Shrewsbury Abbey

A Rare Benedictine

The Tales of Brother Cadfael


List of novels in the: Cadfael Chronicles


List of the TV dramas: Season 1    Season 2    Season 3    Season 4

Brother Cadfael is the fictional main character in a series of a historical murder mystery series written between 1977 and 1994 by the linguist-scholar Edith Pargeter, under the name 'Ellis Peters'. The character of Cadfael is a Welsh Benedictine monk living at Shrewsbury Abbey in the west midlands of 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. He is called upon as a medical examiner, detective, doctor, and diplomat. His worldly knowledge, although useful, occasionally 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.

'Cadfael' is a traditional Welsh name derived from the words cad ('battle') and mael ('prince'). There are differing pronunciations of the name Cadfael; normal Welsh pronunciation would be [ˈkadvaɨl] (close to 'CAD-vile'). The name is commonly mispronounced /ˈkædfaɪl/ 'CAD-file' in English. Cadfael himself is a Welshman and uses patronymics in the Welsh fashion, naming himself Cadfael ap Meilyr ap Dafydd (Cadfael son of Meilyr son of Dafydd) as his full name.

Ellis Peters writes that Cadfael was born in 1080 into a villein community in Trefriw, Conwy, in North Wales,  with at least one sibling--a younger brother. Rather than wait to inherit the right to till a section of land, he left his home at the age of fourteen as servant to a wool-trader, and thus became acquainted with Shrewsbury early in life. In 1096, he embarked on the First Crusade to the Holy Land in the force commanded by Robert II, Duke of Normandy. After the victorious end to the Crusade, he lived for several years in Syria and the Holy Land, earning a living as a sailor, before returning to England around 1114 to find that Richildis Vaughan, to whom he had been unofficially engaged, had tired of waiting and had married a Shrewsbury craftsman. Cadfael became a man-at-arms (or foot soldier) in the war waged by Henry I of England to secure the union with Normandy. He returned again to England in the service of a nobleman, Roger Mauduit, who then kidnapped Prior Heribert of Shrewsbury Abbey in an attempt to foil a lawsuit. Cadfael freed Heribert, and, being released from Mauduit's service, laid aside his arms and proceeded with Heribert to Shrewsbury Abbey.

In The Devil's Novice, Cadfael describes his life:

"I have seen death in many shapes, I've been a soldier and a sailor in my time; in the east, in the Crusade, and for ten years after Jerusalem fell. I've seen men killed in battle. Come to that, I've killed men in battle. I never took joy in it, that I can remember, but I never drew back from it either. [...]

After the city was settled and Baldwin crowned, most of us went home over three or four years, but I had taken to the sea by then, and I stayed. There were pirates ranged those coasts, we always had work to do. [...]

I served as a free man-at-arms for a while...but I had had my way in the world. [Now] I grow herbs and dry them and make remedies for all the ills that visit us. [...] To heal men, after years of injuring them? What could be more fitting? A man does what he must do."

Cadfael becomes a monk only in middle age and, as a result, is more familiar with the secular world outside the monastery than most of his brother monks. His personality reflects more modern, pragmatic attitudes and progressive ethics than those of his time, which often puts him in conflict with his brethren--particularly with his superior Prior Robert and Robert's clerk Brother Jerome, who disapprove of Cadfael for his casual attitude toward rules and for the privileges that are allowed him by their Abbot. In the stories, Brother Cadfael regularly disobeys the heads of his abbey, and acts to bring about his own sense of compassionate justice (as against church or feudal law). Abbot Heribert and his successor Radulfus recognise Cadfael's unusual skills garnered from a long life as soldier, herbalist, lover, sailor and traveller. Having lived 'half his life in battles',  they deploy him as detective, medical examiner, diplomatic envoy (particularly to the Welsh), and counsel. Abbot Radulfus, who is himself a shrewd and worldly man, allows Cadfael a certain degree of independence and appreciates that there are circumstances under which the rules of the Order must be bent in order to serve a greater and more practical good. Though indulgent to a certain degree, his patience with Cadfael is not limitless; he reprimands Cadfael when he feels that his lack of monastic discipline and obedience have been excessive and unwarranted.

Formal monastic practice forms a central part of Cadfael's life as a Benedictine monk, and religion provides the basis for his character as well as for the atmosphere and action of the stories. The Rule of St Benedict is the framework of Cadfael's home monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul, which is located just across the river Severn from Shrewsbury. It is noted that in the year 1141 (under Abbot Radulfus), 53 brothers, seven novices and six schoolboys live at the Abbey, not including lay stewards and servants. Their days are structured by the selection of daily 'offices' they follow.

The two abbots rulimg during Cafael's time at the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul, Abbot Heribert (1127–1138) and abbot Radulfus (1138–1148), are both real historical figures. The supercilious "abbot in waiting", Prior Robert Pennant (1148–1167) eventually succeeded Radulfus some time after the end of the Cadfael Chronicles.

[The above is a precis of the entry for 'Cadfael' to be found in 'Wikipaedia'.]

The Cadfael Chronicles:

  1. A Morbid Taste for Bones (written in 1977, set in 1137)
  2. One Corpse Too Many (1979, set in August 1138)
  3. Monk's Hood (1980, set in December 1138)
  4. Saint Peter's Fair (1981, set in July 1139)
  5. The Leper of Saint Giles (1981, set in October 1139)
  6. The Virgin in the Ice (1982, set in November 1139)
  7. The Sanctuary Sparrow (1983, set in the Spring of 1140)
  8. The Devil's Novice (1983, set in September 1140)
  9. Dead Man's Ransom (1984, set in February 1141)
  10. The Pilgrim of Hate (1984, set in May 1141)
  11. An Excellent Mystery (1985, set in August 1141)
  12. The Raven in the Foregate (1986, set in December 1141)
  13. The Rose Rent (1986, set in June 1142)
  14. The Hermit of Eyton Forest (1988, set in October 1142)
  15. The Confession of Brother Haluin (1988, set in December 1142)
  16. The Heretic's Apprentice (1990, set in June 1143)
  17. The Potter's Field (1990, set in August 1143)
  18. The Summer of the Danes (1991, set in April 1144)
  19. The Holy Thief (1992, set in August 1144)
  20. Brother Cadfael's Penance (1994, set in November 1145)

All of these can be bought at Shrewsbury Abbey!

Cadfael: the Television Series:


Season 1

Season 1, Episode 1: One Corpse Too Many

Assigned by King Stephen to dispose of 94 hanged rebels, Cadfael discovers the body of a murdered man among the corpses and given just four days to solve the crime.

Season 1, Episode 2: The Sanctuary Sparrow

Liliwin is a poor acrobat hired to entertain at an Aurifaber wedding. But when he is dismissed and the master of the house is found unconscious and robbed, Cadfael must find the real thief before the mob takes vengeance.

Season 1, Episode 3: The Leper of St. Giles

When a cruel middle-aged baron and a beautiful wealthy orphan are to be wed at the abbey, it comes as no surprise when the sadistic nobleman is found bludgeoned to death.

Season 1, Episode 4: Monk's Hood

When an unpleasant and cruel nobleman spites his stepson by ceding his estate to the abbey, he ends up being poisoned by one of Brother Cadfael's medications.

Season 2

Season 2, Episode 1: The Virgin in the Ice

A young nun is found violated and murdered, while the brother and sister she was escorting have disappeared. A mysterious forest ranger dedicates himself to rescuing the children, while Brother Oswin blames himself for Sister Hilaria's death. Cadfael must identify the killer and do what he can to aid in the children's rescue.

Season 2, Episode 2: The Devil's Novice

Cadfael is sure the unlikely novice Meriet is hiding a secret, and when a missing bishop's envoy is found dead, Meriet takes the blame. Cadfael must discover who Meriet is protecting and who is the real murderer. Ellis Peters fans will find the character name changes confusing and not helpful to the story.

Season 2, Episode 3: A Morbid Taste for Bones

Cadfael and a deputation of monks from Shrewsbury are dispatched to Wales to recover the remains of martyred St. Winifred over the objections of the local lord and residents.

Season 3

Season 3, Episode 1: The Rose Rent

A beautiful, wealthy widow turns her back on the world to find solace with the church and gives her house over to the abbey for the rent of a single white rose each year.

Season 3, Episode 2: St Peter's Fair

A dispute between Church and State over Fair fees leads to a brawl and the murder of a prominent visiting merchant, supposedly by a townsman. As more bodies are found, Cadfael starts to think the Church/State difference isn't the cause after all.

Season 3, Episode 3: The Raven in the Foregate

An unpopular Puritanical priest new to Shrewsbury refuses to give a pregnant young girl absolution resulting in her apparent suicide.

Season 4

Season 4, Episode 1: The Holy Thief

Ramsey Abbey in Cambridgeshire puts in a claim for the remains of St. Winifred, whose reliquary is the object of prayer and lucrative donations to Shrewsbury Abbey.

Season 4, Episode 2: The Potter's Field

A year after Brother Ruald answers his vocation and becomes a monk at Shrewsbury, a body, believed to be his deserted wife, is unearthed near his cottage.

Season 4, Episode 3: The Pilgrim of Hate

In this maladaptation, the noble knight and repentant killer have become two brothers, one of whom is blamed for their father's death. Winsome Melangell has become a thief to support her con-artist brother (their aunt doesn't exist). Only Cadfael is still interested in the truth, even if it disarranges the plans of any of these unsympathetic characters.


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