FICTIONS OF THE MIDDLE AGES.
THE BUTTERFLY BISHOP.
Amongst the numerous grievances complained of, during the reigns
of the Anglo-Norman sovereigns, none gave more uneasiness than the
inhuman severity of the forest-laws; they disgusted those nobles not
in the confidence of the monarch, oppressed the people, and impoverished
The privilege of hunting in the royal forests was confined to the
king and his favourites, who spent the greater portion of their time,
not engaged in active warfare, in that diversion; many of them pursued
wild beasts with greater fury than they did enemies of their
country, and became as savage as the very brutes they hunted.
The punishment for hunting or destroying game in royal forests, or
other property belonging to the crown, was very severe: the offender
was generally put to death; but, if he could afford to pay an enormous
mulct to the king, the sentence was commuted either to dismemberment
or tedious imprisonment.
The propensity of the dignified clergy to follow secular pastimes,
especially that of hunting, is well known: they were ambitious to surpass
the laity in the number and splendid livery of their huntsmen, and
to excel in making the woods resound with the echo of their bugles;
many of them are recorded for their skill in the aristocratic and manly
amusement of the chase. Few persons, however, either ecclesiastic
or secular, equalled Peter de Roches, Bishop of Winchester, in
his fondness for, and prowess in, the chase.
Peter had spent the prime of his life as a soldier, and having
rendered King John essential service in such capacity, that monarch
conferred upon him the lucrative office of Bishop of Winchester, and
he thenceforth became a curer of souls instead of a destroyer of
Peter's appointment as a bishop afforded him ample time to devote
to the fascinating employment of chasing the "full-acorned boar" and
stealthy fox: he thought the hunter's shout, the winding notes of the
clanging horn, and the joyous bark of the hounds, much sweeter music
than the nasal chaunt of the drowsy monks.
It happened one day that Peter, (who was, according to the Chronicle
of Lanercost, a proud and worldly man,—as was too often the
case with bishops of that period,) with a bugle dangling at his belt,
and mounted upon a fiery steed, attended by a vast retinue of men,
horses, and hounds, was in hot pursuit of a wary old fox; his courser,—more
fleet than the mountain roe, scarce bruising the grass with his
iron-shod hoofs,—like Bucephalus of Macedon, took fright at his own
shadow, and became unmanageable; nor were all the skill and spur
of the rider able to check his impetuous speed: the harder the bishop
pulled, the more unruly became his steed; the bridle now suddenly
snapped in twain, and the bishop was left to the fate that awaited him.
Velocipede, for so the horse was called, now seemed exultingly to
bound over the deepest ditches, and to clear the highest thorny-twining
hedge with the greatest ease: nothing could moderate his
foaming rage; he resembled more the far-famed Pegasus of Medusan
blood, than the palfrey of a gentle bishop. The retinue, and eager
hounds, notwithstanding their utmost endeavour to keep pace with
their master, were left far behind.
Peter, having no control over his flying barbary, awaited with
truly apostolic calmness and gravity the issue of his wondrous ride,
seriously expecting every minute a broken neck or leg; or, perchance,
to have his preaching spoilt by the dislocation of a jaw-bone.—Such
thoughts will frequently obtrude themselves into the minds of
men encompassed with similar difficulties, let their presence of mind
be never so great.
After half an hour's ride in such unepiscopal speed, which can
only be compared to that of a steam-engine upon the Manchester
railroad, Velocipede suddenly stopped before a magnificent castle
with frowning battlements and a gloomy moat. The bishop, wondering
at what he saw, was struck dumb with astonishment; for he
well knew that so extensive a castle had not hitherto existed in his
diocese, nor did he know of any such in England. Velocipede seemed
also at his wits' end, and commenced frisking and gamboling
about; and, in making a devotional curvet to the castle, threw the
gallant, but unprepared bishop, over his head. Peter was either
stunned or entranced by the fall,—whether his senses ever returned
the reader must determine for himself when he has perused what
follows: the bishop, however, always declared that he was never
senseless, and that he could preach as well after, as before his fall.
No sooner was the bishop safely located upon the verdant down
by the reverential feelings of the awe-struck Velocipede, than the
castle's drawbridge fell, and an aged seneschal, of rubicund-tinted
face, with at least fifty liveried lackeys in fanciful suits, ran to assist
the bishop, and help him to regain his legs.
By the aid of a restorative cordial the bishop was resuscitated, and,
upon coming to himself, was welcomed by the seneschal to the castle
The bishop looked aghast.
"My lord bishop," said the seneschal, "the king, our master, has
been long expecting you; he is all impatient to embrace you: hasten,
my lord, hasten your steps into the castle; the wines are cooled, the
supper is ready; oh, such a supper! my mouth waters at the very
smell thereof! Four wild turkeys smoke upon the spit, seven bitterns,
six-and-twenty grey partridges, two-and-thirty red-legged
ones, sixteen pheasants, nine woodcocks, nineteen herons, two-and-thirty
rooks, twenty ring-doves, sixty leverets, twelve hares, twenty
rabbits, and an ocean of Welsh ones, (enough to surfeit all the mice,
and kill every apoplectic person in the world,) twenty kids, six roebucks,
eight he-goats, fifteen sucking wild-boars, a flock of wild-ducks,
to say nothing of the sturgeons, pikes, jacks, and other fish, both
fresh and saltwater, besides ten tons of the most exquisite native
oysters: and then there are flagons, goblets, and mead-cups overflowing
with frothy ale, exhilarating wine, and goodly mead, all
longing to empty their contents into our parched and ready stomachs,
which are unquenchable asbestos; for we drink lustily, my lord, and
eat powdered beef salted at Shrovetide, to season our mouths, and
render them rabid for liquid in the same proportion as a rabid dog
The seneschal here paused to take breath, for his description of the
supper exhausted the wind-trunk of his organ; and the bishop, seizing
the opportunity of its being replenished, said,
"Peace, hoary dotard! thou hast mistaken thy man; I am Peter
de Roches, Bishop of Winchester, and Protector of England during
the king's sojourn abroad."
"You need not tell me what I already know," replied the seneschal;
"though, it seems, I must again remind you that my lord the king
awaits your coming within the castle walls, and has prepared a sumptuous
supper, with all manner of good cheer, to greet you."
"Supper!" said the bishop in astonishment, "I have not yet
dined; besides I never eat supper."
"The devil take your inhuman fashion, then!" replied the seneschal:
"in extreme necessity I might forego a dinner, provided I
had eaten an overwhelming breakfast; but I would as soon die as
go without my supper. To go to bed without supper is a base and
aristocratic custom; I say it is an error offensive to nature, and nature's
dictates; all fasting is bad save breakfasting. That wicked
pope who first invented fasting ought to have been baked alive in
the papal kitchen."
To the latter part of the seneschal's speech the bishop mentally
assented; but he merely said,
"Go to, thou gorged dullard, and tell thy master to gormandize
"Well, go I suppose I must, if you will not come," returned the
seneschal, "for I cannot longer tarry here. Ah, Sir Bishop, did you
feel the gnawings of my stomach, you would be glad to throw some
food to the hungry mastiff that seems feeding upon my very vitals!"
"Hold thy balderdash!" said the bishop, who had become very
irritated, and would have sworn, had it been etiquette to do so in
those days, at the effusive and edacious harangue of the seneschal.
"Verily, thy hunger and thirst have gotten the better of thy wits!
Whence comest thou?"
"From within the pincernary of that castle, where I have been
indefatigably filling the goblets," answered the seneschal, smacking
his lips. "Sitio! sitio! my parched mouth moistens at the thought!
Oh! the lachryma Christi, the nectar, the ambrosia, and the true Falernian!
Ah! Sir Bishop, some persons drink to quench their thirst,
but I drink to prevent it."
"Pshaw!" said the bishop, "the wine that thou hast already
drunken hath fuddled thy brains."
"By a gammon of the saltest bacon!" returned the seneschal, "I
have more sense of what is good in my little finger than your reverence
has in your whole pate, or you would not stand shilly-shambling
here whilst so goodly a supper waits within."
The bishop was highly incensed at the seneschal's reflection upon
his pate, and would have followed, had he dared, the slashing example
of his namesake, and have smitten off the ear of this high-priest
of the pantry; (for he always wore a sword, even in the pulpit,
firmly believing in the efficacy of cold steel, knowing from experience
that it would make a deeper and more lasting impression upon
human obduracy than the most eloquent preaching;) but the bishop
was deterred by prudential reflections from such sanguinary vengeance.
How long the confabulation between the bishop and the loquacious
seneschal would have lasted, and to what extent the patience of
the former might have been tried, it would at this remote period
be difficult to determine, especially as the Lanercost Chronicle does
not inform us. At any rate, it was cut shorter than it would have
been, by the approach of twenty youthful knights, clad in superb
armour, and riding upon horses caparisoned in most costly and gorgeous
trappings; they dismounted, and made a low obeisance. The
bishop returned it as lowly as bishops generally do, unless they are
bowing to the premier during the vacancy of an archbishoprick. The
knights advanced; but Peter remained as firm and majestic as the
rock of Gibraltar.
"Sir Bishop," said the chief of the knights, a youth with a most
beautiful and smiling face, "we are come to request your speedy
attendance upon our lord the king, who with any other than yourself
would have been much displeased at your perverse absence, after you
have been bidden by the steward of the household."
The bishop rubbed, shut, and opened his eyes.—"Am I bewitched,"
thought he to himself, "or do I dream?"
"Neither the one nor the other," said the knight, who perfectly
understood the bishop's cogitations.
"No? What, then, does all this mean?" inquired the bishop.
"When did my lord the king return from Picardy?"
"Proceed into the castle," replied the knight, "and let him answer
"If these people consider this a joke," thought the bishop, "I by
no means think it one. At all events, come what come may, I will
follow up this strange adventure, and be even with these gentlemen.
I have not a bishop's garment," said he, addressing the seneschal;
"how can I appear before the king, accoutred as I am?"
"Knowing how much you are addicted to hunting," returned the
seneschal, "the king will assuredly receive you in your usual costume."
"Tut, fool!" said the bishop sneeringly; "do you forget, or has
your time been so engrossed with epicurean pursuits, that you have
not learnt how a guest, though bidden, was punished because he attended
a supper-party without a proper garment? Find me a becoming
dress, and I will instantly attend his highness' pleasure."
"If you will condescend to follow me," said the youthful knight,
"a sacerdotal dress shall be procured for you."
The bishop, nodding assent, was then conducted in solemn silence
into the wardrobe of the castle, where the obsequious attendants soon
arrayed him in a dress fit for a bishop to sit with the king at supper in.
It was not such unpretending costume as that in which bishops are at
present apparelled; but robes of the tinctured colours of the East,
which were more apt to remind both the wearer and the beholders of
mundane pomps and vanities, than of the humility and simplicity of
Christianity. The alb was of most dazzling white, the dalmatica of
gold tissue, the stole was embroidered with precious stones, and the
chasuble, of purple velvet wrought with orfraise, was also studded
with costly orient gems.
The bishop thus splendidly accoutred was conducted with great
state and solemnity into the banqueting-room, one of the most magnificent
and spacious of the kind. It excelled everything he had ever
before seen: odoriferous and fragrant perfumes, fit for a Peri to feed
on, saluted his nose; his sight was dazzled by splendid and radiant
illuminations, the most exquisite music stole upon his ear, and laughter
and mirth seemed to be universal; every face (there were many
hundreds in the room) was decked with a smile; there wanted but
one thing to complete the enchantment of the scene,—the light of
woman's laughing eye.
As the bishop entered the hall, five hundred harpers in an instant
twanged their harps; and the air resounded with trumpets, clarions,
fifes, and other musical instruments, not omitting the hollow drum.
The bishop, being tainted with the superstitious feelings of the age,
easily persuaded himself that he was in an enchanted palace; he
therefore determined to conform to every custom that prevailed in
the assembled company, and by that means he hoped to ingratiate
himself with the presiding spirit. When he had reached the centre
of the hall, the king (he wore a robe of rich crimson velvet, furred
with ermine, over a dalmatica flowered with gold, rubies, emeralds,
pearls, and diamonds, and on his head was a splendid crown beyond
estimation,) descended from a throne of the purest crystal, and advanced
to meet the bishop. As he passed the obsequious nobles, he
received their servile adulation with a smile, and, extending his arms,
folded the bishop in a royal embrace. The latter surveyed with some
awe the brawny shoulders of the king, and regarded with much
respect the amber-coloured locks hanging in great profusion down his
musculous back. The bishop thought that the aquiline nose, the
expansive brow, the large clear azure eye, and the ruddy complexion
of his host, about as much resembled those of his own monarch as a
terrible-looking bull-dog does a snarling mongrel. But he kept his
complimentary thoughts of his host to himself, as he was not at any
time of a communicative spirit,—he was a proud, not a vain man,—and
he moreover did not know how his compliment might be received.
The king handed the bishop to the upper end of the hall, and
placed him at his right hand. No sooner were they seated than
twenty trumpeters, in a gallery at the lower end of the room, blew,
as the signal for supper to be served up, three such electrifying blasts,
that, had the building not been as substantial as beautiful, it must
have been shaken.
As the loquacious seneschal, in tempting the bishop to quicken his
steps to supper, has put us in possession of many of the various
articles provided for this festive entertainment, we shall not weary
our reader by recapitulating them; but content ourselves with stating
that, in addition to the solid fare, there were exquisite and delicate
fruits and viands, with wines and liqueurs of the choicest quality and
flavour. The supper-service was of the most superb description,
frosted silver and burnished gold; the goblets, vases, and wine-cups
were of crystal, mounted in gold richly carved. Such a feast the
bishop had never seen or tasted; and yet he was, like many of his
predecessors and successors too, perfectly familiar with the charms
of eating and drinking.
Nothing produces good-fellowship, intimacy, and conviviality more
than a good supper. We do not mean the cold, formal, and pompous
supper given to a fashionable party of the present day; but such as
were peculiar to by-gone days, when the table groaned under hot and
solid joints, and the company, with good appetites as provocatives,
ate and drank right heartily,—when glee and joy sat merrily upon
every face, and the glass went briskly round. Even misanthropes or
proud men could not be insensible to such festive scenes; their hearts
would necessarily warm as the exhilarating wine washed away their
gloomy and proud thoughts.
The bishop soon became familiar with his host, ate, drank, laughed,
and was merry; (we will not so scandalise the Bench as to presume
that he was drunk, although the Chronicle of Lanercost insinuates as
much;) the conversation was brilliant, the wit bright and poignant,
and the repartees flashed, and often rebounded upon the discharger.
To put a direct or pointed question at any time is, to say the least
of it, ungentlemanly; it very often gives dire offence, is seldom
admired or tolerated even by your most intimate acquaintance; and
men are seldom guilty of it, unless in their cups, or with a desire of
insulting:—how unpalatable must it be to royalty! As we know
it was the bishop's desire to keep upon good terms with his host,
it is but natural to infer that he would not intentionally insult him by
any rude question. If, therefore, any rudeness occurred on the part
of the bishop, it is charitable to set it down to inebriation, or perhaps
to the bishop's habit of putting questions in the confessional.
To the ineffable surprise of the king, the bishop was so injudicious
as to ask his host, in the most direct and pointed manner, who he
was, and whence he came there.
No sooner had the bishop attempted to satisfy his prying curiosity
by what appeared to him a very natural question, than the hall shook
as if Nature were indignant at his presumptuous inquiry; the whole
place was filled with an effulgent lambent light so brilliant, that it
entirely eclipsed the blaze of the variegated lamps that burned in the
hall; a low murmuring wind followed. The king's eyes seemed to
flash liquid fire as he answered, "Know me for what I am,—Arthur,
formerly lord of the whole monarchy of Britain, son of the mighty
Pendragon, and the illustrious founder of the Order of the Round
The bishop, having a firm heart and buxom valour, was far from
being daunted, as most men in a similar situation would have been,
and he inquired whether the story then current was true, that King Arthur
was not dead, but had been carried away by fairies into some
pleasant place, where he was to remain for a time, and then return
again and reign in as great authority as ever; or whether he died by
the sword-wounds he received from the sons of the king of the Picts;
and if so, whether his soul was saved, and come to revisit this sublunary
world. The bishop, meditating authorship, asked a thousand
other questions relative to the immortality of the soul; and so subtle
were they, that, had they been put in these days of sciolism and charlatanry,
his fame would have been as brilliant, lasting, and deserved
as that of the noble editor of Paley's Theology.
Whether King Arthur did not choose to satisfy the bishop's curiosity,
or whether, judging from the usual depth of the human mind,
he thought the immortality of the soul a subject too deep and mystic
for such moonshine treatises as have been written concerning it, the
Chronicle of Lanercost does not inform us. It merely states, that to all
the bishop's searching questions Arthur only replied, "Verč expecto misericordiam
Dei magnam." He had no sooner uttered those words than
a roar, like the falling of mighty waters such as Niagara's was heard,
and from the incense-altar another blaze of transcendent light issued:
the whole assembly, excepting the bishop, prostrated themselves and
chaunted a hymn, which he, mistaking for a bacchanal-venatical chorus,
heartily joined in. Upon this outrage of public decency, the chaunt
instantly terminated with a crash resembling what is ignorantly called
the falling of a thunderbolt; the altar again smoked, and horrible
and clamorous noises issued therefrom, like the bellowing of buffaloes,
the howling of wolves, the snarling and barking of hounds, the neighing
of horses, the halloo of huntsmen, and the blasts of brazen trumpets,
all in heterogeneous mingle. The smoke gradually assumed the
appearance of a host of hunters; one of them, evidently their chief,
fixed his glaring eyes upon the bishop, and frowned awfully. The
bishop did not admire the looks of the hunter-chief, and even winced
a little when he raised his ghastly arm, (as a self-satisfied orator does
when about to enforce some appalling clap-trap sentiment,) and said
in a gruff growl, "I am Nimrod, of hunting fame, and such a hunter
was I as the world had not before, or since, or will ever have again.
Yet was I no monopolizer of game, or murderer of men to preserve it,
as some have unjustly charged me. I loved the chase, and taught my
subjects to love it too; but thou, oh Bishop Peter, hast been a cruel
hunter, and strict preserver of game. The tongues thou hast dilacerated,
the ears and noses thou hast cut off, and the wretches thou
hast slain, form an awful catalogue of cruelty, and one that will require
tears of blood to wash out. Hearken to the lamentations of thy
victims, and the bewailings of the widows and orphans thy cruelty
hath made! Hadst thou not been so peerless and bold a hunter, I
should not have condescended to warn you of the terrible fate you
will experience in the world to come, unless you mend your ways.
Lover and encourager that I was, and interested as I still am in that
manly sport, I would sooner that it were entirely lost to the world
than it should be disgraced by human bloodshed. List, I say, to
the cries of the victims whom thou hast sacrificed at the altar of
Diana, thy divinity!" Loud lamentations were now heard, and a hideous
group of dismembered menacing ghosts flitted rapidly before
the bishop's wondering sight. He closed his eyes to avoid their
angry looks; one writer insinuates that he swooned, but we think
that unlikely. Be it, however, as it may, upon his opening his eyes
he neither saw Nimrod, his crew, nor any of the victims of the forest-laws.
They had every one of them disappeared!
King Arthur, like a brave and magnanimous prince, soon forgot and
forgave the bishop's want of good breeding in asking impertinent
questions; though he severely chid him for having split so many
human noses, and dismembered Christians without the slightest remorse,
for so trifling an offence as infraction of the forest-laws: and
that, too, within the very precinct of Winchester Castle, where the
Round Table was preserved. The bishop thought those offences anything
but trifling, and that the souls as well as bodies of the offenders
merited the severest punishment, instead of commiseration.
King Arthur then denounced the concupiscence of the dignitaries
of the church, and their appetite for, and easy digestion of, the good
things of the world; and he declared that they regarded nothing but
sensual gratification, and wasted their precious lives in banqueting,
hawking, and hunting. He entreated the bishop to leave off his
hunting habits, and to take unto those that were more episcopal and
less sanguinary. He told him that it would add considerably to his
mundane happiness, and tend more to his salvation than ten thousand
thoughtless repetitions of the "pater noster" and twelve thousand of
the "ave Maria." So much did King Arthur say, needless here to
be repeated, that the bishop mentally resolved to profit by the king's
advice. But it occurred to him that he could not suddenly leave off
hunting without assigning a sufficient reason for his determination; and
that if he related what had befallen him, his being a bishop would not
entitle him to credit, nor protect him from the derision of his sovereign
and his courtiers; for who would believe his most solemn asseveration
that he had seen Nimrod, and conversed and supped with
King Arthur, perceiving what was agitating the bishop's ideas, determined
to assist in fulfilling so righteous a resolve as the bishop was
"Extend your right hand," said Arthur; the bishop complied.
"Shut it," said Arthur; the bishop did as he was told. "Now open
it," continued Arthur. The bishop opened his hand, and there flew
therefrom an exquisitely beautiful butterfly.
The bishop, notwithstanding all that he had just before seen and
heard, now in real good earnest believed himself bewitched, and
heartily wished that he had never forsaken the profession of a soldier
for that of a bishop, to be subject to miracles; for in those days miracles
and visions only occurred to the dignified clergy.
King Arthur, compassionating the bishop's perturbation, said,
"Whenever in relating your adventure any one doubts it, you shall
afford him sufficient autopsy of its verity by sending, at all seasons of
the year, a butterfly from your hand, in memorial of me and of your
The bishop cordially thanked King Arthur for his kindness and
consideration, and swore by the face at Lucca, (his favourite oath,)
that as long as he lived, he would never again sound the bugle, follow
hounds, nor punish man, woman, or child for infringing the game-laws;
and that he would moreover exert all his influence with King
John to relax the inhuman severity of the forest-laws.
No sooner had the bishop made a solemn adjuration to that effect
than he felt a stunning blow upon his head, which deprived him of all
sensation. When he recovered, he found himself lying where Velocipede
had thrown him, and the brute quietly grazing by his side.
The bishop vaulted upon his saddle, spurred his steed, and galloped
off as fast as the creature could go. After a ride of about five
miles, he found his attendants anxiously seeking him. He related all
that had occurred, to their great awe and astonishment; but when
they had autoptical evidence of the truth of his narration, by his letting
loose a mealy-winged butterfly from his hand, their fear and wonder
exceeded all bounds.
The bishop's adventure was soon bruited abroad, and thousands
flocked from all parts of England, Scotland, Ireland, and even the
Continent, to see the man who had supped with King Arthur, and
seen the hunter Nimrod. Many more came to witness a miracle performed:
a circumstance of rare occurrence to the vulgar in those days,
miracles, as we have above observed, being reserved for the private
view of bishops and monks. Those pilgrimaging to Winchester always
sought and received a blessing from the butterfly hand of the
bishop as soon as he was satisfied that a liberal oblation had been
made at the high altar of his cathedral.
The frequent repetition of the miracle obtained for Peter the appellation
of the Butterfly Bishop; and the offerings at the high
altar so greatly augmented his revenue, that he never once repented
of his promise to King Arthur. His time was so occupied in performing
the miracle and blessing the people, that he had no time, whatever
was his inclination, for hunting.
The Chronicler ends this strange story in the following words
"Quid in hoc anima Arthuri mortalis adhuc docere voluerit, perpendat
qui meliůs conjicere poterit:"—which, for the benefit of our female
readers, may be rendered thus,—"What the still mortal soul of Arthur
wished to teach by this, let him consider who can best interpret."