent lands of the Polabian Slavs, homeland of Wenceslas’ mother. To withstand Saxon overlordship Wenceslas’ father, Vratislaus, had forged an alliance with the Bavarian duke Arnulf the Bad, then a fierce opponent of king Henry; however, it became worthless when Arnulf and Henry reconciled at Regensburg in 921.
In 924 or 925 Wenceslas assumed government for himself and, it is believed, had Drahomíra exiled. After gaining the throne at the age of eighteen, he defeated a rebellious duke of Kou?im named Radslav. He also founded a rotunda consecrated to St Vitus at Prague Castle in Prague, which is the core of present-day St Vitus Cathedral.
Early in 929 the joint forces of Arnulf the Bad and Henry the Fowler reached Prague in a sudden attack, which forced Wenceslas to resume the payment of a tribute which had been first imposed by the East Frankish king Arnulf of Carinthia in 895. Henry the Fowler had been forced to pay a huge tribute to the Magyars in 926 and he therefore needed the Bohemian tribute, which Wenceslas probably refused to pay after the reconciliation between Arnulf and Henry.
In September 935 (in older sources 929) a group of nobles—allied with Wenceslas’ younger brother Boleslav—plotted to kill Wenceslas. After Boleslav invited Wenceslas to the feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Stará Boleslav, three of Boleslav’s companions – Tira, Česta, and Hněvsa – murdered Wenceslas on his way to church after a quarrel between him and his brother. Boleslav thus succeeded him as the duke of Bohemia. According to Cosmas’s Chronicle, one of Boleslav’s sons was born on the day of Wenceslas’ death, and because of the ominous circumstance of his birth the infant was named Strachkvas, which means “a dreadful feast.” There are discrepancies in the records regarding the date of St Wenceslas’ death. It has been argued that Wenceslas’ remains were transferred to St Vitus’s Church in 932, ruling out the later date; however, the year 935 is now favored by historians as the date of his murder.
Wenceslas was considered a martyr and a saint immediately after his death, when a cult of Wenceslas grew up in Bohemia and in England. Within a few decades of Wenceslas’ death four biographies of him were in circulation. He was universally hailed as rex justus, or “righteous king”—that is, a monarch whose power stems mainly from his great piety, as well as from his valor. The chronicler Cosmas of Prague, writing in about the year 1119, states:
But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.
Although Wenceslas was, during his lifetime, only a duke, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously “conferred on [Wenceslas] the regal dignity and title” and that is why, in the legend and song, he is referred to as a “king.”
An equestrian statue of Saint Wenceslas and other patron saints of Bohemia (St. Adalbert, St. Ludmila, St. Prokop, and St. Agnes of Bohemia) is located in Wenceslas Square in Prague.
His helmet and armor are on display inside Prague Castle and his relics are in St Vitus cathedral. Sometimes his skull is publicly displayed.
The hymn “Svatý Václave” (Saint Wenceslas) is one of the oldest known Czech songs in. Its roots supposedly may be found in the 12th century, and it is still one of the most popular religious songs. In 1918, when the state of Czechoslovak was formed, the song was discussed as one of the possible choices for the national anthem.
An enduring legend claims that a huge army of knights sleeps inside Blaník, a mountain in the Czech Republic. The knights will awaken and, under the command of St. Wenceslas, will bring aid to the Czech people when they face great peril. There is a similar great legend in Prague which says that when the Motherland is in danger or in its darkest times and close to ruin, the equestrian statue of king Wenceslas in Wenceslas Square will come to life, raise the army sleeping in Blaník, and upon crossing the Charles Bridge his horse will stumble and trip over a stone, revealing the legendary sword of Bruncvík. With this sword, King Wenceslas will slay all the enemies of the Czechs, bringing peace and prosperity to the land.
Just a couple of small footnotes. First, Wenceslas I of Bohemia is not to be confused with Wenceslaus I of Bohemia (c. 1205 – 23 September 1253), even though you can spell their names in English the same way (I added the “u” to the second one to distinguish them). The latter was known as Wenceslaus One-Eye. 300 years and an eye make all the difference apparently. Second, and related, what is it with these regal epithets from the Middle Ages? I mean, Charles the Bald, Charles the Fat, Boleslav the Cruel, Henry the Fowler (his greatest accomplishment was shooting birds?), Arnulf the Bad . . . etc. I’d be up for starting this practice again. Any suggestions for king Charles III to be? (Hint: “the Bald” is taken.)
Here is a very popular Czech winter dish for our celebration of Wenceslas, svíčková na smetaně, or beef tenderloin in sour cream sauce. It is typically served with bread dumplings which I will give the recipe for as well. You need to start 24 hours ahead of time to allow the beef to marinate. Every Czech will tell you that his or her maminka or babi makes the best svíčková. They may all be correct. I don’t know; I have only had it in restaurants.
Svíčková na smetaně
2 pounds beef tenderloin
1 slice of bacon, cut into small pieces for larding
1 medium onion, shredded
2 medium carrots, shredded
2 medium parsnips, shredded
½ small celeriac root, shredded
2 bay leaves
½ tsp allspice
1 tsp thyme
2 tbsp fresh chopped parsley
1 cup red wine vinegar
4 tbsp butter
½ tsp sugar
1 lemon, juiced
½ cup sour cream
Using a small sharp knife, make small cuts in the tenderloin and insert pieces of bacon into each. Season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Use a non-reactive bowl for marinating (there are too many ingredients for my normal method using a ziplok bag). The bowl should be large enough to allow the meat and vegetables to be covered by the marinade, and no bigger.
Place a layer of vegetables in first, then the meat, then more vegetables to cover the meat so that it is surrounded.
Sprinkle on the thyme, allspice, parsley, and bay leaves.
Pour in the vinegar and two tablespoons of the oil. Add a little more water or vinegar if you need to in order to cover the meat.
Cover the bowl and refrigerate. Turn the meat in the marinade occasionally. Allow 24 hours.
Preheat the oven to 350°F/175C. Remove the tenderloin from the marinade: pat it dry with paper towels. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil very hot in a frying pan and brown the meat on all sides, then place it in a roasting pan.
Pour about ½ cup of water into the frying pan and boil rapidly, scraping the pan so that the remains of the browning dissolve (deglazing). Then pour these juices over the roast. Surround it with all the vegetables and pour over the marinating liquid. Place the butter on top of the meat. Then roast, basting occasionally, for 1 ½ hours.
When the meat is done, take it out of the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 100°F/ 50°C.
Remove the roast from the pan.
Purée the liquid and vegetables in a blender or food processor.
Put the meat back in the pan and return to the oven.
Pour the vegetable purée into a medium-sized saucepan and heat to a low boil. Check for seasoning. Add the lemon juice and sugar. If the sauce needs thinning, add some water or beef broth. Just before serving, stir the sour cream into the sauce and heat it through. Do not let it boil.
Serve slices of the tenderloin with the sauce and dumplings plus some extra sour cream and a dollop of tart preserves such as cranberries.
Knedliky (Bread dumplings)
3 cups white flour
3 cups semolina flour
1 whole egg
1 tsp baking powder
½ cup milk
1 teaspoon salt
½ French baguette, cubed
Mix the flour, semolina, and baking powder together in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and break in the egg. Add the milk and stir with a wooden spoon to combine. Stir the dough vigorously for about ten minutes, adding milk if necessary, until bubbles start to form. You can use a food processor if you have a plastic blade.
Add some of the cubed bread and continue to mix. Keep adding bread until the dough is still moist but not soggy.
Put the dough on a floured board and divide it into four pieces, shaping them into small loaves by rolling them on the board with your hands.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a rapid boil. Put in two of the dumplings and let them cook for 12 minutes: flip them over and cook for 12 minutes more. Remove and repeat with the other two dumplings.
Place the cooked dumplings on a cutting board. Do not try to slice them with a knife; the dumplings are likely to get crushed and lose their lightness. Instead, take a long piece of sewing thread or unflavored dental floss, slide it under one of the dumplings, wrap it around the top and pull tight to slice. Repeat to slice all the dumplings.