Good King puts East Grinstead on the global Christmas map

1 January 2012

TOWN tourist officer Simon Kerr made a seasonal appearance on the BBC last month to recall that Good King Wenceslas, one of the world’s most famous Christmas carols, was written in East Grinstead.

There can be few people whose Boxing Day activities are better known or more spiritually uplifting than those of the “good” King, because while most of us settle for a day of cold turkey, lukewarm levity and a rerun of Only Fools and Horses on 26 December, the eponymous monarch was made of altogether sterner – and saintlier – stuff.

So no sooner had Wenceslas spied a poor man at his gate, than he set off – quite literally – in hot pursuit to alleviate his sufferings, warming the path of his less-than-enthusiastic page with the heat from his saintly footprints.

The story of Wenceslas and his act of Christmas charity is one which is known world-wide thanks to the popular carol which tells his story. But it seems rather fewer people know anything about the real king – or about John Mason Neale, the Anglican clergyman who coined the carol dedicated to him.

Mason Neale was born in London in 1818, and after studying at Cambridge was ordained in 1842, and offered a parish.
But in 1846, and dogged by ill-health, Mason Neale accepted the less strenuous post of Warden to Sackville College, an alms house for the poor of East Grinstead, where he remained for the rest of his life.

In 1854, Mason Neale helped found the Anglican Sisterhood of St Margaret, a move which was seen as “popish” by local Protestants who feared he was an undercover agent of the Vatican.

The Warden’s continued support for the nuns saw him attacked at the funeral of one of the sisters, and from time to time crowds threatened to stone him, or burn him out of his Sackville home.

But Mason Neale continued to minister to his impoverished residents, imposing fines on those who engaged in “secret swearing and the like”, until his basic goodness won over many of his critics.

A scholar, Mason Neale translated the Eastern liturgies, and many Latin and Greek hymns, into English. He also composed many of his own hymns, and in 1853 wrote one of the world’s best-loved carols, choosing King Wenceslas as his subject for a children’s song to exemplify generosity.

He set his words to a tune first published in 1582 in a collection of Swedish songs, and sung with a Latin text Tempus adest floridum (Spring has unwrapped her flowers).

The pairing of his new words with a traditional tune soon made Wenceslas a much-loved Christmas favourite, and it is now known world-wide.

But who was the real Wenceslas? And was he as good as Mason Neale’s words suggest?

Wenceslas’s grandfather, Borivoj, built the first Christian church in Bohemia, and a 1,000 year old oak still stands in Stochov, the border castle which legend makes the birthplace of the young saint in 907.

It is said that Wenceslas’ grandmother, St Ludmila, planted the tree to celebrate his birth, and that it was his sprinkled bath water which gave the oak its near-miraculous longevity.

Wenceslas was just 13 when his father Wratislaus died, and he became the Duke of Bohemia under the regency of his mother, Drahormira, until he reached his majority.

Brought up with a strong Christian faith by St Ludmila, Wenceslas believed in practical works of charity as a means of expressing his faith, and Ludmila urged him to take control of the throne by force and impose Christianity on the land.

But Drahormira joined an anti-Christian alliance, had Ludmila killed and seized power for herself. The country slid back into its old pagan ways and priests were persecuted.

But two years later Wenceslas overthrew his mother, banished her from Bohemia and make a firm return to a Christian way of life.

He built the Rotunda of St. Vitus, a sophisticated construction for its time, in Prague Castle, brought in priests to educate his people, freed child slaves and gave shelter to orphans.

And according to some sources, Wenceslas considered going to Rome and dedicating himself to the religious life.
He had discussions with his brother Boleslav about passing the throne over to him, but sometime between 929 and 935 he was murdered by Boleslav at the doors of a church.

But the Czechs never forgot their ‘good’ king – or the legend that in times of great difficulty for his people he would return to help them, riding out of Mount Banik on a white horse, leading an army of celestial knights to defeat their enemies and bring lasting peace to the land.

His picture was used on Bohemian coins, and the Crown of Wenceslas became the symbol for Czech independence.

And as Bohemia’s most famous martyr, Wenceslas was also adopted as the country’s patron saint.

His feast day is celebrated on September 28.

Good King Wenceslas

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
Carrying 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 Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine-logs hither
Thou and I shall 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 shall fin
d the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s step 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.