Once upon a time, in far off Bohemia, there lived a handsome Prince called Boleslav. Like all knights he was gallant, brave and true; he fought dragons and rescued damsels in distress. In those days Bohemia was infested with dragons and Boleslav set out to kill them all, which meant he didn’t have much time for rescuing damsels in distress. And that suited him just fine because he wasn’t much interested in damsels anyway.
Wherever he went Prince Boleslav was attended by his faithful squire Dennis. Well… maybe not that faithful. In fact, Dennis could be a right, royal pain in the arse. Tales of his exploits were told far and wide and the people wondered why Prince Boleslav retained such an unreliable and disobedient squire in his service. Until, that is, they saw Dennis and then they wondered no more. The young man wore the tightest of tights and the shortest of doublets to show off his long, muscular legs and his perfectly rounded arse. To say nothing of the front view which revealed the promise of further substantial assets. His dark, curly locks fell to his shoulders and framed handsome features which lit up when he was amused.
Prince Boleslav and his squire Dennis were pretty much inseparable. Dennis loved life at court. He gloried in the intrigue and he was the best source for the latest gossip. He enjoyed looking after the prince’s clothes and helping his master dress… and undress. But Dennis didn’t polish his lord’s armour; that was dirty, heavy work. Dennis didn’t do polishing or cleaning of any sort. And as for the horses and their tack; well, that was a job for a stable lad and not for a person of his gentle birth and delicate sensibilities.
Preparing for Christmas, on the other hand, was a task which Dennis was more than willing to undertake. He loved decorating the great hall with greenery gathered from the forest. The hustle and bustle of the court at Christmas presented endless opportunities for harassing anyone he disliked and playing practical jokes on those he did like. And Dennis was already beginning to plan some questionable activities to liven up the festive season. His status as squire to the king’s younger brother conferred a certain immunity from punishment although Boleslav himself did not hesitate to take firm action when Dennis overstepped the mark.
For example, there had once been a time when Dennis was allowed to clean and polish his master’s sword. It was rather heavy for him to lift but he loved the glittering jewels embedded in the sword’s pommel and he was both fascinated and terrified by the razor sharp edge to the blade. Normally he wasn’t interested in caring for his lord’s weapons and armour but he was willing to make this one exception, on the strict understanding that any blood would be washed off before he was required to burnish the blade.
Then he would swagger around in his master’s chamber, brandishing the heavy sword and admiring his own dexterity. On one occasion a maidservant entered the chamber unannounced and Dennis was startled into overbalancing, narrowly missing the girl with the sword which plunged into the bed, slicing through the bed coverings and embedding itself in the wooden frame. Even as his quick wits began to fabricate a cover story suggesting that a spell had been placed on the sword, the screams of the maidservant brought Boleslav running into the chamber. He retrieved his weapon with one mighty tug and the dark look he directed towards his squire made it quite clear that he fully understood how this accident had occurred.
Dennis at once abandoned all hope of deflecting blame and resigned himself to his fate. Sometime later, and walking rather stiffly, he sought out the maidservant to apologise for nearly beheading her. He kept his own head bowed in an attempt to hide his reddened eyes and he stammered out his apology between sniffles.
No one could remain angry with Dennis for very long and most of the maidservants were in love with him so he was readily forgiven. His good humour rapidly returned and the next time he was seen with Boleslav the two men were engaged in an animated discussion about another dragon hunting expedition. But Dennis was never again allowed to clean his master’s sword.
As Christmas approached, Boleslav temporarily released Dennis from his duties so he could decorate the great hall ready for the banquet. He knew that this task was something Dennis looked forward to. Interior decoration was definitely his thing and Boleslav judged that it offered limited scope for his squire to get into trouble. Standing on an improvised wooden scaffolding to attach boughs of holly to the wooden chandeliers, Dennis was in his element. He assumed full responsibility for the operation so he could put into effect his secret plan for livening up the banquet which did have a tendency to get boring after two or three hours.
He took great care to keep the garlands well away from the candles which would all be lit during the feast. But he had also acquired some extra decorations for the chandeliers from a local sorcerer. They were small firecrackers which Dennis attached to the greenery. Their fuses would be ignited as the candles burnt down and the resultant cracks would be certain to arouse those guests who had succumbed to the effects of the freely flowing wine.
The sorcerer assured Dennis that the explosions would be minor and the crackers would release white powder which would fall gently to the ground like snow. Everyone would know that Dennis was responsible for the climactic end to the evening but it would be such a festive and magical finish to the Christmas celebrations that the squire would be universally congratulated for his inventiveness. That, at any rate, was the plan.
The banquet began with a procession lead by King Wenceslas and his brother, Prince Boleslav. When they and their guests were seated at the high table, the lords, knights, squires, pages and other members of the royal household took their places, their proximity to the high table dependent upon their rank. As Prince Boleslav’s squire, Dennis was seated about half way down the great hall with his back to the wall, a position he judged ideal to witness the surprise and elation when his planned finale took place.
As course followed course, with roast swan, venison and boar on the menu, Dennis began to lose track of time. He drank rather more wine than he intended and forgot to keep watch on the candles as they burned down in the chandeliers so that when the first firecracker exploded he was as startled as everyone else. Some of the knights rose to their feet and reached for their swords but the source of the bang was unclear and the hall fell silent as everyone waited in apprehension for some explanation of what was happening.
They didn’t have long to wait. Dennis had laid the fuses with precision and the firecrackers began to explode throughout the hall with deafening retorts. By now it was only too clear where the sound was coming from. The chandeliers were swinging with the impact of explosions which were scattering a dense and choking cloud of white powder onto the company below. Women began to scream and there was a mad dash for the doors. Dennis stood immobile with shock and horror, aware that people were turning to him with accusing and incredulous stares.
The king called for the guards who came rushing into the great hall just as sparks from the explosions began to ignite the dried leaves on the holly branches. The guards thrust their lances up at the chandeliers to dislodge the burning greenery before the wooden chandeliers themselves caught fire. Guards and courtiers then stamped on the burning embers, further stirring up the unidentified white substance which swirled around their feet like morning mist.
By the time the fires had been extinguished, the great hall looked as though it had been hit by an invading army. Food was scattered on the ground, spilled wine dripped from the tables, the air was thick with smoke and dust, and one or two people who had been slightly hurt during the initial panic were being attended to. Dennis turned distraught eyes towards his master only to witness Boleslav fall to his knees before his brother to beg for forgiveness.
Dennis knew that there was little love lost between Prince Boleslav and his elder brother, King Wenceslas. As far as Dennis was aware Boleslav had only once in his life knelt before Wenceslas and that was to swear the oath of fealty. He would not willingly have abased himself in public before his brother but it seemed that everyone knew where responsibility lay for the evening’s fiasco and Boleslav was not one to try and deny liability. Dennis slumped onto the nearest bench and buried his head in his hands. He couldn’t bear to watch his lord undergo public censure for his own misconduct.
The next thing Dennis knew, there was a firm hand on his shoulder and a deep, calm voice quietly instructing him to go upstairs and find himself a corner in his lord’s chamber. He lifted his head and tried to speak only to feel Boleslav’s strong fingers squeeze his shoulder as the prince firmly repeated the order for his squire to leave the great hall. Dennis got reluctantly to his feet, bowed to his master and then walked dejectedly towards the stairs as he saw Boleslav turn back in response to a summons from the king.
In Boleslav’s chamber a fire was burning in the hearth making the room feel warm and welcoming. The servants had lit the candles which cast dancing shadows on the tapestries adorning the walls. Dennis knew not to stand near these decorations as the temptation to pick at the delicate stitches had got him into trouble on previous occasions. Instead he made his way to a dark corner beside the bed where he could see and touch nothing but the bare stone walls of the castle keep. In this position he began to give some thought to the choices he had recently made, in particular, his decision to enlist the aid of his friendly, neighbourhood sorcerer.
It wasn’t as though the sorcerer had a good track record with the products he'd supplied in the past. There had been the love potion which caused a severe outbreak of vomiting and diarrhoea at court. There were the magical shields which had disintegrated at the first blow. As for the panpipes guaranteed to calm dragons; he and his master had been lucky to escape with their lives.
Boleslav had dealt calmly but firmly with these mistakes and had been remarkably forgiving but this time there would be no excuse and no escape from severe punishment. Dennis was only too aware that his behaviour had resulted in a major disaster at the Christmas feast. He had shamed his master before the entire court and he had no hope for mercy.
Dennis decided he was facing either the whip or the belt and he shivered with apprehension. The whip was used on horses, and the occasional recalcitrant peasant. Dennis had never felt its sting but he reckoned that Boleslav might well return via the stables equipped with an implement guaranteed to make its mark. On the other hand, there was Boleslav’s heavy leather belt which would be readily to hand. Dennis had some experience of what that belt could do. The sound of its impact on bare skin was enough to terrify him and he had managed to blot out all memory of the pain it inflicted.
When Dennis heard the door open he was too afraid to move or say anything. He was just overcome with shame that he had disgraced himself and his master before the king and all his courtiers. He sank to his knees in the corner and leant his forehead against the wall as tears of remorse welled up. He heard his lord sit down on the bed and sigh before uttering one quietly worded instruction, “Stand up and come here, Dennis.”
Dennis pushed himself up with a hand against the wall, scrubbed his cuff across his eyes and walked with head bowed to stand before his lord. Boleslav reached up and took both his squire’s hands in his own.
“I know you didn’t mean for that to happen,” he said.
Dennis raised relieved eyes to encounter the loving, trusting gaze of his master.
“But you’re going to punish me, right?”
“Yes, I’m going to punish you… but only for what you put me through this evening. The king himself insists on disciplining you for the mayhem in the great hall.”
“What do you mean?”
“My saintly brother thinks I’m not a good influence on you. He thinks you need direction in more godly ways.”
“He’s not going to send me to a monastery, is he?” asked Dennis in a panic.
“No,” responded Boleslav, smiling, “I think even he knows you’re a lost cause as far as a monastic vocation is concerned.”
“So what is he going to do to me?”
Boleslav sighed. “Well, you’re to be demoted from the rank of squire.”
“What! I’m already the oldest squire in the land. Don’t tell me that I’m back to being a pageboy.”
“You’re going to serve as page to the king.”
“No. I won’t do it. I’ll leave the court before you make me do that.”
“Calm down and listen to me. You’re going to serve as the king’s page until further notice. His Majesty intends this to be a very public punishment. All those people need to see that you’re being disciplined for tonight’s fiasco. If you show yourself to be contrite, humble and, above all, obedient you’ll be back as my squire in no time and we can set off together to find those Hungarian horntails.”
“I’m not sure I like the sound of them. Aren’t they supposed to be very fierce?”
“Yes. I’m really looking forward to bagging a Hungarian horntail… but you don’t have to get anywhere near them unless you want to,” said Boleslav, his enthusiasm for his quest reasserting itself. “If you don’t want to come dragon hunting with me you can always volunteer for extra duties as a page,” he added, his laughter minimising the hint of menace in his voice. “Now, let’s give some thought to the disgrace you brought upon me this evening.”
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to cause trouble. It was meant to be fun…”
“I seem to remember assuring you that I know you meant no harm.”
Dennis smiled his thanks.
“The trouble is,” Boleslav continued, “you never mean any harm. You just don’t think through the consequences of your actions. This time I had to take responsibility for the disaster you perpetrated at our Christmas celebrations. You can imagine how His Majesty took to having the Christmas feast disrupted. And I don’t take kindly to being humiliated in front of the entire court. Come here.”
Dennis was standing in front of Boleslav but he stepped closer to stand between his lord’s splayed legs. Boleslav reached up to undo the laces which secured his squire’s tights and then inserted his thumbs into the waistband in order to pull the tight fitting fabric over Dennis’s slim hips. As Dennis grasped Boleslav’s intention he tried to pull away, his face flaming with embarrassment.
“No, please,” he begged, “please don’t punish me like that.”
“You’re a pageboy now and you’re going over my knee. If you play a pageboy’s tricks then this is how you can expect to be punished.”
Dennis remained rigid, his body leaning away from Boleslav’s grasp. “It’s so humiliating,” he whispered.
“How do you think I felt, begging pardon on my knees in front of the entire court?”
The question hit home and Dennis relaxed, allowing himself to be drawn back into position and his tights lowered to his knees. Then, with a despairing whimper, he responded to the gentle pressure Boleslav was placing on his back and bent himself over his lord’s knee. Boleslav settled his squire’s body more firmly on his lap before he brought one large, calloused hand down hard on the perfectly rounded buttocks presented for punishment. Dennis gasped at the intensity of the sting but remained still as Boleslav watched the imprint of his hand darken on his squire’s backside. The second slap was delivered to the other side of Dennis’s bottom and, as Boleslav continued to administer the well deserved correction, both cheeks were soon glowing a fiery red.
Despite his determination to remain still and silent, Dennis found his courage failing him and he began to squirm under the onslaught. But Prince Boleslav showed no sign of ending the punishment. Instead he placed a firm hand across his squire’s back to prevent him twisting his buttocks to try and avoid the full impact of the spanking.
“Keep still and take what you’ve earned,” Boleslav instructed firmly.
Dennis did his best but when Boleslav turned his attentions to his squire’s sensitive thighs Dennis could not stop himself flinging an arm back to intercept the painful blows. Boleslav stilled immediately and waited in silence, which was broken only by the soft sound of Dennis’s crying, until the young man summoned up the courage to remove his hand. Then Prince Boleslav finished the punishment with a series of powerful and fast slaps to buttocks and thighs which left Dennis howling.
Boleslav allowed his squire to remain lying across his knees until his breathing steadied. Then the prince lifted Dennis gently into his lap where the young man buried his head on his lord’s broad shoulder and cried out his shame and his penitence. When Dennis was calm again, Boleslav kissed him, helped him undress and then got him into bed, pulling the fur coverlet over his still shaking limbs. Boleslav himself took time to undress in front of the roaring fire and then climbed into bed to join his squire, spooning up behind the familiar body and pulling the warm bottom and thighs against his own groin. He then flung a protective arm over Dennis’s body, reflecting that it might be some time before he would again sleep beside his beloved squire.
The following morning, St Stephen’s Day, dawned bright and cold. Dennis looked out of the window and was surprised to see that there had been a deep snowfall overnight. Everything roundabout had a crisp and even covering of fresh snow. Dennis spent the day packing his things and finishing his assigned tasks. By the evening he was ready to report as directed to the king.
When he entered the King’s chamber he found Wenceslas at his prayers. Unsure what to do, he stood in silence until Wenceslas rose from his knees and summoned his new pageboy to his side. The physical resemblance between the king and his brother was marked but there all likeness ended. Boleslav was a man of adventure but Wenceslas embarked on a pious lecture about the importance of living a life of penance. Soon Dennis stopped listening and stood with head bowed and mind wandering until Wenceslas finished his homily and walked over to the window. There the king stood gazing out at the frost covered landscape illuminated by a bright, full moon. Suddenly a poor man came into view, walking with difficulty through the deep snow as he gathered wood for his fire.
“Come here, page,” Wenceslas called. “Stand beside me.”
Dennis obeyed the summons and Wenceslas pointed the man out. “Do you know who that peasant is? Have you any idea where he lives?”
“He lives miles away from here, sire, close to the mountain. His house is beside the fence at the edge of the forest. There’s a fountain there. I think it’s named after St Agnes.”
Dennis remembered this peasant. He’d had a run in with him in a local tavern and he would recognise the man anywhere. He had hoped never to see him again. Unfortunately, Wenceslas was delighted with the information provided by his page and immediately decided to make this peasant the recipient of his Christian charity.
“Go and bring some cold meat from the kitchen,” Wenceslas instructed. “There was plenty left uneaten yesterday after the abrupt ending to our festivities.”
Dennis blushed and made no reply.
“Bring a bottle of wine and some pine logs as well. We’ll take it all to this peasant’s house and we’ll give him a Christmas banquet which will outdo our own.”
Dennis went off to the kitchen, furious at having to collect and carry food, drink and fuel for a peasant. He put together as little meat and as few logs as he dared and then he went to find his warmest outdoor clothing and a bag in which to transport the gifts. When king and page were finally ready to depart Dennis opened the door only to try and close it again as the howling wind nearly dragged the latch out of his hand. Wenceslas urged him forward, overruling his reservations, and the two men stepped out into the bitterly cold night.
The biting wind cut right through Dennis’s thin silk tights and the snow soaked and stained his new leather boots. His reluctance to embark on the expedition was soon transformed into outright rebellion as the moon disappeared behind clouds. For some unexplained reason he was afraid to continue in the deteriorating weather conditions. Heedless of the fact that he was now in the king’s service, he stopped in his tracks.
“I’ve had enough of this,” he screamed. “It’s pitch black out here and the wind chill factor must be off the scale. I’m not going a step further.”
Despite his reputation for saintliness, there was an underlying core of steel in the good king.
“Listen to me, my lad, you’re going to this peasant’s house whether you like it or not. Get behind me and keep in step. You were in training for a military career. It’s about time you learnt to obey orders and learnt to march, to say nothing of behaving courageously.”
Dennis had no military career aspirations. Events management, interior design, fashion modelling: he’d settle for any of those but knighthood wasn’t his bag. He weighed the options and decided he didn’t fancy making his way back unaccompanied so there seemed little choice but to hunker down behind the king and try to avoid the full force of the wind. By striding out he was able to step in the king’s footprints and protect his fashionable boots from further damage. The exertion got his blood flowing and warmed his frozen extremities. He just hoped that rotten sod of a peasant would get a very nasty shock when the king turned up for dinner.
Nearly a thousand years after these events took place John Mason Neale wrote the well known carol, Good King Wenceslas, which was published in 1853. It is frequently noted that there's something odd about a Christmas carol which makes no reference to the Nativity or the events of Christmas Day. In fact Neale rendered a very accurate account of what happened the day after Christmas all those years ago in Bohemia. However, Victorian sensibilities precluded any reference to Boleslav and Dennis and so the carol only tells half the story:
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
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 will see him dine
When we bear him 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.