The name "Ellis Peters" was adopted by Edith Pargeter to clearly mark a division between her mystery stories and her other work. Her brother was Ellis and Petra was a friend from Czechoslovakia. A frequent visitor to the country, Edith Pargeter had begun her association and deep interest in their culture after meeting Czechoslovakian soldiers during the war. This was to lead to her learning the language and translating several books into English.
The character of Cadfael himself is a Welsh Benedictine monk living at Shrewsbury Abbey, in western England, in the first half of the 12th century. The historically accurate stories are set between about 1135 and about 1145, during "The Anarchy", the destructive contest for the crown of England between King Stephen and Empress Maud.
As a character, Cadfael "combines the curious mind of a scientist/pharmacist with a knight-errant", entering the cloister in his forties after being both a soldier and a sailor, this experience gives him an array of talents and skills useful in monastic life. He is a skillful observer of human nature, inquisitive by nature, energetic, a talented herbalist (work he learned in the Holy Lands), and has an innate, although modern, sense of justice and fair play. Abbots call upon him as a medical examiner, detective, doctor, and diplomat. His worldly knowledge, although useful, gets him in trouble with the more doctrinaire characters of the series, and the seeming contradiction between the secular and the spiritual worlds forms a central and continuing theme of the stories.
Shropshire lies at the heart of the Welsh Marches and has a legacy of centuries of border conflict. Local castles date back to Norman times when William the Conqueror shared out his border territory amongst his barons. These great Marcher Lords, who dominated Shropshire for 400 years, fought not only the Welsh but also each other. This conflict was probably at its height during the chaotic reign of Stephen when Empress Matilda fought in vain for nine years for the English crown.
A Rare Benedictine:
Edith Pargeter, writing as Ellis Peters, explains in her introduction to the trio of tales exploring the past of her robed detective that “Brother Cadfael sprang to life suddenly and unexpectedly when he was already approaching sixty, mature, experienced, fully armed and seventeen years tonsured.” Cadfael ap Meilyr ap Dafydd is our resident sleuth -- a devout Benedictine, apothecary, and worldly Welshman. Peters writes that she found the name “Cadfael” only once in the records, given as the baptismal name of Saint Cadog, who himself later abandoned it. He is a Welshman, now in his 60s, and a Brother in the monastery of Saints Peter and Paul, in Shrewsbury, England. The time is the 1100s, while Stephen and Maud are contending for the throne of England. Cadfael is now a brother, but he has been in the world- he spent 15 (or so) years in the Mideast, first as a Crusader, then as captain of a fishing boat. While there, he began to learn about gardening and herbs; he loved several women and even fathered a son, although he did not know it at the time. Finally, the quiet, the peace of the monastery called to him, and he came home to England and took vows. When the series begins, he has been a brother for about 15 years. His adventures are all centered in life in the Monastery, which is the center of his life, but they also show that he has not turned away completely from the world.
Shrewsbury, Cadfael’s adopted home, was an English stronghold in a county which often served as the focal point for much of the contentious (and sometimes violent) relationship between the English and their stubbornly independent neighbors. The real-life Abbey at which Cadfael resides was a popular pilgrim destination, being in possession of the remains of St. Winifred. The first-ever House of Commons sat here in 1283 to decide the (unfortunate) fate of the last Prince of Wales, and Richard II convened a Great Parliament here 100 years later. History has made quite a celebrity of Shrewsbury; if you look at a map of the town, with the Severn caressing it from three sides, you will understand why being an entirely Left Bank affair is both a blessing and an invitation to notoriety. The sense of place is palpable throughout Peters’ writings.
And so it is hardly a surprise that a weary traveler, sailor and former Crusader would cease his wanderings in this particular spot. Within the Abbey walls, all may be peaceful, but there are ample opportunities for a rough-edged philosopher to spread peace, love and justice in unconventional ways. When the eyes of the law prove insufficient, there is Brother Cadfael.
A Morbid Taste for Bones
: Brother Cadfael is happy in his herb garden. He has two apprentices Brother John who really shouldn’t be in a monastery and the troubled Brother Columbanus who is prone to fits. Prior Robert is a vain man who is envious of other monasteries who have obtained the bones of saints and he wants the Monastery of the Saints Peter and Paul to have relics too. Brother Columbanus’s latest fit brings forth the idea that Saint Winifred in Wales wants to leave where she is at and come to them. Brother Cadfael being a Welsh speaker is reluctantly taken on the trip and he manages to get Abbot Heribert to let him take John along with him. The party consisting of Prior Robert and the Brothers Richard, Columbanus, Jerome (who is Prior Robert’s stooge), Cadfael and John make their way to Wales. There they are stymied by a rich landowner named Rhisiart who resents Prior Robert’s blatant attempt to bribe him. Cadfael along with Rhisiart’s daughter Sioned and her friend Annest try to solve the murder and unite two sets of young lovers.
One Corpse Too Many
: Brother Cadfael is presented with a new apprentice named Godric. He has his suspicions but keeps them to himself. At the same time the town of Shrewsbury is under attack by King Stephen’s force. Queen Maude’s defenders at the town have very little chance of wining. This book brings home the brutality of war. The King on winning the castle orders the death of 94 of the defenders. The two men he wanted most William FitzAllen and Fulke Adeney had escaped. The King sets a new recruit Hugh Berringer to try and find the daughter of Adeney, named Godith whom he was engaged to marry. Cadfael realized that Godric is not a boy and he turns out to be Godith. Cadfael is determined to protect her and get her to safety. Cadfael is assigned to bury the people who were killed by the King’s order. He finds that there is an extra body. Godith recognizes the body as that of a young courier in the employ of FitzAllen. She discovers the second courier badly injured and Cadfael determines to get both of them to safety in Wales. It becomes a battle of wits between Cadfael and Berringer.
: After the political maneuverings of One Corpse Too Many it was nice to get a straightforward murder mystery. At the abbey Gervase Bonel has taken up residence in one of the houses with his wife and two servants. He has pledged his lands to the abbey in return for being able to live in the house and be served with food and clothing for the rest of his life. The agreement cannot be signed when the Church demands that Abbot Heribert meets in London. A call for help brings Cadfael to the house where he finds Bonel dying of poison. It also turns out that his wife happens to be Richildis a woman that Cadfael when he was very young was betrothed to. Her son Edwin is the main suspect in his stepfather’s death when it turns out that Bonel had made an earlier will naming Edwin heir and then changed his mind. Richilidis begs Cadfael to save her son and find the real killer.
St. Peter's Fair
: this book comes back to the political intrigue from One Corpse Too Many. Every summer the abbey of St. Peters and Paul has a fair where merchants come from across the land and over the seas to attend. The townspeople had suffered from the battle for the town and hope to get the Monastery to help pay for the repairs the town suffered. The Abbot refuses which leads some of the hot headed young people to try and get the merchants to agree to help them out. One merchant Thomas of Bristol angrily refuses and when he turns up dead Phillip who headed the young people is accused of the murder. The man’s niece Emma appears to know more then she is telling. When a second merchant turns up killed the Deputy Sheriff Hugh Berringer asks Brother Cadfael for help. Cadfael’s own abbot the newly appointed Radulfus assigns him to find out what is going on. A young nobleman named Ivo Corbière complicates things.
The Leper of St. Giles
: Brother Cadfael is at the leper hospital of St. Giles delivering medicine. His former assistant Brother Mark is now in residence there. While he is there a procession goes by of a wedding party. The groom is the wealthy Huon de Domville a ruthless man in his 60s. The bride is the 18 year old Iveta de Massard. Iveta is an orphan who is being sold into this marriage by her Uncle Sir Godfrid Picard and his wife Agnes. In de Domville’s retinue are three squires his nephew and heir Simon Aguilon, Guy FitzJohn, and Joscelin Lucy. Joscelin is in love with Iveta. When de Domville is found murdered on his wedding day Joscelin is accused of the murder. He escapes to the leper hospital where he is befriended by a man who calls himself Lazarus and a young boy called Bran. In this story you learn more about Cadfael before he became a monk. He was a soldier in the Crusades and travelled the world as a sailor.
So this is the introduction to Brother Cadfael. In later diaries I will cover the other 15 books in a series of five at a time. The books were written in a linear progression as the story of Brother Cadfael unfolds. The stories can be read as a stand alone as each story is complete in itself however I find that the back story is fascinating if the books are read in order.