Good King Wenceslas: Words JM Neale (1818-66), melody from Piae Caniones (1582) arr. Willcocks

Good King Wenceslas is a traditional carol that gets sung most years during the Christmas season. Have you ever thought about the words whilst singing them? It’s a narrative song, with elements of dialogue.

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
Gathering 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 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, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shall find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his masters 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.

Chorally, the narrative verses are sung in 4-part harmony, with the women singing the page’s words and the men sing those of the king.

Essentially, the king looks out of his palace or castle window and sees a poor man gathering firewood to heat his home. The king asks his page (a young servant boy) who the man is and where he lives. The page knows that he lives a league away (that’s the distance the average person could walk in an hour, probably around 3 to 3 ½ miles), near St Agnes fountain. This is a holy well in Somerset, in the Quantock hills – a bleak landscape in the depth of winter. Of course, the good king could also have been Venceslav (907-935), Duke of Bohemia, and now patron saint of the modern-day Czech Republic. Either way, king and servant set out together on St Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day) to deliver alms to the poor. The bone-chilling cold is too much for the young page, who struggles with the deep snow. The king sees this and tells him to step in his (the king’s) footprints, and the way will be easier.

St Stephen’s Day, known in the UK as Boxing Day, falls on the second day of Christmas – December 26 – and originated as a holiday (holy day) for giving gifts, or Christmas “boxes”. Servants were allowed home to visit their families on the day after Christmas, and that is when gifts were exchanged amongst those families.

In December 2020 Maggie’s Music Makers recorded their version of this carol. The narrative verses were sung in harmony by the whole ensemble, with the king’s words sung by Tom, and I sang the page’s words.

We hope you enjoy hearing – and singing – this carol again this year: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wc0yH6Bctg

Carol P


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