Sir Derek and the Chronicles of a Truly Rare Benedictine
When the decision was made to produce for TV several episodes from her mystery series about Brother Cadfael, that 12th century crusader turned monk turned detective who has been, ever since his creation, one of the most compassionate and unusual sleuths of literary history, novelist Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) was not entirely happy. In fact, as the series’ star, Sir Derek Jacobi, explains in the extra footage provided on the now-released DVDs, Ms. Peters had very mixed feelings about giving up her brain child and entrusting it to other people who went about cutting and adjusting everything, from the story lines themselves to the way the protagonists speak, to the necessities and limitations set by the new medium. But she eventually acquiesced and at one point promised that “the next one I write, I’ll make sure it’s easier for you all to film.”
While the thirteen episodes that were eventually produced are, thus, not entirely true to the individual Chronicles they are based on, they are closer than many other movie or TV versions of famous works of literature. Most importantly, they maintain not only the core story lines but also the historical authenticity, atmosphere and spirit set by Ms. Peters‘s books in a marvelous fashion; portraying, like the novels, vividly and with great care for detail medieval monastic life as well as a society caught in the middle of a civil war (that between Empress Maud and King Stephen for the throne of England), with shifting allegiances, intrigue, favoritism and again and again, innocent victims caught between the front lines.. And Sir Derek Jacobi brings both the wealth of his experience and skill and all of his own shrewdness, intelligence, sense of humor and empathy to the role of the medieval Benedictine sleuth and thus truly becomes Cadfael – for the thousands of new fans who are discovering the series through its enactment for TV just as much as for us who loved the books before they were ever transposed to a visual medium: Due to his experiences as a crusader endowed with a keen sense of reality, a certain world-weariness and a deep sense of morality alike, he not only understands the letter of the law (both divine and worldly) but more importantly, also the deeper implications of the same, and always finds a way to apply the church’s teachings in a truly Solomonic manner, and to arrive at solutions that are as just as they are compassionate and pragmatic. – A tremendous cast of supporting actors rounds out an overall excellent production; to mention just a few, Julian Firth as the ambitious and narrow-minded Brother Jerome, Terrence Hardiman as Abbot Radolfus and first Sean Pertwee (episodes 1 – 4), then Eoin McCarthy (episodes 5 – 9) and Anthony Green (episodes 10 – 13) as Under-Sheriff Hugh Beringar, who joins Cadfael in his investigations whenever, as is so often the case, these transcend the world of monastic life and require the administration of secular justice as well as clerical insight. Several episodes also feature noted guest stars, such as Kitty Aldridge as Judith Perle and Crispin Bonham-Carter as Miles Coliar in The Rose Rent.
The episodes are not entirely in the same order as the books; however, as most of the cross-references between the books have been eliminated in the screen versions, this is no great harm (although the lacking cross-references are probably one of the things avid readers of the books will find missing). The DVDs also provide background information on Ellis Peters, Sir Derek Jacobi and a number of the individual episodes’ other actors. The televised episodes are, in the order of their original broadcast:
One Corpse Too Many (the second Chronicle)
King Stephen lays siege to Shrewsbury Castle and, finally victorious, orders the surviving defenders to be executed. But then there’s an extra corpse, who clearly wasn’t executed. Whodunnit – and why?
The Sanctuary Sparrow (the seventh Chronicle)
A young singer is accused of robbery and murder and, hunted by a mob, seeks shelter in the Abbey.
The Leper of St. Giles (the fifth Chronicle)
A leper’s grim fate is unexpectedly intertwined with the story of an orphaned heiress, due to be wedded for money’s sake to a despicable old baron, and her lover; who is everybody’s favorite suspect when the groom turns up dead.
Monk’s Hood (the third Chronicle)
Cadfael’s and Shrewsbury Abbey’s honor is at stake when a guest is found poisoned by Cadfael’s own potions … and the sheriff’s sergeant over-eagerly jumps to the wrong conclusions.
The Virgin in the Ice (the sixth Chronicle)
After the sack of Worcester by Empress Maud, a nun, a young nobleman and his sister get lost in the Marshes. Cadfael rushes to the rescue – and meets a messenger from his own past!
The Devil’s Novice (the eighth Chronicle)
The Abbey accepts a novice with a troubling zeal for monastic life (but not its virtues), who may or may not be connected to the death of a cleric traveling through his home village.
A Morbid Taste for Bones (the first Chronicle)
The monks mount an expedition to Wales to retrieve the bones of a local saint after a young monk claims to have seen the saint in a vision in which she asked that her bones be brought to Shrewsbury. The mission runs into serious trouble when the local lord, who has opposed it, is found murdered.
The Rose Rent (the thirteenth Chronicle)
A grieving young widow, beset by suitors, gives her house to the abbey for a single rose’s annual rent. But her gift of beauty turns bloody when the emissary delivering the rose, a young monk, is found murdered.
St. Peter’s Fair (the fourth Chronicle)
While traders arrive from near and far, townsfolk claim a share of the Abbey’s dues from the annual fair. Then a merchant is found murdered – but there’s more to this than meets the eye!
The Raven in the Foregate (the twelfth Chronicle)
Cadfael must solve the mystery behind two deaths; one of a young woman who (unsuccessfully) sought his spiritual advice, the other of the priest to whom Cadfael sent her: the new priest in Shrewsbury’s foregate, an ambitious, power-hungry cleric in direct allegiance with King Stephen.
The Holy Thief (the nineteenth Chronicle)
Competitors for the possession of St. Winifred’s relics show up in Shrewsbury! Then the holy bones disappear, a monk is found murdered – and a tonsured troubadour finds his lady love.
The Potter’s Field (the seventeenth Chronicle)
The discovery of the bones of a woman in a field once belonging to a potter turned monk leads Cadfael to unveil a harrowing tale of love, loss and a deadly wager.
The Pilgrim of Hate (the tenth Chronicle)
A cripple, his sister and two brothers on a painful pilgrimage meet at the Abbey during the annual feast of St. Winifred. Soon, the question arises whether religion is primarily penance or faith in God’s love of mankind.
Production Credits / Cast and Crew
- Studio: ITV (1994–1998)
- Directors: various
- Executive Producers: Ted Childs / Rebecca Eaton / Rob Pursey
- Screenplay: various
- Based on the novels by: Ellis Peters
- Music: Rob Pursey
- Cinematography / Director of Photography: various
Recurring & Key Cast
- Derek Jacobi: Brother Cadfael
- Sean Pertwee: Hugh Beringar (episodes 1 – 4)
- Eoin McCarthy: Sheriff Hugh Beringar (episodes 5 – 9)
- Anthony Green: Hugh Beringar (episodes 10 – 13)
- Terrence Hardiman: Abbot Radulfus
- Michael Culver: Prior Robert
- Julian Firth: Brother Jerome
- Mark Charnock: Brother Oswin
- Peter Copley: Abbot Heribert
- Albie Woodington: Sergeant Warden
- Raymond Llewellyn: Madog
- Gábor Urmai: Jehan
- Sarah Badel: Avice of Thornbury
- Robert Cavanah: Olivier de Bretagne
- Mary Miller: Richildis
- Michael Grandage: King Stephen
- Cadfael at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb)
- Shropshire Council: In the footsteps of Brother Cadfael
- Shropshire Tourism: Shrewsbury Abbey
- The Brother Cadfael Chronicles (unofficial site)
- The Cadfael Chronicles (unofficial site)
- Cadfael (unofficial site)
- The Herbarium of Odin’s Castle of Dreams & Legends (unofficial site)
- Themis-Athena’s Derek Jacobi artist page
- Edith Pargeter at West Midlands Literary Heritage
- Themis-Athena’s Ellis Peters page
Project Page: The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael
Reviews and other Blog Posts:
Ellis Peters: A Morbid Taste for Bones
Ellis Peters: The Devil’s Novice
Ellis Peters: The Raven in the Foregate
Ellis Peters: The Rose Rent
Ellis Peters: Brother Cadfael’s Penance
Brother Cadfael: An Ideal Teacher
Robin Whiteman & Rob Talbot: Brother Cadfael’s Herb Garden & Cadfael Country / Robin Whiteman: The Cadfael Companion / Ellis Peters: Strongholds and Sanctuaries