The tenth century is part of the era known as the “Middle Ages.” This term was coined by scholars in the 15th century to designate the interval between the downfall of the classical world of Greece and Rome and its rediscovery at the beginning of their own century.
From the perspective of church history, it is the time between the era of the Church Fathers and the time of the Reformation. During this time Christianity was spreading through Europe eventually resulting in a time when most of the continent was under, at least the influence of, the Christian faith.
In 907 A.D. in the Duchy of Bohemia the man who would become known as “Good King Wenceslas” was born near Prague in what is the modern day Czech Republic. At that time, Bohemia was still under the influence of paganism and Wenceslas’ mother, Drahomira, was a pagan. When he was thirteen, Wenceslas’ father, Vratislav, Duke of Bohemia, died and he inherited the title. Being a child, he ruled under the authority of his grandmother, Ludmilla, as regent but, unlike his mother, Ludmilla was a Christian. Through her influence, Wenceslas became a believer as well, drawing the ire of his mother who viewed his conversion and relationship with his grandmother as a threat to her power. In 921, Drahomira had Ludmilla murdered, using one of her guards to strangle her to death. She then assumed the role of regent.
When Wenceslas became eighteen and legally able to rule on his own, a group of Christian nobles rebelled against Drahmomira, exiling her and installing Wenceslas. He took seriously his role as a Christian leader by seeking to spread the faith in Bohemia. He encouraged the work of German missionaries in the country and built churches, one of which became the beautiful St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. He’s also known for having introduced an education system and a system of legal justice to Bohemia.
His life was chronicled in the year 1119 by a man named Cosmas of Prague who said of him:
…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.
In September, 935 a group of pagan nobles, angry that Wenceslas had resumed payments of tribute to Saxon King Henry I, assassinated the duke. They attacked him as he arrived at church and stabbed him to death. The group was led by Wenceslas’ younger brother Boleslav. Legend says that Wenceslas’ last words were “brother, may God forgive you.”
Wenceslas was considered a martyr for the Faith and was made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. We remember him today primarily for the Christmas Carol written by John Mason Neale that bears his name and tells of his kindness and generosity as a ruler.