The Duke Who Gave Gifts

This is a song that I knew by tune but not by lyrics for many years. I discovered the lyrics in a music book as I learned to play the melody on harp and knew there must be some great history or a good story attached to the lyrics. When I did a little research during this holiday season, I wasn’t disappointed!

Meet “Good King Wenceslaus” – a medieval duke who inspired a legend and a delightful song…

An artist’s interpretation of King Wenceslas

King Wenceslaus

Wensceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, became ruler in 922 A.D. when he was fifteen years old.

His family life was a little unique; he was the older twin brother to Boleslaus (who plays the villain role in the story – keep reading). Wenceslaus was raised by his grandmother, Ludmilla, who believed in the Christian faith.

When he became ruler, Wenceslaus’s mother and twin brother led a pagan revolt and killed Grandmother. Wenceslaus decided to expel his pagan relatives, rather executed them. He ruled wisely, creating laws, travelling through the “kingdom,” helping the poor, and working to converting the pagan peasants to Christianity. As the legend goes, during Christmas, he regularly visited the poor, taking them supplies.

In 929 A.D. on his way to church, Wenceslaus was murdered by his brother’s supporters. According to the legend, the duke said, “Brother, may God forgive you,” and died. From this example, his brother eventually converted to Christianity and ensured that his brother’s legacy would be preserved.

Medieval “biographies” were written and legends were told among the people. There is also evidence that there were song written back then. Today, Wenceslaus is the patron saint of the Czech nation, and his crown is a national symbol.

A Latin Poem, An English Song

Once upon a time, there was an ancient Latin poem from the Middle Ages, telling the story of King Wenceslaus. John Mason Neale, a rather famous songwriter, found the poem and translated it into English and published it in 1853. Along the way, he slightly rewrote the legend to make it more inspirational for the holiday season, and he changed the history, making a king…instead of a duke.

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
Gath’ring winter fuel

“Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know’st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither.”
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.

“Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s 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 possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

Enjoy The Music

May this story of this “dark ages” king inspire you to bless others this holiday season!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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