- The World of Brother Cadfael
For readers outside the realm of mystery fiction the name Ellis Peters is generally unknown. For mystery-genre aficionados, though, this author of the Brother Cadfael Chronicles is reputed to be the literary find of the last thirty years. Some people argue that P. D. James might rival her for that designation, and yet even those present-day Jacobites admit that Ellis Peters in most ways is the equal of their preferred writer.
The tapestry of the twenty books in the Brother Cadfael Chronicles is a medieval one, drawn by Ellis Peters from the twelfth-century England that she had studied and mastered thoroughly. That historical mastery and her literary artistry were two of the reasons among several that Birmingham University bestowed on her an honorary Master of Arts degree and that Queen Elizabeth II presented to her the Order of the British Empire.
Ellis Peters is the pen name of Edith Pargeter, and under her own name she wrote scores of books, some of which are The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet, The Eighth Champion of Christendom, A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury, and Reluctant Odyssey. Again as Ellis Peters she wrote the thirteen Detective Felse novels that combined with the Cadfael Chronicles merited her the British Crime Writers Association's [End Page 149] Cartier Diamond Dagger Award and the highly coveted Mystery Writers of America's Edgar. She also received the Gold Medal and Ribbon from the Czechoslovak Society for International Relations for her translations of English classics into Czech. She was a prolific and formidable writer who died at the age of 82 in 1995.1
As impressive and meritorious as the complete Ellis Peters/ Edith Pargeter literary legacy is, it is the Cadfaelien novels that most arrest our attention, a tapestry formed from the warp of power politics some eight hundred years past but as modern as yesterday and the woof of emotions, temperaments, and ambitions of characters as human as members of one's own family. The overriding political situation throughout the chronicles is the English Civil War, a war between cousins for the succession to the throne. While Henry I of England was still king, his barons swore fealty to Empress Maud, Henry's daughter, as successor to the throne. When Henry died in 1135, however, Count Stephen, Maud's cousin whom Henry had reared and knighted, seized the throne and had himself crowned as king, even though as late as 1131 and again in 1133 he too had sworn fealty to Maud. Maud's partisans believed that she as Henry's only living child should be queen and that it was right to stand by her faithfully. They were particularly angered that the barons who had sworn fealty to Maud took Stephen's seizure of the throne meekly and forgot their oaths. On the opposing side, there were many lords, as Cadfael himself summarizes, "'who would say, better a man for overlord than a woman. And if a man, why, Stephen was as near as any to the throne. He is King William's [William the Conqueror's] grandchild, just as Maud is.'"2 This statement is Cadfael's summarizing only, not a statement of agreement.
In addition to the outright seizure of the throne, Stephen, once king, affronted, attacked, and greatly offended the Church in the persons of certain of its bishops. Even Stephen's younger brother, Henry, Bishop of Winchester and papal legate who had been Stephen's staunch adherent, began to feel sympathy for the empress Maud once she had actually arrived in England and based [End Page 150] herself in the city of Gloucester. She had been innocently residing in Normandy. Furthermore, when in power, Stephen, although amiable in some ways, showed himself to be lethargic, having to be stung into action. Consequently, half the barons finally recollected their oaths, declared themselves for Maud, and entered her cause with bloodshed. It became a mad age with two monarchs in the field, a dozen petty "kings" taking advantage of the turmoil to try to establish their own private realms, and even people like Bishop Henry hovering among at least three loyalties. In the...