In 1135, King Henry I died, naming his only legitimate child as his successor, but this obvious choice came with two problems: she was a girl, and her husband was on the wrong political side. Who would be the next to rule England?
From among the possibilities—Henry’s illegitimate son plus a couple of nephews—one emerged as a serious contender, and so began a period of war called the Anarchy, as the followers of Empress Mathilda (the daughter) battled those of King Stephen (her cousin) for the crown.
During the Anarchy, a clever Welsh monk became known for solving murders in a place of no large consequence, known as Shrubstown. Except that he didn’t, really, because Brother Cadfael is fictional.
Shrubstown, however, is real. That’s a translation into modern English of Scrobbesburh, a name which morphed over the years into Shrewsbury, the name used today and used in the Cadfael stories. American readers may be most familiar with Shrewsbury as the site of the abbey where Ellis Peters’s most famous character carried on his healing work as well as his detecting.
I first encountered Brother Cadfael when Derek Jacobi played him on television, but the Shrewsbury Abbey of the TV version looks nothing like the real thing. A set, built in Hungary and based on the chapel at the Tower of London, stood in for the interior of Shrewsbury Abbey.
That televised ‘abbey’ had a flight of stairs up to the front door–for no apparent reason, since just inside the door there’s another flight that goes right back down to ground level again. This does make for good dramatic effect, since a falsely accused murderer rushing headlong down the steps with a mob after him, then racing up the nave to grab the alter cloth and cry “Sanctuary!”, looks altogether more spectacular with the stairs than it would have done without.
As for exterior shots, I don’t know whether the film crew used set or location, but their abbey is built of gray stone, and the first thing you notice about the real Shrewsbury Abbey—founded 1083 and officially called the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul— is that it’s red. It’s made of sandstone quarried from a spot a bit lower down the River Severn.
Due to the wrath of kings, the ire of rebels, and the disregard of road builders, the abbey is now half the size it used to be. Modern buildings crowding the abbey reduce the grandeur of the building, too, and make it difficult to get a good angle for a photograph, which is one of the reasons the TV people didn’t film Cadfael there.
Once inside, though, you can forget about the modern town, although what you see isn’t all as old as you might first think. Little of the original Norman architecture survives; the whole eastern end is Victorian, a product of the Gothic revival rather than truly Gothic, built to take the place of what Henry VIII demolished. The baptismal font is probably the oldest of all, being an inverted Roman column, probably from nearby Viroconium (see my last post).
Ellis Peters (real name Edith Pargeter) is known for historical accuracy, so if she said the monks at Shrewsbury Abbey took care of the lepers at a place called St Giles, you can be sure they did (St Giles is less than a mile away), and if she said the bones of St Winifred were moved to the abbey in the 12th century, then they were; I only had to find out whether they were still there.
Sure enough, carved stone from St Winefride’s shrine in the north aisle presumably means her dust is nearby. She is considered a martyr, although in the legends she died to preserve her chastity rather than to preserve her faith, and she didn’t actually stay dead. When her betrothed found she wouldn’t marry him but wanted to become a nun instead, he beheaded her. Fortunately her brother, St Beuno (can’t have too many saints in the family), put her head back on and miraculously brought her back to life. A spring appeared where her head fell, and people still make pilgrimages to the healing water, about 60 miles away, close to Liverpool.
A modern window above the shrine dedicated to St Winefride (the abbey’s preferred spelling) shows her with palm fronds and other symbolic objects; Wikipedia says she’s the patron saint of payroll clerks, but I doubt that history or religious teaching would bear that out. Or maybe whoever added that remark is a payroll clerk, and decided to adopt St Winefride as patron, there being no saint already assigned to the job.
In any case, it’s clear that St Winefride still inspires people; there is an active Guild of St Winefride supporting various good works including upkeep of the abbey. Henry VII licensed the original guild (one of the tasks of the Guild at the time being to pray daily for the king), but Henry VIII abolished it; the current group dates from 1987, and welcomes new members.
But is there anything of Cadfael here? There is. The window over the door shows St Benedict with symbolic images and Latin phrases; a banner reads “pray and work”, while he holds a book reading “Listen carefully, my sons, to the words of the master” (the first line of his Rule of St Benedict, the text that dictated how Benedictine monks live every day). But in the bottom right corner, there’s another book, and on it is written only “Cadfael”.
Oh, and in case anybody isn’t up to speed, King Stephen beat Empress Mathilda and took the throne. I figure that’s not a spoiler, since it happened about 900 years ago.