28 September 2016

Remembering Merciful and Right-believing Martyr-Duke Václav (Přemyslovec) of Bohemia

Václav, the martyr and saint for whom the holiday song ‘Good King Wenceslaus’ was written, and who is held in particular esteem by both the Czech and the English nations, is remembered today on the New Calendar, in particular for the zeal of his faith, his generosity toward the poor and suffering, and the holy, uncomplaining, self-giving and Christlike way in which he met his death, similar to the manner in which the Princely Martyrs Boris and Gleb met their own.

Václav was born in particularly troubled times. His grandfather Bořivoj was the first of the Přemyslovcí to be baptised, along with his grandmother Saint Ludmila, uncle Spyhtiněv and father Vratislav, into the Holy Orthodox Church, by the mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius. At the time of his birth, the lands of the Western Slavs were being torn asunder in many ways. Amongst themselves, the pagans still disputed with the Christians. In foreign policy too: from the east they were attacked by the Magyars; from the west they were undermined and conquered by the Franks. Some of the rulers of the Czech people attempted to side with the Franks for protection – this was the policy of Spyhtiněv. Václav’s father Bořivoj, a zealous follower of Cyril and Methodius himself, pursued the independence of the Czech people from foreign dominance, and spent much of his career fighting the Franks. Duke Bořivoj eventually fell in battle, and Václav’s education fell to his pious Orthodox grandmother Ludmila. However, his pagan retainers, hoping not to let Václav out of their grasp, began whispering rumours against Ludmila to Drahomíra, Václav’s mother, and fomenting her jealousy over her son. Drahomíra ordered her own saintly mother-in-law to be assassinated by strangulation; thus Saint Ludmila met her martyrdom.

But this vain and wicked plan was to no avail. Václav continued in his Christian faith even under his mother’s heathen tutelage, going to receive the Holy Mysteries in the middle of the night, even donating wheat and grapes from his own fields to prepare them. Drahomíra’s devilry was exposed, and she was banished by the Bohemian nobles for her connivance at the murder of the regent. However, the filial Václav pardoned her and welcomed her back to the Czech lands when he took the Duchy of Bohemia upon himself.

Václav had a deep and heartfelt generosity of spirit that extended far beyond his immediate family, and he took great pains upon himself to ease the plight of the poor and to guarantee peace and stability within his realm. His court was famed for its hospitality, and he opened his castle and his stores of food to homeless and to pilgrims alike, and also to orphans and widows. He personally delivered firewood to poor families in his duchy to keep warm in winter. He bought the freedom of many of his fellow Slavs who had become slaves. In the law, he actively took the part of peasants who were cheated, beaten or oppressed by the nobility. He built churches throughout his realm for the sake of bringing his people into the Orthodox faith. In the interests of peace and of the integrity of the Czech nation, he maintained a steady, if somewhat one-sided, friendship with the East Frankish monarch, Kaiser Heinrich ‘der Finkler’, from whom he was given the relics of Holy Martyr Vitus (in whose honour he then built a great church for these relics to be housed).

However, even though he had been reconciled to his mother Drahomíra, his relationship with his younger brother Boleslav was not so easy. Boleslav connived along with some of the still-heathen nobility to bring about his elder brother’s downfall – playing, as he supposed, on Duke Václav’s piety, he arranged a feast in honour of the Holy Wonderworking Unmercenaries Cosmas and Damian, at which he was in fact secretly plotting to kill him. Václav, though he was made aware of his brother’s murderous intent by one of his loyal retainers, nevertheless placed all his trust in Christ and went to the Liturgy, and stayed for the feast afterward. When the bell rang for Matins the next day and Václav proceeded to the Church, Boleslav waylaid him on the road, and – together with three of his co-conspirators – stabbed his brother, beat him, and then ran him through with a lance, even on the very steps of the Church; however, as he fell, his blood did not sink into the ground. As he died, Václav blessed his brother and forgave him. His mother Drahomíra was told of his death, and she ran grieving to her son’s side. She later fled the court, fearing the wrath of her younger son Boleslav, and spent her last days in what is now Croatia, in exile and in repentance for her own and her younger son’s misdeeds.

The blood of the martyred Duke stayed and drew itself up over his body; even after his body was interred, his subjects came to pray over his grave. His recognition as a saint came very quickly afterward, and the sainted Václav worked for his people many miracles. One pagan who was in prison called upon the God and the good deeds of Václav, and the chains fell off his wrists no matter how many times his guards tried to fasten him down; upon this prisoner’s release he was baptised into Christianity and lived the remainder of his life piously. A poor old woman who was blind and lame came to pray over Martyr Václav’s relics, and her sight and the use of her limbs was restored. Another lame man in Germany was ordered by the vision of a man to go to Praha and pray over the relics of Holy Martyr Vitus; he ignored this vision at first, but when the man reappeared and asked imperiously why his order hadn’t been carried out, the lame man went, with much assistance, to Praha and did as he was bidden. At once his legs and ankles and feet were healed, and he could walk freely.

A legend quickly arose that Martyr-Duke Václav was only sleeping, and when the motherland is in danger, he will rise from beneath Blaník and, mounted on a white war-horse, lead his great army of loyal retainers to Praha and defeat their enemies. Possibly because of this legend and its similarity to the king-in-the-mountain legends surrounding Harold and Arthur, folk devotions to the Martyr-Duke Václav sprang up in England as well as in Czechia. But these pious folk legends aside, the good deeds of the holy and right-believing Václav retain their own power in witness to Christ Our God.
Through the tender-hearted prayers of St. Wenceslas,
Young father of many,
O Christ our God, release us from our shackles of sin,
Heal our souls, and save us!

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