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Cadfael and his Creator 

Edith Pargeter wrote the The Chronicles of Brother

Cadfael series under the pen name ‘Ellis Peters.’ (Supplied Photo)

By Sue Careless

“FICTION, AT ITS BEST, expands our moral imagination,” writes Robert Fulford, and after reading Ellis Peters’ The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael, I would add that it expands our spiritual imagination as well. 

Cadfael is the medieval sleuth in a series of murder mysteries by the self-taught linguist and scholar Edith Pargeter, who wrote the series under the pen name “Ellis Peters.”

Cadfael (pronounced CAD-vile) is a Welsh Benedictine monk living at the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul in Shrewsbury, western England, in the 12th century. He had roamed the world from Wales to Jerusalem and back to Normandy for forty years as a soldier and then as a sailor before committing himself to the stability of the cloister. He leaves his crusading and seafaring past behind only in late middle age. Peters describes her sleuth as a “man of wide worldly experience and an inexhaustible fund of resigned tolerance for the human condition.”

Peters never intended to write a series. She simply wanted to pen a murder mystery from the true history of Shrewsbury Abbey in Shropshire in the twelfth century, and needed “the medieval equivalent of a detective, an observer and an agent of justice in the centre of the action.” In fact her next book was a modern detective novel.

But then she could no longer resist the temptation to shape another book around the siege of Shrewsbury and the grisly massacre of the 94-man-strong garrison by King Stephen. In One Corpse Too Many, Cadfael is preparing to bury these dead, only to discover there is one extra corpse – and a murderer on the loose.

The twenty historically accurate novels are set between 1137 and 1145, during “The Anarchy”, the wretched civil war in which two cousins – King Stephen and Empress Maud – vie for the English crown with little thought for the havoc caused to the realm. If you have never heard of Empress Maud, the legitimate heir to the English throne who was usurped by her cousin while she was in Normandy, these books will tell the tale.  

You may wonder how a murder could be solved in an age when you could not distinguish between animal and human blood, let alone rely on fingerprinting or DNA testing. Nor were there watches to tell time. However the regular monastic bells calling for the eight daily offices (services) could be heard throughout the nearby town and countryside. As a skilled herbalist Cadfael knew which plants and potions were poisonous. Moreover, he could read not only a corpse found in forest or stream, but also upon closer examination, laid out in the mortuary chapel. As one who had taken part in the crusades, Cadfael was familiar with what weapons would cause which wounds. But best of all, he could read human nature. Like G.K. Chesterton’s humble parish priest, Father Brown, Brother Cadfael was a student of the human heart and knew something of its many deceptions.

Cadfael has a close friend and ally in Hugh Beringar who appears in the second book as the deputy sheriff of Shrewsbury, and then later as sheriff. “They were old friends, closer than father and son, having not only that easy and tolerant relationship of two generations, but shared experiences that made them contemporaries. They sharpened minds one upon the other, for the better protection of values and institutions that needed defence with every passing day in a land so shaken and disrupted.”

In the third chronicle, Monk’s-Hood, another key figure appears – Abbot Radulfus. Cadfael, as a monk, has vowed to obey him. Radulfus exhibits “magisterial calm” and listens with “shrewd gravity and considers in silence before speaking.” He possesses great wisdom and shows humane care for all those committed to his charge. Only once or perhaps twice in the series does he make a serious error in judgment.

One particularly bristly character within the cloister is Prior Robert, who is sure his aristocratic features would look “splendid in a mitre.” “For whatever virtues might be found in Prior Robert, humility was not one, nor magnanimity. He was invariably sure of his own righteousness, and where it was challenged, he was not a forgiving man.” “The precise letter of canon law was sacred to Robert” and he disapproves of what he considers the privileges granted by the Abbot to Cadfael to travel frequently beyond the cloister on various missions of healing, detection or diplomacy.

Prior Robert gets a severe one-uppance in Monk’s Hood but this fails to humble him. His sanctimonious sidekick and talebearer is Brother Jerome. 

But others within the cloister are more sympathetic. Cadfael is particularly close to Brother Paul, master of the novices who is also in charge of the schoolboys. “Brother Paul who could discover an angel within every imp he taught, was nevertheless a sceptic concerning their elders.”

Cadfael becomes something of a father figure to several of the novices and younger monks. Yet he has the humility to see that some of them easily surpass him in both goodness and grace.

Nor is the whole cast of the Chronicles male. Within the monastery walls there is a guest hall in which women may lodge and laywomen are among the townsfolk who attend some of the abbey services.

On his many missions abroad Cafael interacts with various women of all ages and classes, one of the most unusual and capable being Sister Magdalen. And, of course, there is the regal but arrogant and overbearing Empress Maud. Cadfael also has an affectionate, at times almost whimsical – albeit spiritual – relationship with the abbey’s patron saint, St Winifred.

In all but one of her chronicles Peters weaves in a love story. And while the couple are usually young folk, at least twice they are of riper years.

One of the  pleasures of the series is that many of the characters, both inside the monastic community and outside of it, reappear from time to time. So it is best to read the books in order.

Peters said, “[T]he entire sequence of novels proceeds steadily season by season, year by year, in a progressive tension which I did not want to break.” But the short story “A Light on the Road to Woodstock” in A Rare Benedictine (1988) does shed light on Cadfael’s vocation, and serves as a prequel.


Stark fact and derived fiction

“What I have created is an amalgam of stark fact and derived fiction,” said Peters. “The fictional element is devised always with due respect to the known, recorded and agreed facts of English and Welsh history in the twelfth century. I have not tampered with anything that is accepted as authentic.

“These kings, earls, bishops, abbots, Welsh princes, Danish settlers and marauders, really did exist, intermarry, rule, engender their successors, and die. All that is known of them I have respected. But the teeming thousands whose names are not recorded in the histories – the merchants, labourers, peasants, housewives, who inhabited towns and villages, farmed the land, made the artifacts, managed the small manors and coppiced the woodland – these I am entitled to imagine, to name, and to fit into the trellis of history, representatives of the common stock.”  

She called these “The humble people who might have been you or me, had we been born eight centuries earlier.”

Peters tackles tough topics like the stigma of leprosy; the scourge of serfdom and, worse still, slavery; arranged marriages; siege warfare; and the piercing sorrow of civil war.   

The rich tapestry of Cadfael’s chronicles are peopled with orphans and their guardians, refugees and prisoners of war, the accused seeking sanctuary, pilgrims drawn to the relics of saints, widows being pressed into remarriage, heretics and hermits whose holiness may be questionable, mistresses and nuns, harsh priests and merciless prelates, dowerless young women, apprentices eager to learn a trade, knights and their squires, shopkeepers and pedlars, acrobats and jugglers, indeed all manner of sinners and saints.  



Peters said, “In an age of relatively uncomplicated faith, not yet obsessed and tormented by cantankerous schisms, sects and politicians,” Cadfael had always been an “unquestioning believer.” He did not experience a religious conversion per se when he decided in middle age to take up the cowl.

However, in relation to those monks like Brother Edmond who had been an “oblate,” that is given by his parents to the monastery as a young child, Cadfael was known as a “conversus.” Yet despite their radically different life experiences, the two men “understood each other so well few words were needed.”

Her Cadfael novels show a great appreciation for the ideals of Catholic Christianity in the High Middle Ages, but also acknowledge some of its weaknesses such as an inquisition of sorts in The Heretic’s Apprentice and the greed of the Church to own more land and wealth in Monk’s-Hood and St Peter’s Fair. While Cadfael is devoted to St Winifred, he is highly suspicious of the growing market in religious relics. And he is wary of the wisdom of Europe embarking on another crusade.

Peters also exposes some of the problems specific to medieval monastic life. In The Potter’s Field a married man forsakes his wife to become a monk but she had no freedom to remarry while her husband still lives.

In The Devil’s Novice a father gives his young son as an oblate to the abbey. The expense of raising such a child would fall to the abbey while the costs of a schoolboy simply studying at the abbey would remain with his father. So some parents, both rich and poor, were quick to forsake their children in monasteries and convents to save money. By the 13th century the giving of boys had virtually ceased although girls continued to be given for some time.

In several of the novels, those seeking the cowl or veil may be doing so simply to escape difficulties in the outside world – a problem in any age.



Edith Mary Pargeter (1913 – 1995) was born into a working class family in a village in Shropshire, an English county on the border with Wales. She had Welsh ancestry so it is not surprising that many of her books are set in Wales and its borderlands, or have Welsh protagonists like Cadfael, “ambivalent souls with one foot in England and one in Wales.” She understood the different laws and customs of Wales and why many an accused in Shropshire might want to flee there.

Her obituary in The Independent described her as “something of a polymath (musicologist, historian, an authority on the Czech language) yet largely self-educated; she never attended university. Instead, she spent seven years (1933-40) as a chemist’s assistant and wrote in her spare time.”

She said of her pharmacy work: “We used to make bottled medicine that we compounded specially, with ingredients like gentian, rosemary, horehound. You never see that nowadays; those tinctures are never prescribed…. Some of Cadfael’s prescriptions come out of those years.”

During World War II, she achieved the rank of Petty Officer in the Women’s Royal Naval Service, known affectionately as the “WRENS,” and in 1944 received the British Empire Medal for distinguished service.

After the war Pargeter visited Czechoslovakia and was entranced by the Czech language and culture. She became fluent in Czech and published award-winning English translations of Czech poetry and prose. She never married, but did fall in love with a Czech man. He married another woman, but they remained friends. 

She devoted the rest of her life to writing both nonfiction and well-researched fiction. She was incredibly prolific, writing and translating over 70 books in her lifetime. Pargeter won numerous awards culminating in 1993 with the Cartier Diamond Dagger for her outstanding lifetime contribution to the field of crime and mystery writing. A year later she was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire “for services to Literature.”

Pargeter wrote her Cadfael Chronicles between 1977 and 1994. The final book, Brother Cadfael’s Penance, is particularly moving, and was published just one year before her death from a stroke at 82. She died only three miles from her birthplace.

Derek Jacobi starred as Cadfael in the TV series of the same name that ran from 1994 to 1998. Only 13 of the 20 novels were filmed and are now available on DVD. Some are fairly faithful to the original works but others, like The Pilgrim of Hate, vary dramatically in both plot and character. All the novels are now available as audiobooks and would provide a more faithful source.



Pargeter’s Cadfael Chronicles are often credited for popularizing what would later become known as the historical mystery. Some critics thought the goodness of her characters was overdone. In her obituary in The Independent it was noted that “she redefined the form by avoiding irony in her work…and concentrating on the alien quality of the past…while at the same time pointing up the essential continuity of the human condition.” The Times in their tribute called her “a deeply sensitive and perceptive woman.”

She was a devout Anglican who took the title of her eleventh chronicle An Excellent Mystery from The Book of Common Prayer: “O God, who hast consecrated the state of matrimony to such an excellent mystery… “

Pargeter never fails to tell a good tale, but she inhabits each one with some marvellous and, at times, quite paradoxical characters, and exhibits a great spiritual sensibility throughout the series. She is in fine company with other Anglican writers of mysteries, most notably Dorothy Sayers and P.D. James. All three, along with G.K Chesterton, took seriously both their Christian faith and their mystery writing.  TAP


QUOTES from The Chronicles of Cadfael


Every spring is the only spring, a perpetual astonishment.


You cannot demand truth, and then select half and throw the inconvenient remainder away.

There is in the end no remedy but truth. It is the one course that cannot be evil.

Truth is a hard master, and costly to serve, but it simplifies all problems.

[T]ruth and reputation sometimes part company. 


Murder is murder, as much a curse to the slayer as to the slain and cannot be a matter of indifference, whoever the dead may be.


Justice is a very fine thing, but not when it does more harm to the victim than to the wrongdoer.


Too much trust is folly, in an imperfect world.

Of all the reports that fly about the world, ill news is the surest of all to arrive!

[E]ven the pursuit of perfection may be sin, if it infringes the rights and needs of another soul. Better to fail a little, by turning aside to lift up another, than to pass by him in haste to reach our own reward, and leave him to solitude and despair.


I know of human deception, not always deliberate, for sometimes the deceiver is himself deceived.


A man must be prepared to face life, as well as death, there’s no escape from either.

Life goes not in a straight line, lad, but in a circle. The first half we spend venturing as far as the world’s end from home and kin and stillness, and the latter half brings us back, by roundabout ways but surely, to that state from which we set out.

[A]s roads go, the road home is as good as any.


They sell courage of a sort in the taverns. And another sort, though not for sale, a man can find in the confessional. Try the alehouses and the churches….In either a man can be quiet and think. 


I have always known that the best of the Saracens could out-Christian many of us Christians. 


Nothing is more pleasing and engaging than the sense of having conferred benefits. Not even the gratification of receiving them.


One century’s saint is the next century’s heretic...and one century’s heretic is the next century’s saint. It is as well to think long and calmly before affixing either name to any man.


[T]he step from perfectly ordinary things into the miraculous seems to me so small, almost accidental, that I wonder why it astonishes you at all…or why you trouble to reason about it. If it were reasonable, it could not be miraculous, could it? 

Of a Miraculous Healing

He saw no reason why he should expect to be singled out for healing, but he said that he offered his pain freely, who had nothing else to give. Not to buy grace, but of his goodwill to give and want nothing in return. And further, it seems that thus having accepted his pain out of love, his pain left him.  


Even miracles have their times. Half our lives in this world are spent in waiting. It is needful to wait with faith.


Here I begin to know that blessedness is what can be snatched out the passing day and put away to think of afterwards.

Of an infant who died unbaptized

All such as are born into this world and die untainted by personal sin partake of the martyred purity of the Holy Innocents, and die for Our Lord, who also will embrace them living, where they shall no more partake of death. And if they died without name here, yet their name is written in his book….

Religious Vocation

No one should take to the cloistered life as a second-best….It must be embraced out of genuine desire, or not at all. It is not enough to wish to escape from the world without, you must be on fire for the world within.

Many have entered for the wrong reasons, and later remained for the right ones.

It is far better to do whole-hearted service in another field than remain half-hearted and doubting within the Order.

There are griefs everywhere, within [the pale] and without. There are few hiding places. It is the nature of this world.

I will not let him take vows in haste, to regret them later. Now he is transported with joy and wonder, and would embrace celibacy and seclusion with delight. If his will is still the same in a month, then I will believe in it, and welcome him gladly.

Prayer and Compline

Thinking is best after prayer, but will be none the worse for a meal and a glass of wine.

[All manner of folk were] coming in to the late office [of Compline] wanting the day completed and crowned. He felt himself compassed about by a great cloud of witnesses and it mattered not at all that the whole soul of every one of these might be intent upon other anxieties, and utterly unaware of him. So many passionate needs brought together must surely shake the heavens.  TAP

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