Monday 14 December 2015

John Mason Neale's "Good King Wenceslas"

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight,
Gathering winter fuel.

King Wenceslas was neither a king or a Wenceslas.  He was a 10th Century Catholic duke from Bohemia named Vaclav.  After his death, he was promoted to the position of king and his name was changed to the Latin name Wenceslas.

Duke Vaclav, known for his good deeds, practised good servant leadership.  He set out on December 26, the Feast of Stephen, to deliver alms to a poor peasant.  The harsh winter weather slowed him down.  HIs page was about to give up.  However, the Duke coaxed him onward, telling him to follow his footsteps through the deep snow.  People started calling him Vaclav the Good.

The Duke's brother, Boleslaw the Bad, assassinated him, after which a cult following developed for the fallen leader in both Bohemia and England.  The people considered him to be an example of a "rex justus" or "righteous king".  Therefore, the Duke was promoted to King.  A 12th Century preacher explained: 

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.

John Mason Neale wrote a hymn for the "King", with the help of Thomas Helmore, which was published in Carols for Christmas-Tide in 1853.  Neale chose a 13th Century melody "Tempus adus floridum" to accompany the lyrics.

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