Illustration from Jessie M. King’s “A Carol: Good King Wenceslas,” published by The Studio magazine for their Christmas 1919 supplement.

By Charles Hoffacker

A look at the index entitled “Authors, Translators, and Sources” in The Hymnal 1982 reveals that the Church of England priest John Mason Neale (1818-1866) is among the major contributors to the Episcopal Church’s official hymnbook.

His two selections in the Christmas section demonstrate his skills as a translator and a writer of original texts. Thus Hymn 82, “Of the Father’s love begotten” presents in English a Latin hymn by Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (348- ca. 410), while Hymn 107, “Good Christian friends, rejoice” is a slightly edited original composition by Neale.

The Hymnal 1982 does not link him to Hymn 56, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” a popular Advent hymn. However, Neale produced the first English translation of its source, the Latin hymn Veni, veni, Emmanuel which dates back many centuries to the Magnificat antiphons sung at Vespers during the final days leading up to Christmas.

Another contribution by the remarkably productive John Mason Neale is “Good King Wenceslas,” a magical carol for Christmas season. This text may be based on a poem by the Czech poet Vaclav Alois Svoboda (1791-1849). The carol’s subject is Wenceslas I (911-935), Duke of Bohemia, whose brother Boleslaus was complicit in his murder. Upon his death, Wenceslas was immediately declared to be a saint and martyr and was venerated in Bohemia and England. He was even posthumously declared to be a king by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. His popularity contributed to the medieval concept of the righteous king whose power stems from both princely vigor and great piety. He continues to be honored in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Since 2000, the feast day of St. Wenceslas, September 28, has been kept as Czech Statehood Day, a public holiday in the Czech Republic.

According to one legend, a certain Count Radislas marched against King Wenceslas, who sent a deputation with offers of peace, which Radislas scorned. When the two armies drew up against each other, Wenceslas challenged Radislas to single combat. As Radislas advanced, he saw two angels beside Wenceslas who shouted, “Stand off!” Awestruck, Radislas dismounted, knelt at the feet of Wenceslas, and begged for pardon. Wenceslas raised him up and received him again with favor.

An enduring legend claims that an army of knights sleeps under Blanik, a mountain in the Czech Republic. They will awake, and at the command of Wenceslas, king and saint, rescue the Czech people in their time of greatest danger.

A traditional setting for demonstrations, celebrations, and other public gatherings, Wenceslas Square in Prague is the location of an equestrian statue of King Wenceslas. In 1918, the proclamation of the independence of Czechoslovakia was read in front of this statue. Crowds filed the Square in 1968 to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1989, during the Velvet Revolution, hundreds of thousands of people again participated in demonstrations at Wenceslas Square.

Neale’s carol “Good King Wenceslas” ends:

  Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
            wealth or rank possessing,
            Ye who now will bless the poor,
            shall yourselves find blessing.

This moral need not just be a general admonition to follow the king’s kindness to a poor man. It may also stem from Neale’s own vocation as warden of Sackville College. For 20 years he oversaw that institution founded in 1608 by Robert, second Earl of Dorset, to provide sheltered accommodation for elderly people without other means. Neale may even have come to count himself among the poor, struggling with chronic lung disease, and enjoying only a small income to support his large family. Neale may also have considered himself poor due to the ecclesiastical persecutions that long suffered for his Catholic convictions.

Sackville College may have been for Neale not only an institution that he served as a priest, but one from which he benefited as a poor man. Its founder was a Christian of wealth and rank who blessed him across the centuries, his own King Wenceslas. Thus Neale was among the many who called down God’s blessing on the generous Earl of Dorset.

The Church’s ministry with those who are in any sense poor must not simply help them maintain an adequate lifestyle; it must also empower them to flourish. Sackville College empowered the poor man John Mason Neale to use his extraordinary gifts. All who have been touched by Neale’s spirituality and scholarship, have sung hymns he wrote or translated, or have been benefited by the Sisters of St. Margaret, the religious community he founded, owe a debt of gratitude not only to that warden of Sackville College, but also to the even more distant founder whose legacy “blessed the poor” over so many generations.

Sackville College still exists today (sackvillecollege.org.uk) and pursues substantially the same mission as it did in the time of John Mason Neale. It testifies to the need for organizations that practice justice and mercy. In their own way, abiding institutions of justice and mercy such as Sackville College bear witness to the religion of the Incarnation.

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,
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 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 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.

— John Mason Neale, 1853

For further reading

Michael Chandler, The Life and Work of John Mason Neale 1818-1866. Gracewing, 1995.

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest who lives in Greenbelt, Maryland.