In 922, Duke Borivoy, leader of Bohemia, died in battle. Duke Borivoy had twin sons, the eldest of which inherited his title of duke. The young duke was just 15 years old. He and his younger twin brother had largely been raised by their grandmother, Ludmilla, a devoted Christian who taught them the meaning of hope, faith, and charity. The duke took Ludmilla’s teachings to heart.
Shortly after becoming duke, his younger brother, Boleslaus, who had been born only a few minutes after the duke, along with their mother, Drahomira, staged a Pagan revolt against the Christian duke. They and their followers assassinated the duke’s beloved grandmother, Ludmilla, as she prayed. Remember that Ludmilla was Boleslaus’s grandmother as well and was Drahomira’s mother-in-law. Boleslaus earned the nickname Boleslaus the Cruel. After killing Ludmilla, they planned to overthrow the duke. The revolt had hardly begun when the young duke took charge and put down the rebellion. His countrymen assumed that the leaders of the revolt, Boleslaus, and Drahomira, would be executed. To everyone’s surprise, the duke treated them with mercy and kindness, and rather than executing them, the duke expelled his mother and brother from Bohemia.
This first major act as Duke of Bohemia was an example of how the duke ruled his nation, with true justice, mercy, and kindness. He often traveled throughout his country to learn what his people needed. He often shared firewood, food, and other needful things with his subjects. He took pity on the poor and urged the wealthy to help the less fortunate. Due to his kindness and charity, many of his Pagan subjects converted to Christianity.
Centuries before people began giving gifts as part of the Christmas celebration, the duke, aided by his pages, gave the poorest of his subjects gifts of firewood, food, and clothing on Christmas Eve. Much like our modern Santa Claus, nothing, not even the harshest winter weather, kept the duke from visiting his subjects every Christmas Eve. The duke’s charity gave his subjects even more reason to celebrate Christmas. The duke had become one of the most revered leaders in history.
In 929 or 935, the date varies according to sources, the duke greeted his subjects with a warm smile and asked about their health as he walked to church to say his daily prayers. The duke genuinely cared about the welfare of his people. As he neared the church, the duke heard a familiar voice, one he thought he would never hear again. The duke turned and was shocked to see his brother, Boleslaus, the brother whom he had expelled some years earlier. Acting on this as a signal, Boleslaus’s Pagan followers attacked and stabbed the duke multiple times. The duke fell on his knees on the church steps. His last words were said to have been “Brother, may God forgive you.” With this murder of the revered duke, Boleslaus became the new Duke of Bohemia.
Boleslaus became remorseful of the murderous deeds of which he was responsible. He turned against his Pagan followers and embraced the teachings that he had learned from his grandmother, Ludmilla, whom he had murdered. Boleslaus is largely responsible for maintaining the legend of the brother he murdered. The slain duke was considered a martyr and saint immediately following his murder. Multiple hagiographies, biographies of a saint or an ecclesiastical leader, were written about the slain duke within a few decades of his death. Although he was only a duke during his lifetime, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously conferred upon him the regal dignity and title of righteous king due to his faith and charity.
Nearly 1,000 years later, in 1853, English Anglican priest and hymnwriter John Mason Neale published a song based on the hagiographies of the slain duke. In Neale’s carol, the duke and his page were trekking on foot through deep snow to deliver gifts to the needy when the page decided to give up the struggle against the harsh winter weather. Neale explained that the duke convinced his page to continue in a stanza which is normally omitted from the carol we hear each year during Christmastime:
In his masters’ steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possession,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
Shall yourselves find blessing.
The slain Duke of Bohemia, who became a martyr and saint, and who was posthumously given the title of king for his faith and charity was Good King Wenceslas.
Source: Ace Collins, Stories behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 64-69.