The Bishop's Bird -- a brief Story Seed

I had this idea tonight while working on a completely unrelated project, and therefore decided to write it up here in case it amused anyone. It is really suited for a Stonehenge (or Normandy) based saga, anytime from 1220 to 1226, and 1232 to 1238. (The main protagonist is out of the country in those years if your saga follows history...)

Welcome to Winchester!
It is a cold night, in early December, and the snow lies on the ground, deep and crisp and even. Suddenly a shout goes out from a watchful grog - torches in the darkness, the panting of exhausted horses ridden to near collapse, and the clank of armour. Visitors at the covenant, and visitors in a hurry...

The story begins with a deputation of knights, or if one prefers a veiled noblewoman (the Bishop's mistress, who truly loves him) riding to the Covenant in search of help. Or maybe they approach a Companion, probably one with a reputation for expertise with astrology, falconry or medicine. They are very circumspect about their business, but reveal eventually to suitable candidates that they are men (or women) of the household of Peter de Roches, former Justiciar of England since the death of William the Marshal in 1219 one of the most powerful men in England, and one of the guardians of young Henry III. He is currently in residence at Winchester, where he holds the title of Bishop, and has since 1202.

No ordinary Bishop, Peter de Roches is one of the most powerful, and most hated magnates in the country, not least owing to his unfailing loyalty to King John, just four years dead in 1220. This looks to be a good biography of the fellow --

Nonetheless there are many who are truly loyal to him, and while popular legend blames his sins for invoking the wrath of God resulting in the collapse of the tower of the cathedral in 1202, there are those who say that was actually the work of a malicious witch paid by one of his enemies. (it fell down once before, shortly after King William Rufis was buried under it - and again the wrath of God seems quite likely as an explanation.) Certainly since that date he has shown some signs of repentance, if having more rapid construction and ornamentation work on the cathedral counts. The tower has been rebuilt, and throughout this period the beautiful Lady Chapel is under construction. The Bishop has many faults, and rarely visits the Cathedral (he has several castles, but his primary residence is Farnham, or wherever the young King is holding Court) but he is definitely hoping by acts of piety to show amends for past transgressions, such as his support of John during the years of the Interdict (1208 -1213 I think). ... lic_Church

Now however de Roches is terribly ill, and many feel he will not survive. He lies in his chamber in the Castle, constantly attended by physicians, yet his strength waning from day to day. The party has come seeking expert help - is there a curse on the bishop, can his disease be healed, and do they have an expert falconer? Astrologers or others with knowledge of if he will survive or not are also much needed, though this will be privately raised by certain members of the household - if the bishop will succumb to his malady there are many who want to make for the coast, with or without all they can steal from the Castle, to avoid the wrath of Hubert de Burgh's faction once there protector is dead, or simply to make sure they have a little something to live on in their enforced retirement from the political life.

OK, so the seeking out of astrologers, wise scholars and astrologers makes perfect sense. Magicians with healing arts are obviously needed as well. Why a falconer though? (Actually technically they want an Austringer, an expert in training hawks, or a character with good hawking not falconry skills - but the medievals did not differentiate all that much, and it's all the ability Hunt at the end of the day in Ars...)

There is a (genuine) medieval legend that explains this, and a character with an Int + Area Lore Stonehenge Tribunal test against Ease Factor 16, a more local AL at a lower Ease Factor or a Int +Dominion Lore (or Faerie Lore or Magic Lore or Infernal Lore depending on your choices perhaps) test against Ease Factor 9 may well know that the death of the Bishop of Winchester is always marked by a death omen - a heron perching on the spire of the cathedral. For the last few days a heron has been seen circling lazily over the town, and it seems several times to have been making for tower, then flying away at the last moment. It stays always beyond any but the hardest bowshot from the ground (-15 seems about right, that is 150 paces up for a longbow, or -30 for a shortbow.) Winchester's Tower is quite low - there are two at the west front (since removed) , but the central tower looks to be about 120'? The heron will have to fly down, and an archer on the cathedral roof, let alone the tower can then get one round at least of normal ranged fire before it lands...

The legend is quite well known in the town, and whenever the low cloud and occasional flurries of snow clear a little the great heron can be seen flapping steadily around the town, disappearing off only at night. Townsfolk form excited knots, pointing up and speculating on how long the bishop has left...


Allowing the troupe to arrive for say December 2nd or 3rd, the aim is simple -- negotiate with the followers of a powerful and unscrupulous noble, or risk bringing ruin upon their sodales by declining to help. Is this interfering with mundanes? Yes, quite probably, if magic is employed to save the Bishop -- but not doing so risks disaster. At least one member of his household has a fair knowledge of the Order of Hermes, and if the magi refuse to assist will cheerfully order an investigation against these heretics and criminals. If they do assist, Hubert de Burgh, de Roche's great rival and enemy (and from 1226 Justiciar in his stead, before the two men had both held the title at various points) may well creat trouble for them, or possibly even the Order. Subtlety is called for.

The household's plan is simple - use a superb falconer flying a gyrfalcon to bring down, or at least chase off the heron - buying time at the least - and get medical and magical assistance to cure the bishop, or find who it is who is cursing him and resolve that problem. In fact, they even have a rather unpleasant plan in reserve - if they can hold off the heron till December 6th, according to ancient custom (actually only recorded since 1380 but probably in period, and hey this is Mythic Europe) the Boy Bishop will be appointed till December 28th...

image from Wikipedia: good article here --

The heron then presages the Boy Bishop's death, elected by the clergy from the choristers. How that death will occur is not known, but as Milo, one of the boys is notoriously sickly and younger son of a supporter of de Burgh, he seems a likely candidate. If he is till alive on Christmas Day he may even be helped ot meet his fate, to fulfiil the prophecy...


I wrote this brief story seed for fun, to be as medieval as possible but still et up an interesting and dangerous situation for magi and companions of any power level. Several questions however remain unanswered...

  • What is the cause and bature of de Roches sickness? Poison, disease or magic?
  • who or what is responsible? It could be as obvious as the heron causes the illness, but I personally think it is an omen of, not the cause of, the death and illness.
  • will the players learn of the plan to substitute the Boy Bishop? Every year one is elected, and one who dies in office, as several have, are always buried with full ecclesiastical honours. It might work as a substitution, though the boy Bishop may need encouragement to die. Yet Milo is an innocent - will the players sacrifice an innocent to gain powerful friends?
  • is the Heron Divine, Infernal, Faerie or Magical? I think you could make a case for any, but I'd like to hear your opinions. Or is it a mundane Heron? or even a Bjornaer heartbeast? Or an angel or demon in Heron form? The storyguide should decide.
  • if the heron is shot down, killed by a gyrfalcon or goshawk trained to hunt heron (the only birds of prey large enough to take a size -1 heron down), does de Roche recover or doe another take its place?

Winchester is a fascinating place. The tomb of King William Rufus under the tower may lead to investigations of his strange death in a New Forest hunting accident at the hands of William Tyrell in 1100, and the strange rumours as to his pagan beliefs and undoubted impiety.

Then there is the tomb of the Patron St.Swithun, who refused to be buried in the Cathedral - every attempt made to bring his bones within caused a torrential rainstorm. He si said to be buried under the West Door of the cathedral, with various relics around the country - if it rains on his day, July 15th, it will rain for forty days (like this summer) and if it is fair it will remain fair. St. Swithun could be invoked by the pious ot bring up a terrible storm, maybe even one that would disconcert a heron though being a river bird it seems a little unlikely. Still players may well devise something based upon it!

King Henry III was born at Winchester Castle in 1207, and it is very likely he will hurry to the Castle to stay in the light of the bishop's sickness. Hubert de Burgh may not be far behind him....

Anyway hope amused. Do post improvements, suggestions, corrections (I wrote most of this off the top of my head) and ideas...) I'd better get back to work!

cj x

I like how you claim it to be a "brief story seed".
The Boy Bishop is quite an evil twist. :smiling_imp:

Well it si fairly brief. I have another genuine medieval legend involving a bishop, but considering submitting it to Sub Rosa as not much interest in this one! :slight_smile:

cj x

Oh, it's a vey nice seed. Not too brief, though :wink: I just didn't have any comment on it.

It'd good work CJ: very solidly written. It takes a little know fact or set of facts about real Europe and puts a mythic twist on them, to provide a story that really demonstrates the difference between Ars and other games like, say D&D. I like it very much.

Peter de Roches's last historically recorded act is something I've wanted to turn into a saga for a long time. For those not into this sort of thing: his last recorded act occured when a group of Muslim leaders came from the Holy Land to England to plead with the English for an alliance. They said that they may differ with the servants of the Prophet Jesus, and this had caused wars, but that a terrible force of conquerers were coming to the Holy Land, and if these Mongols came, then they would simply sack Jerusalem and tyhen burn it to the ground. Instead, in defence of the Holy City, the People of the Book should fight as allies.

Peter is recorded as having said that it was better to just let the pagans butcher each other.

My interest has always been, in Ars Magica terms, what if House Jerbiton had pushed things the other way?

serf's parma, but according to the 4th ed. Medieval Bestiary, Heron's don't like to get rained on. (I remember this because I had a Bjornaer Heron, and took "deliterious circumstances" for when he was wet.)

Therefore, invoking the storm could be a good solution.

I think this is a great seed, CJ, and easily transplanted into any location. Just because the legend doesn't hold true to to the local Cathedral doesn't mean you can't set it there.

I would think that the Heron is divine, myself. Perhaps the heron is some sort of angelic guide to heaven for the deceased Bishop?


Its a full fledged storyseed, not a brief one.
Its also an excellent seed.

I really like the plot. It should be fairly easily converted for other locations too.

Thanks to everyone for all the kind words. I might write another one soon. :slight_smile:

cj x

I would love to see a "sticky" for story seeds in this forum. Anyone else?