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, Gathring winter fuel.
Hither, page, and stand by me; If thou knowst 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 winds 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 winters rage Freeze thy blood less coldly.
In his masters 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.
John Mason Neale (181-1866), distinguished liturgist and the greatest of English translators of medieval Latin hymns, wrote these words to fit a splendid fourteenth-century tune he found in Piae Cantiones (1582), where it is the setting for a spring song, Tempus adest floridum.
Wenceslas (or Wenceslaus) is an anglicized form of Wenzel, the germanized form of Vaclav. Vaclav the Good, celebrated in this text, reigned as duke in Bohemia from 922 to 929. He was the son of Duke Wratislaw and received a good Christian education, supervised by his grandmother, St Ludmila. After Wratislaws death around 920, Vaclavs mother, Drahomira, became regent, but her violent actions so estranged the people that Vaclav took over the government himself in 922. A man of great piety, he worked for the religious and cultural improvement of his people and sought to bring them into closer connection with Western Europe, entertaining friendly relations with Germany. This policy, and the dissatisfaction of the pagan elements of the populace, probably led to his being martyred by his brother, Boleslav, around 929. He was soon venerated as a martyr, and Boleslav himself had Vaclavs relics translated to the Church of St Vitus in Prague. His feast day of September 28 has been observed in Bohemia, whose patron he became, since 985.
Neales carol is not based on any known incident in the live of Wenceslas, but is probably intended as a pious illustration of the virtue of charity, St Stephens Day (or Boxing Day) being a traditional day for giving to the poor.