Wencenles, King and Saint

Wenceslas was considered a martyr and a saint immediately after his death, in Bohemia and in England.  Within a few decades of Wenceslas’s death four biographies of him were in circulation. These hagiographies had a powerful influence on the High Middle Ages conceptualization of the rex justus, or “righteous king”, that is, a monarch whose power stems mainly from his great piety, as well as from his princely vigor.

Referring approvingly to these hagiographies, 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.”

Several centuries later the legend was claimed as fact by Pope Pius II.

Although Wenceslas was, during his lifetime, only a duke, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously “conferred on the regal dignity and title” and that is why, in the legend and song, he is referred to as a “king”.  The usual English spelling of Duke Wenceslas’ name, Wenceslaus, is occasionally encountered in later textual variants of the carol.  Wenceslas is not to be confused with King Wenceslaus I of Bohemia (Wenceslaus I Premyslid), who lived more than three centuries later.

An equestrian statue of Saint Wenceslas and other patrons of Bohemia (St. Adalbert, St. Ludmila, St. Prokop and St. Agnes of Bohemia) is located on Wenceslaus Square in Prague. His helmet and armour are on display inside Prague Castle.

The hymn “Svatý Václave” (Saint Wenceslas) or “Saint Wenceslas Chorale ” is one of the oldest known Czech songs in history. Its roots can be found in the 12th century and it still belongs to the most popular religious songs to this day. In 1918, in the beginning of the Czechoslovak state, the song was discussed as one of the possible choices for the national anthem.

Since 2000, the feast day of Saint Wenceslas (September 28) is a public holiday in the Czech Republic, celebrated as Czech Statehood Day.

Wencenles Square

Less a square than a boulevard, Wenceslas Square has the shape of a very long (750 m, total area 45,000 m²) rectangle, in a northwest–southeast direction. The street slopes upward to the southeast side. At that end, the street is dominated by the grand neoclassical Czech National Museum. The northwest end runs up against the border between the New Town and the Old Town.

The two obvious landmarks of Wenceslas Square are the  National Museum Building and the statue of Wenceslas. A more recent landmark is a bronze cross  set into the ground in front of the National Museum to honour both Palach and Zajíc who committed suicide by self-immolation as a political protest.

The square is named after Saint Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia. It is part of the historic centre of Prague, a World Heritage Site.

Formerly known as Koňský trh (Horse Market), for its periodic accommodation of horse markets during the Middle Ages, it was renamed Svatováclavské náměstí (Saint Wenceslas square) in 1848 on the proposal of Karel Havlíček Borovský.

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