On September 28, 935, Duke Wenceslas of Bohemia was stabbed to death by a group of nobles allied to his younger brother, Boleslav the Cruel. His martyrdom is still commemorated each year and is considered a public holiday in the Czech Republic, known as Czech Statehood Day.
The grandsons of the founder of the Přemyslid dynasty, Bořivoj I, who had been converted to Christianity by the Byzantine missionary brothers, Cyril and Methodius, in 874, young Wenceslas and his brother Boleslav were raised Christians by their paternal grandmother, Ludmila of Bohemia.
In 921, following the untimely death of their father, Duke Vratislaus, Wenceslas and Boleslav were entrusted to the regency of their grandmother. But this enraged Vratislaus’ pagan widow, Drahomíra of Stodor, who was particularly jealous of the influence her mother-in-law wielded over her eldest son Wenceslas and had the queen-regent murdered.
Drahomíra assumed the role of regent and immediately initiated measures against Christians. But her court intrigues and the wishes of the people to end the conflicts between Christian and non-Christian factions in Bohemia led Wenceslas to take the reins of government and send his mother into exile.
During his reign, Wenceslas was pious, reportedly taking a vow of virginity, and encouraged the work of German missionary priests in the Christianization of Bohemia. He notably founded an early Romanesque rotunda consecrated to St. Vitus at Prague Castle, that forms the basis of present-day St. Vitus Cathedral.
But Wenceslas’ zeal in spreading Christianity also antagonized his non-Christian opponents, notably his brother, Boleslav, who might have been influenced by their pagan mother. And following the German invasion of Bohemia in 921, Wenceslas’ submission to the German king Henry I the Fowler provoked some of the nobles to conspire against the Bohemian duke.
On the morning of September 28, 935, while on his way to mass in Stará Boleslav, Wenceslas was attacked by three of Boleslav’s companions, who fell on the duke and stabbed him to death before Boleslav himself ran him through with a lance.
“Good King Wenceslas”
Wenceslas was considered a martyr immediately after his death. And within a few decades, no less than four biographies of him were in circulation, giving rise to a reputation for heroic virtue that resulted in his elevation to sainthood and as the patron saint of Bohemia.
A statue depicting Saint Wenceslas, accompanied by other Czech patron saints, such as his grandmother, Saint Ludmila, was installed on Prague’s Wenceslas Square in 1912. It was in front of this statue that in 1918, Alois Jirásek read the proclamation of independence of Czechoslovakia.
Dating back to the 12th century, the church hymn “Svatý Václave“, or “Saint Wenceslas Chorale”, is one of the oldest known Czech songs in history and was even considered as a possible choice for the national anthem of the Czechoslovak state in 1918.
Although Wenceslas was only a duke during his lifetime, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously conferred onto him the regal dignity and title, which is why he is referred to as “king” in legend and song, such as in the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.”
Each year on September 28, the relic of his skull is processed from St. Vitus Cathedral to the church where he was martyred in Stará Boleslav. Also known as Czech Statehood Day, St. Wenceslas Day commemorates his death and is considered a public holiday in the Czech Republic.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.