Tuesday, September 28, 2010

King Wenceslas and the Bath Attendant Zuzana

Since today is a Czech Statehood Day marking the anniversary of the death of Saint Wenceslas, I figured I would tell you a little story about the good king, a legend if you will...

King Wenceslas and the Bath Attendant Zuzana
Karlovy Lázně - Charles' Baths, Smetanovo nábřeží 198 

King Wenceslas IV was on bad terms with his nobles.  They kept complaining that he filled the royal offices with his personal favorites and ignored their own proposals and advice.  Quarrels and disputes multiplied until finally the nobles attacked the king on his way from the Castle of Žebrák to Prague and took him prisoner.  They carried him off to the Old Town and threw him in prison in the Old Town Hall, from which there was no escape.  He was kept under careful guard day and night.  When th eking was in his fourth month of imprisonment, he began to lose hope that he would ever be free again.

Castle of Žebrák

One hot summer's day, the king asked his captors to permit him to visit the city baths by Charles Bridge.  They allowed it, bur for safety sent four guards:  one to stay at the door, one to watch his clothes, and two to go into the baths with him.  After bathing, the king came out onto the stone courtyard gallery, wrapped only in bathing linen.  It was a beautiful summer day, the sun shone in a sky so cloudless that it too looked freshly bathed, the birds chirruped and carefree people hurried across Charles Bridge about their business.  Wenceslas wept at all this beauty, the beauty of liberty, the birds who could fly where they wished and even the beggar who could wander wherever he liked.  The king alone - he only - was bereft of freedom.  Wenceslas gazed sadly across the river to Prague castle.  It was so near, and yet he had no way of reaching his faithful followers.  Looking down at the bank, he saw a small boat tied up under the gallery.  Just at that moment, the young bath attendant who had served him as he bathed came onto the gallery.  The king beckoned her to come closer, and quietly asked her to tell him her name.  The girl recognized him, curtsied and said, "They call me Zuzana, Sire, and I shall do anything you wish."

"Do you see that little boat, Zuzana?" the king pointed at the bank.  When the girl nodded he whispered, "Take me in it to the opposite bank.  If you do it, you will never lack anything to the end of your days!"

The girl thought for a while.  Then she gathered up the linen that was drying on the gallery and skillfully tied the pieces together with strong knots.  Both of them climbed down from the courtyard.  Zuzana untied the boat, the king sat down i it, and she quickly rowed over to the thick bushes on the other side.  When after a while the guards came out onto the gallery, a great surprise was awaiting them.  They sounded the alarm and roused the whole neighborhood, but the king and Zuzana were already safe on the other side, hidden in the bushes.  After the commotion in the baths had died down and as dusk was falling, they set out upstream through the rushes and found another boat, in which Zuzana took the king close to Kunratice Forest, and the king's new castle (Nový Hrad).   The burgrave immediately recognized the king, sorry as his state now was, and received both with sincere joy and appropriate honor.  When they were sitting wrapped in warm blankets in the safety of the castle hall, the king called the treasurer and gave Zuzana a hundred gold pieces in payment.

Ruins of Nový Hrad

"I know that your service merits more," said Wenceslas.  "You did not fail me when my most faithful servants betrayed me.  Give me a little time, and I shall give you greater recompense."

After a while, the King managed to resolve his disputes with the Bohemians lords and regained all his royal power.  Then he repaid the bath attendant in true royal style, by having the old baths by Charles Bridge demolished, building new ones and giving them to her with even more money.  Nor did he forget her trade, which until then had been amongst the lowest of the guilds.  He issued a charter raising the guild of barbers and bath attendants to the status of honored crafts, and allowed them to use a new coat-of-arms  -  a towel rolled into a circle and inside it a kingfisher on a golden field, which was King Wenceslas's personal emblem.  And so that people should never forget the brave and loyal Zuzana, the king had her portrait painted into a vault of the Old Town Bridge Tower, where it can still be seen to this day.

Old Town Bridge Tower