The source of the story that is told in the carol is one of four biographies written fairly soon after the death of Wenceslas in 935 A.D. The Wikipedia article cited above quotes a 12th century source as saying;
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.All my life when I have heard Good King Wenceslas, I have pictured the king as old and hoary, so when I began to look for information for this post, I was surprised to learn that he was only 32 when he died. It's likely that he looked more like the king portrayed in many of the illustrations from the video above which were taken from this book illustrated by Tim Ladwig.
Wenceslaus was the grandson of Boriwoi, the first Christian duke of Bohemia, and his wife Ludmilla. They are believed to have been converted and baptized by St. Methodius. I love this part of Wenceslaus's biography because in the United States, we don't think much about Methodius. He is just one of those saints whose feast day comes around every year, and since it happens to fall on Valentine's Day, it really gets lost in the shuffle. And then we think of Wenceslaus in a kind of mythical way, so I love seeing the real histories of these two real men--these saints--converge. It brings them to life for me. Ludmilla is also a saint, whose feast is commemorated on September 16.
The son of Boriwoi and Ludmilla, Wratislaw was Christian, but he married a pagan, Drahomira. She may have been baptized when the married, but later events in her life show that she did not really convert. Wratislaw and Drahomira had twins sons, Wenceslaus and Boleslaus, later know as Boleslaus the Cruel. When Wratislaw died, Ludmilla became regent for Wencesalus who was then eight, and took over his education. Boleslaus, however, was raised by his mother, who tried to wrest power from Wenceslaus, and return Bohemia to paganism but failed.
Wenceslaus was known as the epitome of a good ruler; pious, just, generous and chaste. There was a lot of territorial warfare in Bohemia during his reign and one legend (at least Wikipedia deems it a legend was about his encounter with Count Radislas, Duke of Kourim.
According to one legend one Count Radislas rose in rebellion and marched against Wenceslas. The latter, sending him a deputation, made offers of peace, but Radislas viewed the king's message as a sign of cowardice. The two armies were drawn up opposite each other in battle array, when Wenceslas, to avoid shedding so much innocent blood, challenged Radislas to single combat. As Radislas advanced toward the duke, he saw, by the side of Wenceslas, two angels who cried to him: "Stand off!" This cry acted like a thunderbolt upon Radislas, and changed his intentions. Throwing himself from his horse, he fell at the Saint's feet, and asked for pardon. Wenceslas raised him and kindly received him again into favor.
Another story that mentions the two angels is found here. This takes place a meeting of the princes of the Holy Roman German Empire.
There was a beautiful custom already established at that time. When a sovereign would enter, even if he had a lower standing than the Emperor, all the sovereigns present - including the Emperor - would rise. In this particular case, since Wenceslas was late, the other sovereigns decided to not pay him this tribute. He was late because he was praying in the church. But there is an infallible rule: those who do not pray much take a stern attitude toward those who do: whenever they can, they take their revenge. So, those nobles, who probably knew that the Bohemian King had lost track of time in prayer, resolved to punish him. To teach him a lesson, they would remain seated when he entered.
How did Divine Providence respond to this decision? God sent two Angels to accompany him so that, when he entered the hall, all the nobles gathered there saw them flanking St. Wenceslas. Thus, instead of meeting disgrace, the Saint was covered with glory and honor. The Emperor gave him two precious relics, one of a Warrrior King who, like St. Wenceslas, had defended the Faith. How many beautiful things there are in this episode!In 935 A.D., Wenceslaus was murdered by Boleslaus who hacked his body to pieces and buried them, but then, "three years later Boleslaw, having repented of his deed, ordered its translation to the Church of St. Vitus in Prague." So there must be hope for even Boleslaus the Cruel. Duke Wenceslaus.
So, was Wenceslaus a king? Well, yes and no. He was posthumously raised to kingship by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto.
I want to get this online soon, and as my family will be here at any minute, I'm going to post now and proofread later. Sorry if I've said anything stupid or rude!
Many thanks to everyone who has contributed to this series, especially Paul, Maclin, and Grumpy without whom I could not possibly have filled every week.