Jason Byassee: What can we learn from a medieval king about leadership?

St. Wenceslaus was a rare combination for the age of Christendom: a martyr-king. And there is a great deal we can learn from his hagiography.

The church has had many different sorts of saints. Those from the earliest church were usually martyrs, as you might expect from those who followed a crucified Lord in an age in which Christianity was illegal. Those from the latter patristic era tend to be bishops, since that was a period in which the church most needed to define the faith and refute those who had wrenched it out of biblical shape. Our contemporary era has had a diffusion of saints: from Mother Teresa to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Pope John Paul II.

The medieval church had more than a few saintly kings and queens -- a distinction that makes many moderns immediately suspicious. Wouldn’t a church so tightly aligned with the state want to curry favor by canonizing sovereigns? Yes and no. Surely some monarchs had their records tidied and were honored for dubious reasons. But others were disciplined by the church -- most famously when Pope Gregory VII excommunicated Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV in 1077, and let the latter kneel in the snow for three days before granting him absolution. This was itself an echo of St. Ambrose’s disciplining of Emperor Theodosius in the 4th century. Bishops may have been too close to kings in that era by our modern lights, but that does not mean they were simply subservient.

One canonized medieval king is St. Wenceslaus, a 10th century sovereign in Bohemia, whose feast day was just a few weeks ago. Interestingly he is also a martyr-saint, killed by his brother in a bid to usurp the throne. What interests me more than the good king’s end, however, is the (literally hagiographic) description of his reign -- from which all leaders stand to learn. The Catholic “Liturgy of the Hours” describes the king this way:

He was by God’s grace a man of utmost faith. He was charitable to the poor, and he would clothe the naked, feed the hungry and offer hospitality to travelers according to the summons of the Gospel. He would not allow widows to be treated unjustly; he loved all his people, both rich and poor; he also provided for the servants of God, and he adorned many churches.

On the morning of his death, the king rose at the sound of the church bells, summoning him to matins. “On hearing the sound, [he] said: ‘Praise to you, Lord; you have allowed me to live this morning’.” Straight away, the usurper with the similarly wonderful name of Boleslaus strikes him dead in church. Never let it be said that medieval legend has no ear for literary irony.

However accurate the account (and I have no reason to doubt its essentials), I am more interested in the stylized way the liturgy describes a good king. Wenceslaus is not remembered for the efficiency with which he ruled. He is remembered according to the criteria for judgment announced in Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (25:35-36). For some reason, this liturgical account of Wenceslaus omits Matthew’s taking care of the sick and visiting the imprisoned and adds instead “providing for the servants of God” (presumably the clergy) and “adorned many churches.” It includes a proviso that he loved all his people, rich and poor alike.

One might be tempted to say, with Will Campbell, “We’re a long way from Nazareth” -- a ruler with a crown and a ruler from a cross are quite different things. But I’m not so sure the Liturgy of the Hours neglects Jesus’ words in its description of Wenceslaus so much as it applies them appropriately in a new context. In Wenceslaus’ day, rulers’ patronage of the church was expected. Of course it is not in ours. But in whatever age, leading -- whether by first-century disciples, medieval kings or contemporary CEO’s -- should include provision for the poor, the vulnerable and strangers.

And, leadership always comes with the proviso that hangs over all Christians: Discipleship could lead to death. Appropriately, the king’s last words echoed Jesus’s: “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.