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.
(Words by: John M. Neale (1818-1866); first appeared in Carols for Christmas-Tide, 1853, by Neale and Thomas Helmore)
On this Saint Nicholas’ Day, let’s celebrate another saint long associated with Christmas – Wenceslas! There are many versions of the joyful carol Good King Wenceslas, written in the 19th century. Whether an Irish rendition, a Bing Crosby classic, or a tenor with choir, the carol evokes classical themes – kindness, charity, pure white winter snow and goodness. When Good King Wenceslas (who was not a King, but was Good) looked out on that snowy feast of St Stephen and displayed his concern for the poor, he was behaving in a way that we think leaders should, showing genuine concern for their subjects.
In England the standard for the behaviour of fair and good rulers was enshrined in law at Runnymede, in 1215, when King John signed the Magna Carta. This important document is held by the Bodleian Libraries – we are fortunate to have three copies of the 1217, and one of the 1225 Charters in the collection. The Magna Carta is a good example of how legislation is amended and changed over time, with only three of the original 39 clauses still being in force today:
- Clause 1, the freedom of the English Church
- Clause 9 (clause 13 in the 1215 charter), the “ancient liberties” of the City of London
- Clause 29 (clause 39 in the 1215 charter), a right to due process
The numbering of the clauses of the original Charter was done by ‘our’ own Sir William Blackstone, fellow of All Soul’s College, jurist, judge, Vinerian Chair of English Law at Oxford, and author of the Commentaries on the Laws of England. Our law library holds all editions of the Laws in our Secondary (superseded) collection, at CW UK 510 B631; a free online full text edition can be found online at the Lonang Library.
But I digress too much! Back to good old Wenceslas, who was a 10th century Bohemian baron, and not to be confused with King Wenceslaus 1 of Bohemia, (known as ‘the One Eyed’) who reigned in the 13th century. This reminds us of identity fraud, which is a serious issue in the computer age, but as we can see with Wenceslas, can lead to historical confusion as well, even if not deliberate as these examples here. Our Good King was expropriated by the Catholic Church as an exemplar of ‘the righteous king’; his actions followed this exhortation in St Luke: “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” (Luke 14:13-14). More recently, Saint Wenceslas became the patron saint of the modern day Czech Republic. His remains are in St Vitus Cathedral in Prague, his skull is displayed in procession once a year, and his statue dominates the square in Prague named after him. Wenceslas was recognised as a saint because he was seen as a martyr after being killed at the instigation of his younger brother Boleslaus (Boleslav?); the brother repented and converted to Christianity, and it was said miracles took place at the church where Wenceslas had been lured by his assassins.
Canon Law governs the operation of Christian churches and over time it has established the rules for recognising a saint. For example this set of rules outlines the operation of Catholic Church, and this one lists the canons of the Church of England. A detailed site which brings together all freely available texts on medieval canon law can be found here. In the more secular age it is also interesting to find commentary on canon law via ‘In the light of law’, a blog by J.D. Peters, a modern day running commentary by a canon lawyer.
These sources are useful for researchers who may be disappointed that the Bodleian Law Library does not collect in the field of Canon Law. This is the result of the banning of the teaching of Canon Law at Oxford and Cambridge by Henry VIII at the time of the dissolution. In compensation for this radical move, Henry established the Regius Chair in Civil Laws based at All Soul’s College Oxford, a post held currently by Prof. Boudewijn Sirks, and previously held by distinguished scholars Peter Birks and Tony Honoré.
Wenceslas would have been pleased when countries such as England started to enact laws to protect the poor, such as the 1601 Poor Relief Act in England, updated in 1834 by the Poor Law Amendment Act. What may have surprised him is the concept of Constitutional Monarchy and its relationship with parliament, having been killed at the behest of his envious younger brother; he would have appreciated the moderate approach of most modern countries to royal succession. But what would he have made of the disappearance of the geographic entity he knew as Bohemia, and even more confusingly, Czech membership in 2004 of the European Union? He would have been well placed to find out more about it from the myriad resources on the internet (now there’s a concept to grapple with in the 930’s – times like this I want a Tardis!) including our LibGuide to EU Law.
Bohemia had been a kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire, and then a constituent state under the Hapsburg Empire. After World War One it formed the largest part of the newly formed Czechoslovakia, fell under the Stalinist sphere of influence after the Second World War, and in 1993 became part of the newly created Czech Republic after the ‘Velvet Revolution’ a couple of years earlier had removed the communist government. The Czechs settled on Saint Wenceslas’ feast day – 28 September – as their national day. An excellent guide to the Czech legal system can be found at Globalex. The new republic has been very active since its founding, placing its legislation online in full text. Of course if you are not a Czech speaker it can be difficult to read the legislation, and we find that a good starting point can be to use the Google Chrome browser, which displays the Google Translate tool, and can provide an entirely pragmatic and unofficial translation.
By the way, there is a great deal of official, and sometimes authoritative, legislation available online, and all of our jurisdictional LibGuides have a link to relevant legislative sites.
Back to the main story, we are of course talking about kindness and consideration shown by a leader for the poor, who were often unable to keep warm at this festive time of the year. A snowy Boxing, or St Stephen’s, Day without heating is still a concern for many millions of people; perhaps we need a Wenceslas to come and talk to the energy corporations on behalf of the poor; he may have greater success than our politicians.
At Christmas time we all enjoy hearing the carols from King’s College, even though it is ‘the other place’, and we look forward to its presentation on TV, available from the BBC. Wouldn’t it be nice if ‘Good King Wenceslas’ was included?