My name is Wenceslaus and I was never a king, but was the Duke of Bohemia. You may know me as Saint Wenceslaus. This is the story of my relationship with Markéta, the bridge builder’s wife and ultimately, my martyrdom.
painting of peasant girl by Alexander Roche
Markéta was born to a poor family in a rural hamlet a few hours ride north of the capital city of Prague. Her childhood was not perfect and at a young age she saw her chance to escape with a young man who had a promising future as a bridge builder. He was tall, strong, modestly handsome, reliable and a bit dull. But she dreamt of an exciting life far away from her parents and the little hamlet of her birth. Betrothed at a young age, she soon was bearing him sons and daughters.
Yet Markéta was not like the other young women of her village. If you looked deep in her eyes, you could see an intellect, a curiosity and a sensuality that was being hidden away from the world. And as the years went by, those traits, along with her physical beauty continued to grow until she literally felt she was bursting inside, trapped in a small life and kept by a large man, but one now much smaller in intellect than her. Her husband lacked that verve for life that she so desperately lusted for and needed. Like so many others, he was trapped by the conventions of a Bohemian society who could not grasp the spirit and passion that was hidden away in his own wife. In this time, sadly, many of the men saw their wives as property, there only to serve their needs and bring honor to the family name and estate.
I am Wenceslaus and I also defied the conventions of society. Other dukes of the time used their position to accumulate wealth, wage war, acquire new lands, drink, sleep with all variety of women and frequently conspired to overthrow the king. They enforced the rules of society for their own profit or pleasure, but rarely abided by them. This included my own brothers, also dukes, who fathered several bastard children with beautiful women in various villages but did not support them financially.
Many know me as a saint or even a Samaritan. And, yes, I did give bread to the hungry, clothe the poor and build housing for the displaced. But I was not a saint. I, too, had my lovers, some of them quite illicit though I kept those relations very discreet.
painting of Wenceslaus by Sylvia Dahlgren
On one of my trips to her little hamlet, something about Markéta caught my eye. It would be easy to say that it was the fullness of her breasts, the curve of her ass or the arc of her back. But it was something more. It was the way she looked at me. She held her gaze a little longer with a knowing look. The corners of her mouth would turn to a smile when she saw me. And she spoke differently. She was not simply a peasant girl. There was always a wisdom and worldliness that intrigued me that others did not see or appreciate.
It did not take long to take her into my bed. The truth was that both of us were prisoners in our own lives and fucking each other wildly gave both of us a momentary escape. We did things with her that polite society would never approve of, most would not even think of, but brought both of us great satisfaction. Some of the things we did together were illegal in those times. I fucked her hard and often, but I could never truly be hers nor she mine, and it wasn’t too many months later that she was discovered in the bed of an older Frenchman who had recently moved to the area.
Now if he wasn’t a Frenchman, nobody would have said a word. She would have been escorted home and punished severely, probably with a leather belt, by her husband. But we hate the French. So the constable shackled her, threw her in the dungeon and a court date was set for the charge of illicit fornication. A fair and just trial was an impossibility for Markéta. She had been caught fucking a Frenchman. The only real question is whether they would hang her or stone her to death.
By the time I learned of the trial from one of my couriers, she had already been convicted and was sentenced to public shaming and death by stoning. The villagers, led by the powerful family of her husband, were furious. She had brought dishonor to their name, which was all they truly cared about (and their grandsons and cattle). Not even her own husband rose to her defense. I saddled my fastest white stallion and rode furiously for her village hoping to stay her conviction and prevent her death.
When I arrived, she had already been disrobed and bound naked with rope on an old hag horse. The villagers were in a frenzy. As her horse was led through the village, the women hissed and spit on her. Men yelled ‘whore’ and ‘slut’ with looks of terror and malice in their eyes. A mob was starting to form and a few stones had already been thrown.
Much to the surprise of the villagers, I rode my horse straight into the angry mob and took Markéta off the old horse. I cut the ropes that bound her wrists and wrapped her naked body in my red cloak, then set her high up on my white stallion. The villagers were stunned and furious. They were determined to see her blood spill.
The constable stepped forward, “Duke Wenceslaus, your presence here is quite curious. This whore here has already been convicted for her crime and sentenced to death by stoning. Not even you have the power to stay her conviction or intervene in her punishment. What is your interest? Why are you here? ”
I looked at villager, many with stones in their hand and anger in their eyes and spoke firmly yet passionately.
“I am the Duke of this land, but today I speak with you as a man, a man no different than you. Why is it that you seek the blood of this woman, a wife, a mother, and a child of your own tribe? What is the source of your anger? She is simply a woman who wishes to be known and loved for all that she is, all that she is capable of. Do you seek to destroy her for wishing for love? Are we really so cruel that we cannot admit the complexities of love, of passion, of desire?
Men of the village, let me ask you something. In the moments before your death, will you remember how many cattle you owned or the balance in your accounts? Or will you remember the moments you were loved fully and completely by a woman? Where is your grace, your wisdom, and your compassion?
Women of the village, why do you hiss and spit at her? She is your sister and your friend. Do you not care for her children? Can’t you see the tyranny in which you live? Many of you married as a child to a man selected by your parents solely to advance your family’s position and estate. It was never for love and many of these men treat you as property. Can you not empathize with her need for love?” Several of the women lowered their heads and cried softly when I spoke.“
Then the constable and two village elders stepped forward. “Duke Wenceslaus, that is a very fine speech, but she has already been convicted and sentenced to death. She must be executed.”
Now I was angry. “Nothing in this land is fair. The banker charges a usurous rate and repossesses the farms for his own gain. The merchant triples the price for the least able to pay for his goods. The priest collects his tithes and vacations in a fine villa in Italy. How many of you have had another lover? I know for a fact that my own brother has sired two bastard children in this very village. Perhaps the only honest people in this village are the children and the whores. Let her go. By the law of this land, an innocent person can step forward to take her punishment. So I will die in her place. Cast your stones at me. I accept your anger and your sentence.”
The villagers were stunned with disbelief that a Duke would offer his life for a poor bridge builder’s wife. Many lowered their heads while I looked the elders and the constable right in the eye. I would not back down. Then I heard the rocks drop and watched as the villagers turned and walked away. Looking up at Markéta, she was bawling as I slapped the rump of my white stallion, “Markéta, you must go. Take my horse and ride hard until you are out of Bohemia. Do not come back.“. I saw one last look of love before my horse bolted forward to take her away forever.
Two weeks later was the Festival of Saints Cosmas and Damian. It was the year of our Lord 935. It was a cold dark, snowy night and while providing for the poor and the hungry, my brother, Boleslav the Cruel, had his assassin slit my throat. He had been planning my death for some time, but my actions and words gave him the justification needed to kill me.
Some call me a Saint or a King. I was neither, but I thought you should know the true story of Vaclav Wenceslaus and Markéta, the bridge builder’s wife.