Stories of the Saints - Grace Hall

The Silence of St John of Nepomuk

In 1378 Wenceslaus IV, son of Charles IV, was made King of Bohemia and was also crowned Emperor at Aix-la-Chapelle. He was only sixteen years of age, but already gave signs of the manner of king he was to become. Besotted and idle he was already; his people, indeed, soon gave him the titles of 'the Idler' and 'the Drunkard,' and stupid and cruel he always remained.

An inordinate rapacity was among his conspicuous traits. On one occasion he invited all the Bohemian nobility to meet him at a certain place, where he had ordered a large black tent to be raised. Flanking this were two other connecting tents, one on the right made of white and one on the left made of scarlet material. In the central tent he greeted the guests, who were ushered into his presence one by one. Here he brought pressure to bear upon them, such as to oblige them to confess that all their lands came to them from the crown, and that they only held them subject to the King's pleasure. The same, he forced them to agree, was the case with regard to their other possessions, their castles, their subjects, their gold, their gems. If, having acknowledged that they had received all these goods originally as benefits bestowed by their royal master, they were willing to surrender them on the spot, they were ushered into the white tent, where they were served with a sumptuous banquet; if they refused, they were dragged to the scarlet tent and put to death.

This, being but one of many exploits, illustrates this amiable monarch's temper.

His first wife, daughter of the King of Bavaria, was named Joanna. The poor lady came to a cruel end. Wenceslaus owned a number of hunting dogs of all varieties, which he kept constantly by his side. Two of them, the largest and fiercest, slept in his bedchamber, and on the night of the 31st of December, 1386, the Queen was attacked and killed by these.

Her confessor had been a certain canon, John Woelflein by name, born in the Bohemian village of Nepomuk.

When Wenceslaus, two years later, married Sophia of Bavaria, John of Nepomuk was retained as the Queen's confessor. There was need indeed for bringing spiritual aid and consolation to this unfortunate woman, and by his religious instructions developing the patience and fortitude necessary for bearing her hard fate, for Wenceslaus showed toward her the same brutality that he had shown her predecessor. Beautiful though Sophia was, he treated her with the contempt that he would have expressed toward an ugly and unlovely woman; he flaunted his amours in the eyes of all the world, publicly laying slights and insults upon the Queen.

On repeated occasions he had been offended by the intervention of John in behalf of one and another victim of his insane fury. Once, when a fowl served at the royal table proved not to be properly roasted, the King, flying into a rage, ordered the man who had cooked it to be spitted and roasted before his own fire until he should be better done than the dish he had dared to send up for his lord's consumption. The savage command was on the verge of being carried out when John of Nepomuk, hearing of it, hastened to the banquet hall, and kneeling before the King besought him to spare the unhappy cook's life.

Having already, therefore, stored up an accumulation of grudges against the man of God, the time came when only one more was necessary to send the King into one of those paroxysms during which his only thought was to destroy the individual who opposed him.

Although the King had no love for his wife, he still had the wit to see that she was beautiful and kind, and that the eyes of all dwelt upon her with affection. He at one moment fancied it possible that he had grounds for doubting her virtue and her faithfulness to himself.

Sending for John of Nepomuk, he questioned him as to the Queen's friendships and occupations. The canon answered in such wise as to remove all shadow of blame from Sophia: her actions were above reproach, her thought and speech of a crystalline purity. But when Wenceslaus, unsatisfied, commanded him to reveal the subjects of the Queen's confessions, the confessor remained mute, not deigning to reply. Nothing could extract from him one syllable of what had been revealed to him under the seal of confession; innocent or guilty, confessions were not for imparting. In vain Wenceslaus tried one method after another, resistance arousing not only his anger, but his curiosity and jealousy as well. He pleaded, he bribed, and threatened in vain. Finally giving way to madness, he ordered the canon to be shut in a dungeon to starve; when this proved unavailing, he ordered him to be stretched upon a rack, where he himself went and laid glowing coals against John's sides and passed a torch over his body. When he still would not speak, the tormentor had him taken, more dead than alive, from the torture chamber; his hands were tied behind him, a piece of wood was wedged between his teeth to keep him from speaking should he now wish to; he was dragged down to a bridge that spanned the river Moldau, and thrown into the water.

The black deed was performed by night, that none might see, but, as if the crime were not permitted to remain secret, no sooner had the martyred body risen from the depths into which it had been dropped than it began to float slowly down the stream, the face showing above the surface of the water in the glimmering light made by a crown of five stars hovering over it. All night the people on bridge and river-bank could see it sparkling above the dead face, and after day had dawned the light continued playing on the pallid features in a crown of flames. By that light the onlookers traced the progress of the body until it floated to shore. Wenceslaus himself beheld the miracle from the windows of his castle, and fled panic-stricken to hide in a distant fortress.

The body was taken up reverently and interred in the Church of the Holy Cross, but was afterward transferred to the Cathedral.

When the Saint was canonized by Benedict XIII in 1729, the relics were placed in a silver shrine, where they still repose. On opening the original tomb it was found that, although all the body had turned to dust, the tongue was intact, the incorruptible tongue which had guarded its secret in spite of torture and kept its trust inviolate in the face of death.