Brother Cadfael Was Here.

Shrewsbury Abbey

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.

East end of the abbey, which is Victorian, but the pillars and arches on the sdes are original Norman construction

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.

The upper stories on the south side, plus a bit of the roof.

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 redIt’s made of sandstone quarried from a spot a bit lower down the River Severn. 

List of all the abbots over the centuries showing the earliest and including Herebert and Radulfus (here called Herbert and Ranulph), who figure in the Cadfael stories

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. 

The font's cover is Victorian Gothic, but the font itself is a Roman column

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. 

Fragment of the shrine of St Winefride, with a bit of the text explaining her legend so that you get a feeling for the size of the carving

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. 

The St Winefride window

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. 

exterior, taken from the east

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”. 

Detail of the St Benedict window; the book reads Cadfael, and the initials EP show up in the red area. The blue teardrop is a bottle, though I can't decide whether the shape rising from it is the fumes of some noxious concoction or an almost-transparent quill. The wording at the top of the square reads "Remembering the life and writing of Edith Pargeter (Ellis Peters) 1913-1995"

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.



Filed under Architecture, Arts, Culture, Many Books Little Time, Travel

8 responses to “Brother Cadfael Was Here.

  1. Malcolm

    Derek Jacobi was good as Cadfael but he remained Derek Jacobi throughout. I thought it a tragedy that BBC-tv plumped for the crowd puller rather than the superior Philip Madoc, who was so good in their Radio-4 version. Madoc has the amazing ability to vanish inside the characters he plays, whether it’s a Nazi villain as in Fortunes of War, Magua in Last of the Mohicans, David Lloyd-George in the TV dramatization of the man’s life, or, on stage, the psychiatrist in Duet for One or Sir Peter Teazle in School for Scandal. To play Magua he actually used the resources of the library of the British Folklore Society to add genuine Native American speech to the more heightened moments – and, to this day, has a cult following among Native American speakers. His portrayal of Brother Cadfael in Dead Man’s Ransom as a BBC audio production is still available.

    • But was he willing to wear a tonsure? 🙂

      From what I’ve read, the production relaxed a lot of the social rules for Benedictines because they wouldn’t work on film, like not making eye contact when speaking (was it just to women? Or to anybody? Don’t remember). Also the ban on shaving, because it’s hard enough to tell people apart on the screen without them all having hairy face-coverings.

      They were going to forego the tonsure, but Jacobi insisted he was going to have one, so they all had to. I rather side with him. That’s a style/affectation for which authenticity is relatively easy to accomplish and it can’t be said to get in the way of the acting.

      • Mairwen

        That’s funny (about the tonsure)! I’ve watched the TV series, and to be honest, all the tonsures except Derek’s look like little grey skullcaps, not real tonsures at all. Also they are very small, only about 7 cm or so in diameter. A real tonsure in those days – the Roman version, not the British (trust the British to do things differently!) – would have covered, or rather uncovered, almost all the head, leaving a little ring of hair only a few centimetres wide around the edge. Ellis Peters describes tonsures a few times in the books, and I’ve looked at drawings of mediaeval tonsures too.

    • Mairwen

      BBC didn’t make this series, Malcolm. I think it was ITV or Thames or some other commercial channel.

  2. You just had to include the spoiler, didn’t you? I’m glad you don’t write movie reviews. 😉

  3. Pingback: Shrewsbury in Black and White | M E Foley's Anglo-American Experience Blog

  4. Mairwen

    Thanks for this blog! I’m a great Cadfael fan, but only of the books. I have watched the series but I found almost all the episodes a severe disappointment (except the Potter’s Field and Monk’s Hood, both of which were fairly good). I agree with Malcolm: Derek Jacobi is a good actor, but he is no way Welsh, so he’s unsuitable for Cadfael anyway as he isn’t a character actor. Personally I find him very unsympathetic and even catty at times in the title role. I too would have greatly preferred Philip Madoc as Cadfael: he’s as Welsh as Dewi Sant and he was fabulous as Cadfael on the radio. Ellis Peters herself was Shrewsbury-Welsh, and Cadfael’s Welshness is an essential part of the books. Despite all the years spent in England, Cadfael remains unquestionably Welsh in his outlook and attitude. This is completely lacking in the TV series. Many of the other actors were well cast, such as Prior Robert and Brother Jerome, and they gave a faithful rendering of their respective characters. But many more actors gave a downright appalling performance (e.g. some of those who played the invariable star-crossed young lovers), and the series exuded a general air of cheap shoddiness. And the fact that no fewer than three separate actors played Sheriff Hugh Beringar during the series didn’t make it any more credible or increase viewing pleasure. Sean Pertwee was excellent as Hugh number one, but the other two were truly awful in the role. In fact one of them was even aggressive, which Hugh never was in the books. He was a decent and kindhearted young man with a passion for humane justice, a quirky sense of humour and an understanding of human frailty. But even with Sean P. as Hugh, the closeness of his friendship with Cadfael was ignored on all sides. And lastly, I didn’t like the location (or the set) at which the series was filmed. It didn’t look in the least bit like anywhere in Britain, let alone Shropshire on the border of Wales & England! I know that part of the UK very well. They could have kept the abbey scenes as they were, but the many outdoor scenes ought to have been filmed in the countryside around Shrewsbury, and along the Severn. One more thing I find pointless and irritating is the continual changing of names for certain characters. Nigel is changed to “Tristan”, while Roswitha becomes “Rosanna” and someone else’s name – Ninian/Benet? – is changed to “Edward” (of all dreary names! and it’s highly unlikely that a 12th-century Norman boy would be called Edward anyway). For what purpose? We all know that many names that were common in mediaeval times are no longer in use today, although “Nigel” was a very common name during the mid to late 20th century. All in all, the series is barely credible and very poor quality.

  5. Mairwen

    They ought to do a remake of the TV series, with e.g. Aneurin Barnard as Cadfael and filmed around Shrewsbury. Aneurin might be a bit too young for the role, but at least he looks super Welsh “with plenty of good bone” to quote Ellis Peters herself!

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