Good King Wenceslas: A Yuletide tale of treachery and murder

Wenceslas Square in Prague.

We know the story of Good King Wencelas pretty well, or we think we do – but is there more to him than a kind gesture on a snowy day, when he hot-footed it to a peasant's hut with flesh, wine and pine-logs?

In the middle of Prague, one of the great capitals of Europe, is Wencelas Square. It has seen its fair share of drama over the years, beginning as a horse market in the 14th century and taking its famous name in 1848.

It is named after one of the first Christian rulers of Bohemia, who was born near Prague in 907. His father, whose parents were Christians, married a pagan named Drahomira, and was killed in battle when Wenceslas was only 13. Drahomira tried to gain support from pagan nobles and re-establish the old religion; however, Wencelas' grandmother Ludmilla brought him up as a Christian. Drahomira had her strangled.

At the age of 18, Wenceslas came of age and took power in an uprising. He was reconciled to his mother and became known for his good works. On one occasion he got up one night and ordered one of his nights, Podiven, to follow him as he delivered alms to the poor. As Podiven was about to give up because of the cold, Wencelas told him to walk in his own footsteps, which were miraculously warm.

Wenceslas also built many churches, which enraged the nobility. When Wenceslas' wife had a son, fearing for his place in the succession his younger brother Boleslas conspired to have him murdered on the steps of the cathedral after a service.

In one tradition Podevin avenged his death by killing one of the conspirators. He was executed by Boleslas.

Wenceslas is regarded as a saint and martyr in the Catholic Church and he is the patron saint of the Czech people.

In his own lifetime Wenceslas was only a duke, but after his death the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I, made him a king posthumously. John Mason Neale wrote the hymn about him and it was first published in 1853. The tune is a traditional Finnish melody.