Saturday, 14 December 2013

K is for Good King Wenceslaus

Good King Wenceslaus I, the eldest son of the limp and erratic Vratislaus, was the King of Bohemia from 921 until 935, when he was murdered by his brother Boleslav the Cruel. That his fratricidal sibling had such a name should perhaps have served as some warning to the altruistic ruler, but it appears that Wenceslaus, while very 'giving', was a dreadful judge of character. Worse still, there is convincing evidence that he was the progenitor of the very first 'welfare state'. 

In the nine hundred years after his death, the cult of Wenceslaus was to grow and spread across Europe, culminating in the writing of the carol that bears his name.

You are no doubt familiar with the hymn, penned by an Englishman John Mason Neale, which relates how the Good King, looking out one night (on the feast of Stephen) sees a poor man gathering winter fuel and decides to follow him home with a magnificent basket of pine logs, flesh and wine. 

I confess that as a child I found the message of the song more than a little perplexing. While others dwelt on the 'giving' aspect of the tale, it struck me that there was a deeply dubious subtext to the lyric. In essence the third verse suggests that if one forages for wood close to the home of a rich man, one might well be rewarded with a 'state benefit'. 

The carol ends on a cliff-hanger, with the monarch and his trusted servant traipsing through the snow. What happens next is left only to conjecture but presumably the upshot of it all is that the 'poor man' sees that there is an easier way to provide for his family than bothering with all the hoo-haa of going out to work. One can only suppose that the moment the larder was empty he was back at the castle gates, trying to catch Wenceslaus's eye his hand literally out in expectation.

The reason for the Good King's later brutal murder has long been a matter of speculation, but I like to think that having witnessed the nation being brought to the brink of poverty by free meals and winter fuel allowances, Boleslav realised that drastic action needed to be taken and took it upon himself to instigate some 'cuts' of his own. 

Despite his name, Boleslav the Cruel is much revered in the modern day Czech Republic. History, one likes to imagine, will be similarly kind to George Osborne.