The Story of St. Bunstable

by Master William of the Woodland

[originally published in The Circle: Journal of the Bardic Arts.]

[Here is a story about a St. Bunstable, patron saint of brewers and spiritmakers in An Tir, as received by Manus Gillecroist Mac-an-Fliester from Master William of the Woodland. Re-transcribed without permission by Roger of Belden Abbey.

The idea of St. Bunstable first came into existence at a house known as Lechbury Abbey, wherein dwelt varying numbers of the Usual Culprits in Madrone (mundanely known as Seattle, Washington) during A.S. VII VIII. The first known telling was by Geoffrey of Speraunce at Wakefield Castle in July 1972. The tale was expanded and embellished by Friar William of the Woodland and various other retrospective historians. Celebrations of Saint Bunstable Day, November 17th, reportedly lasted up to ten days at the Abbey.]

In the Year of our Lord, 984, he whom we now know as St. Bunstable was but a lowly monk serving God at a monastery on a rock of an isle located midway between Ireland and Scotland in the Irish Sea. In fact, the ownership of the rock was in dispute, with the winner determined by the run of the tide. In any case, quarreling over ownership was rare, since there was little arable land on the rock, and nothing of value outside the monastery.

Bunstable was a humble monk, who recognized that there was spiritual virtue in doing work well. He often worked long hours at his station in the monastery, having meals sent to him and substituting private devotions for the corporate prayer and worship. He joined his brothers on holy days and on the celebrations of saints, but sometimes stayed at his work for several days at a time. For in the cellars of the monastery on the rock, Bunstable had discovered the distillation of grain spirits, adding a new dimension to the spiritual work of the monastery.

One day, when most of the monks had accompanied the prior on a pilgrimage to Glastonbury, Bunstable and two of his brothers remained to care for the monastery. On this fateful day, Bjorn the Terrible, sweeping out of the North with fifteen longships, sighted the monastery on the rock. Bjorn the Terrible was seeking plunder and knew the tales of gold and precious stones to be found in places of the church, so landed his boats at the base of the rock.

Bjorn led his men to the monastery on the rock and found two monks in prayer. Bunstable's brothers put up no resistance, but were killed as the vikings began their search for gold. They found vessels of copper and glass, but no gold, no gems. Bjorn the Terrible knew of the wealth of the church and ordered his men to search the monastery for all things of value.

And search they did. They ransacked the kitchens and pantries. They sacked the cells and chapel. They destroyed the prior's quarters and the sacristy. But they found no treasure. They lifted the stones in the courtyard and opened the crypt of the abbot. They searched all of the buildings of the monastery on the rock and found no gold, no jewels, no treasure. Bjorn the Terrible knew there must be treasure and drove his vikings to search even harder.

Suddenly, a viking found a door that had not previously been opened. And behind the door was a stair, leading down into the rock beneath the monastery. Bjorn gathered his men, took torches, and descended the stairs into the rock, certain that the vault of treasure awaited them.

At the base of the stair, Bjorn found himself in a room full of barrels. Investigation revealed that the barrels were full of wine. Bjorn and his men knew the value of wine and immediately began to sample the contents of the barrels.

...Several days later...

Bjorn and those of his men who could still walk returned to their search for treasure. Finding none in the room that had held barrels of wine, they searched to see if there were other rooms and found another staircase leading still further down into the rock.

Bjorn the Terrible led his men down the stair and found themselves in another room, a room full of smaller barrels. Bjorn's men inspected these barrels to see if they might contain the treasure and found that they contained brandy. Bjorn and his men knew what to do with brandy...

...Several days later...

Bjorn and the handful of his men who could still move returned to the search for treasure. Again they found a stair leading still deeper into the rock. Bjorn led his men, again bearing torches, down the stairs in search of treasure.

At the base of the stairs, Bjorn and his men found themselves in a place unlike any they had known before. Fires burned under great vats and the smell of peat filled the air. Vats of golden liquid gave off unfamiliar odors. Amidst the fires and vats puttered a simple monk, Bunstable, tending the fires, stirring the contents of the vats, and testing the product. A cry of one of the vikings caught Bunstable's attention. He turned, surprised at having visitors. He had been unaware of the vikings in the rooms above his, although they had been drinking and searching for more than a week.

Bjorn the Terrible signaled his men to take the strange monk and they advanced toward Bunstable. Not knowing their intentions, but expecting the worst, Bunstable grabbed the only object near him that might be used for a weapon, and faced the vikings with his trusty bungstarter. The vikings advanced and the monk retreated, backing up while flailing mightily with the bungstarter. Finally, sorely pressed, Bunstable fell backwards into one of the great vats.

The vikings, uncertain and curious, leaned over the vat with their swords and torches, looking to see what manner of man opposed them. But still a bit unsteady, one dropped his torch into the vat, setting its contents afire and ... Fire leaped from vat to vat, barrels burst and explosions shook the rock! In the ensuring conflagration, barrels of burning brandy destroyed nine of Bjorn's fifteen longships. The monastery was wrecked; the flames could easily be seen from the mainland.

Bjorn and some of his men survived and returned to their homes, never quite understanding the secret that had ended their search for treasure. Bunstable's body was totally consumed by the flames.

This in the story of the martyrdom of St. Bunstable, who died protecting his monastery from Bjorn the Terrible and his vikings. It has been pieced together from three sources.

First, there is the initial letter from the prior to the Bishop of Rome, outlining the evidence of the destruction, the total consumption of Bunstable's body in the flames, and requesting that Bunstable be considered for canonization. The letter also suggests that there would be an interruption in the supply of an unnamed commodity previously supplied by the monastery.

Second, there is an epic poem that is credited to Bjorn's skald, outlining the great opposition that Bjorn found while searching a monastery for plunder. It is interesting to note that early references always refer to Bjorn the Terrible. After the return from the monastery on the rock, he is called Bjorn the Hairless.

Finally, Bunstable is the subject of a song of lament sung by wenches on the nearby mainland. The song refers to Bunstable as a great swordsman. This reference is confusing, since members of Bunstable's order were prohibited from using edged weapons.

[I, Friar William, bring you this story, and I know it is true, for I am a direct descendent of Bunstable. In a place of honor I have several relics of Bunstable, none of his body, since it was totally consumed, but I do have a piece of the True Cask. Someday, when I have another opportunity to tell you more, I will share with you the miracles ascribed to St. Bunstable and to the Holy Bungstarter.]

Master William of the Woodland
Copyright © 1978, William Eric Jordan

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