What Is a Good King?

By Celia Coates

Good King Wenceslas look’d out
On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even:
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Tho’ 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 St. Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither;
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear them 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, good my 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.

This carol is based on a legend about the life of Wenceslas – a duke, not a king, who lived from 907 to 935. He was a young leader in Bohemia (now Czechoslovakia) who did not live long enough to have the long white beard found in many illustrations. His grandmother raised him as a Christian in a time when his land was still largely pagan. When he was about twenty years old, he became the ruler and encouraged the spread of Christianity. There were many stories told about his concern for his people and his care for the poor.

“In 929 he made a treaty with the powerful King Henry I, who was also a Christian; in exchange for peace, Wenceslas agreed to pay tribute to his neighbor and allow German priests to do missionary work in Bohemia.” *
His brother and a group of other nobles were against the treaty and later attacked Wenceslas, killing him as he was on his way to Mass. He was considered a martyr and named a patron saint of his country. (He was also seen as a saint in England, although I don’t know how that came about.) And, the “…Holy Roman Emperor Otto I (962-973) posthumously conferred on {Wenceslas} the regal dignity and title and that is why, in the legend and song, he is referred to as a ‘king.’” **

 Only a few decades after his death there were four hagiographies (worshipful biographies) that became influential in spreading the concept of the just or righteous king whose standing was based on “goodness.”  His story was, “…a powerful influence on the High Middle Ages conceptualization of the rex Justus, or ‘righteous king’ – that is a monarch whose power stems mainly from his great piety, as well as from his princely vigor.” **

The description of Wenceslas’ footsteps “dinted” in the snow, the ones that the page was to “tread in boldly” so he could gain some of the warmth the King had left in them, is charming. Of course, those steps were not ordinary – they had been printed with saintly power.

It’s harder this winter (at least in my neighborhood) to find snow, certainly any that is deep. The weather is not the only thing that has changed. What many consider the best kind of leader is different now from the ideal found in tenth century Bohemia. Not only is it harder to look out our windows to see cold, crisp snow, all too often people do not see the struggles of other people. My attention was caught by a sentence in an article by novelist Beatriz Williams,
”Maybe the cure for our Covid rage, our irritability with one another and the world, our every man for themselves attitude towards life’, is to sit still and encounter what exists on the other side of the window.” ***

 The last line of the carol is a fine one for our times if we are not giving advice only to “Christian men”.
“Ye who now will bless the poor, Shall yourselves find blessing.”
Instead of showing compassion, we are all too often following in the footsteps of men who are far from generous and who make a mockery of being “good.”
We can choose what we bless.

*     *     *     *     *
The Feast of Stephen refers to the second day of Christmas, December 26th.

* The carol was written by John Mason Neale in collaboration with Thomas Helmore and published in England in 1853. This quote comes from the notes found in GOOD KING WENCESLAS, illustrated by Christopher Manson and published by North-South Books in 1994.

(The music is much older  – it was originally an Easter carol.)

** This information comes from Wikipedia.

*** Beatriz Williams wrote this for an article in the December 2021 issue of Real Simple magazine.

The image that leads this post is from a 2017 newsletter from The Parish of Central Exeter in England. This Parish includes the Churches of St. Stephen, St. Olave, St. Petrock, St. Pancras, and St. Mary Arches.


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One Comment Add yours

  1. jack stucki says:

    So well penned and so much needed. What a gift already opened. And also opened my heart. Thank you for this gift Celia–jack

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