Created by Ellis Peters, the Brother Cadfael books are set in the 1100s during the Civil War between the supporters of Stephen and Matilda, rivals for the throne. The Civil War provides an excellent backdrop for the series, as does the Benedictine abbey at Shrewsbury.
A well-rounded character, Cadfael – which is Welsh for ‘battle prince’ – was a soldier and crusader, but when the series begins, we find him at the abbey of St Paul and St Peter, content to tend his herb garden. Cadfael’s knowledge of herbal medicines is brought into play throughout the series and this knowledge often leads to the unmasking of the villain.
Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael
Ellis Peters’ medieval mysteries are rich in character, not least Cadfael himself, who is a man of justice, compassion and resilience. Throughout the series, Cadfael is assisted by Deputy Sheriff Hugh Beringar, a practical man who has to balance the search for truth and justice against the political machinations of the Civil War. A number of colourful characters from the abbey also appear frequently, including the sanctimonious Prior Robert and the obnoxious Brother Jerome.
The Cadfael books were adapted for television in the 1990s with a film set of polystyrene and wood constructed in Hungary. The set stood for five years during the filming of thirteen of the original twenty books. Derek Jacobi memorably portrayed Cadfael with Michael Culver, Julian Firth and Peter Copley in supporting roles. The one weakness of the television series was the constantly changing face of Hugh Beringar, who was portrayed by three different actors. The television series, like the books, was a great success, though unfortunately high production costs brought the series to a close before all twenty books could be filmed.
Ellis Peters was the pen name of Edith Pargeter (1913 – 95) and, a prolific author, she wrote around ninety books. She wrote her first book, Hortensius, Friend of Nero, in 1936 and, in the 1960s, a popular series of books featuring Inspector Felse and his family. The Inspector Felse books, like all the best crime fiction, offer a window on society and explore family life, from a policeman’s perspective, in the 1960s.
During World War Two, Edith Pargeter served in the Women’s Royal Navy Service and was awarded the British Empire Medal. A lover of Czechoslovakia, she also translated many books from the Czech language. However, she will be best remembered for her classic Cadfael novels.