In all, Pargeter wrote twenty Cadfael novels between 1977 and 1994. Each draws upon the storyline, characters, and developments of previous books in the series. Pargeter apparently planned the 20th installment as the final book of the series; Brother Cadfael's Penance brings together the loose story ends into a tidy conclusion. Pargeter herself died shortly after its publication, following a long illness. Many of the books were adapted into both radio episodes in which Ray Smith, Glyn Houston and subsequently Philip Madoc played the monk, and a television series starring Derek Jacobi as Cadfael.
Pargeter's Cadfael Chronicles are sometimes credited for popularizing what would later become known as the historical mystery.
As a character, Cadfael is a conversus, only entering the cloister in his forties after being both a soldier and a sailor; this experience gives him an array of talents and skills useful in monastic life. He is a skilled observer of human nature and a talented herbalist (which skill he learned in the Holy Lands from the Muslims). He is inquisitive by nature, energetic, and has an innate, although modern, sense of justice and fair-play. Abbots call upon him as a medical examiner, detective, doctor, and diplomat. His worldly knowledge, although useful, gets him in trouble with the more doctrinaire characters of the series, and the seeming contradiction between the secular and the spiritual worlds forms a central and continuing theme of the stories. By contrast, some men entered the cloistered life as young boys just old enough to attend school, or in their early teens; such a monk was termed puer oblatus or oblate in the time of these novels. Many of Cadfael's brother monks had been sent as children to the monastery. Abbot Radulfus instituted a policy of not accepting such young ones except for schooling.
The stories are set between 1137 and 1145, during the Anarchy, the destructive contest for the crown of England between King Stephen and Empress Maud. Many true historical events are described or referred to in the books. For example, the translation of Saint Winifred to Shrewsbury Abbey is fictionalised in the first chronicle, A Morbid Taste for Bones, and One Corpse Too Many is inspired by the siege of Shrewsbury Castle by Stephen in 1138. The burning of Worcester puts the characters on the run and into Shropshire in The Virgin in the Ice. The pillage of Winchester and burning of the abbey there sends the monks who are the centre of the story to Shrewsbury Abbey in An Excellent Mystery. In Dead Man's Ransom, the fictional characters are involved in the small group of Welsh who involve themselves in the Anarchy at the Battle of Lincoln, drawing the historical prince of Gwynedd, Owain, into the plot. Empress Maud's brief stay in London, trying to gain approval for her coronation while she holds Stephen in prison is the start point for one character in The Pilgrim of Hate. The next turning of Henry of Blois's coat and the rising fortunes of King Stephen involve the Abbot and send three new people into the Foregate and the Abbey in The Raven in the Foregate. One main character in The Hermit of Eyton Forest arrives in Shropshire while Empress Maud is besieged in Oxford Castle, from her camp. In The Potter's Field, Hugh Beringar's force is called to the Fens to aid King Stephen in controlling the rampaging Geoffrey de Mandeville; on return the Sheriff double checks the story of a character who escaped from that area, back to Shropshire. The quarrel between Owain Gwynedd and his impetuous younger brother Cadwaladr on account of Cadwaladr's murder of the prince of a southern principality in Wales, combined with the push to spread the Roman rite into Wales, are the story told in The Summer of the Danes.
In novels where the plot does not hinge on a historical event or have historical characters walking through the story, it will focus on one or two aspects of life in medieval England. Examples include the importance of pilgrimage in The Heretic's Apprentice, the wool and cloth making trades in The Rose Rent, the rules of inheritance under Welsh law in Monk's Hood, specific merchant trades in Saint Peter's Fair and The Sanctuary Sparrow. The annual fair raised funds for the Abbey, authorised by Earl Roger or King Henry I. The use of a house of worship for sanctuary from secular law is also a feature of The Sanctuary Sparrow. Cadfael is an herbalist, whose skills and potions bring him into contact with people outside the monastery, integral in the plots not dependent on a historical event.
Although the series is fiction, historical people are portrayed in the series. They include (but are not limited to):
A distinctive feature of the series is a pair of star-crossed lovers in nearly every book, who invariably get the full sympathy of Brother Cadfael (and the reader). Typically, Cadfael bends his full energy and ingenuity to the double task of solving the mystery and bringing the lovers to a happy union. In this latter, he seems the literary descendant of Shakespeare's Friar Laurence who made great (though ultimately futile) efforts to help Romeo and Juliet. Cadfael is far more successful, with virtually all pairs of lovers in the series getting off to happy consummations, except when one of them turns out to be the wanted murderer. In one case, indeed, the lovers get their happy ending with Cadfael's help, even though one of them is the murderer.
Lovers in the Cadfael books face a whole series of obstacles, which sometimes seem insurmountable (in one book, it seems they are relatives too close to marry) but are invariably overcome. However, the problem is almost never a significant difference in social status between the two. In this series, aristocratic boys usually fall in love with aristocratic girls, artisans fall for the daughters of artisans, and a lowly wandering juggler is charmed beyond measure by a lowly kitchen maid. In The Hermit of Eyton Forest a prosperous forester's daughter falls in love with a runaway villein, a skilled leatherworker who will work his year and a day to establish himself in his trade in Shropshire before he marries her. In St. Peter's Fair, a tradesman's daughter settles for another tradesman's son after her aristocratic first choice turns out to be a cad, calling her a "shopkeeper's girl of no account." In most cases, it seems that Pargeter's characters deliberately curtail their romantic aspirations where class conflict would undermine them. There are some exceptions to this class consciousness; in The Virgin in the Ice a noblewoman marries her guardian's favourite squire, though he is the illegitimate son of a footsoldier and a Syrian widow, and in The Pilgrim of Hate an aristocratic youth marries the daughter of a tradesman.
A passage in The Confession of Brother Haluin introduces a nobleman whom the reader (and Cadfael) had not met before:
Here he came, Audemar de Clary, on a tall chestnut horse, a big man in dark, plain, workmanlike riding clothes, without ornament, and needing none to mark him as having authority here. (...) Not a man to be crossed lightly, but no one feared him. They approached him cheerfully and spoke with him boldly. His anger, when justified, might be withering, even perilous - but it would be just.
This is fairly typical of most members of the aristocracy depicted in the series, who are described as fair-minded and just to their underlings, within the context of the hierarchical feudal social system and ideology.
The books do present some manifestly unjust, tyrannical and or outright cruel members of the aristocracy, though they are definitely in the minority. Faced with such, peasants can and do resort to the "safety-valve" built within the feudal system itself, by escaping from their lord to a chartered borough where after a stay of one year and one day they become free. On several occasions, Cadfael facilitates and helps such escapes.
Also, cruel and unjust landowners may end up as the victims of the murder which Cadfael needs to solve, in which case the reader is curious to know the solution of the mystery, but is not particularly eager to see the perpetrator punished.
The civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud is a constant background to the series, called the Anarchy by many. Despite the lack of newspapers and other mass news media, the inhabitants of Shrewsbury are kept well informed of the latest developments as the town is a major centre of commerce, constantly getting visitors from all over the country.
In One Corpse Too Many, the second book in the series, Shrewsbury itself is a battlefield, and the wholesale execution of the defeated garrison by order of King Stephen forms the gruesome background to the book's murder mystery.
Further on, however, Shrewsbury is an island of calm in the raging storm. Refugees as well as spies and conspirators constantly come in, considerably impacting life in the town and setting up the plot for many of the books. Characters occasionally set out to the battlefields, either to take direct part in the fighting or (as in the case of Cadfael himself) to offer some needed aid or rescue. Stories of woe and disaster come in from other locations, such as Worcester (The Virgin in the Ice), Lincoln (Dead Man's Ransom) or Winchester (An Excellent Mystery). Moreover, Shrewsbury is in close proximity to the border of Wales, which has its own troubles and wars - distinct from, though often interconnected with, those of England (Dead Man's Ransom). In the last novel, Brother Cadfael's Penance, Cadfael and Sheriff Hugh Beringar start out at a peace conference in Coventry, but Cadfael ends up in the midst of castle under siege, with castellan Philip FitzRobert seriously wounded by a projectile lobbed in by a siege machine. The castle was not too far from Gloucester, among the ongoing battles in the Thames Valley.
For all that, for most of the series the war happens elsewhere. Hugh Beringar, though in effect assuming the functions of a military governor and civil administrator as well as head of the police, finds the time and energy to personally work with Cadfael on solving a new mystery. Though living in a war-torn country, Cadfael is often seen sitting contented in his garden and reflecting on the harmonic turn of the year's seasons. An Excellent Mystery concludes:
September was again September, mellowed and fruitful after the summer heat and drought. After every extreme the seasons righted themselves, and won back the half at least of what was lost.
In general, the war is seen as mainly the concern of the nobility. Some of its members take up a staunch and unwavering loyalty to one side or the other, and opposing partisans treat each other with utmost respect, as prescribed by the code of chivalry. Others are utterly opportunistic and seek only to make use of the situation for personal profit and advancement, and are regarded with contempt by the more principled characters (and seemingly by the writer as well).
The lower classes, burghers and peasants, in general have little interest in who would win the war as long as the death and destruction end, either by one of the contenders winning or by their reaching some kind of compromise (the latter is what the Church is shown as trying to achieve, with little success). In the manorial system they have no share in political power; however, workers on a manor were called up for service as men-at-arms when the need arose (An Excellent Mystery).
The burghers of Shrewsbury are concerned to repair the damage caused to their city during fighting in which they had little interest (the question who would pay for it is an undercurrent in Saint Peter's Fair). Thereafter, the traders and artisans of the city are well-content to live under the reasonably efficient and honest administration offered on behalf of King Stephen by Prestcote and later by Beringar. They might have been equally content to live under the Empress Maud, provided only that her local representatives offer them the same possibility of developing undisturbed their trade and commerce. This cannot be known, as Maud never held Shropshire, nor protected their farms, trade and commerce.
The series ends with the battles ongoing, though it is a stalemate, and the earls and barons began to make their own peace treaties. There was an effort to bring about a peaceful resolution ending in nought. The fighting ended mainly three years after the last book when Robert of Gloucester died, and Empress Maud returned to Normandy. A new era opened for England when King Stephen died in 1154, having signed a treaty with his successor, Henry FitzEmpress, eldest son of Maud and her second husband Geoffrey of Anjou. But for the writer's death, the format of the series - chronologically consecutive - might have left room for additional volumes before the end of Stephen's reign was reached. Cadfael would have been in his 70s, and based on actual history, Prior Robert Pennant would have become the Abbot in place of Radulfus, so the last book was perhaps a satisfying close, with Cadfael's personal life expanding, his son safe, and the lack of interest in the ongoing strife growing clear.
The Crusades form an important part of the backdrop to the books. There are Cadfael's own memories of his crusading life, which occur in virtually every one of the books, and the circumstances of Olivier's early life. In addition, most of Cadfael's knowledge of herbs and medicine was learned in the East, from more sophisticated sources than he would have found in England. (In the TV version of Virgin in the Ice, when Cadfael is treating a gravely wounded brother, the best remedy another brother can suggest is bleeding, which Cadfael scorns.)
Several of the books feature returning crusaders who have central roles in the plot, while in others there are characters who depart England on the way eastwards. All of these crusading characters are depicted as sterling, model knights, brave and chivalrous, and the crusading enterprise itself is invariably regarded by all characters as a most noble and worthy cause.
There is occasional oblique mention of acts of cruelty committed in the course of the Crusades. In conversation with a fellow crusader, Cadfael remarks, "After the killing that was done in Jerusalem, of so many who held by the Prophet, I say they deserved better luck against us than they had." In adding that his companion was never accused of brutality, he implicitly passes judgment on the Crusades as a whole (The Leper of Saint Giles). While on various occasions Cadfael makes remarks showing him not pleased with such brutalities, the references are rarely specific. Cadfael (as all other characters) never casts any doubt on the morality of carving out a Christian kingdom in the Muslim East and maintaining it by force; indeed, it would have been anachronistic to have him express such doubts.
Cadfael's experience of the Crusades didn't lead to bigotry. Cadfael remembers Mariam, a Muslim woman, as "well worth the loving," and had many other profitable friendships with Arabs and Muslims. His companion from The Leper of Saint Giles, who spent many years as a captive of the Fatimid Egyptians, agrees, saying he always found his hosts "chivalrous and courteous," who gave him medical help and supported him in his convalescence.
Thirteen of the books were adapted for television. They starred Derek Jacobi. The sequence of the television episodes differs from the sequence of the novels. Within the individual screenplays, with one major exception, most are reasonably faithful to the books, being modified primarily to minimise the size of the speaking cast, the running time of the script, or the need for extravagant special effects. Only in the books, Cadfael speaks Welsh and translates for several non-English-speaking Welshmen.
One episode, The Pilgrim of Hate, bears almost no resemblance to the eponymous book save the presence of a few characters sharing the names (but not the actions) of the characters in the book. In The Holy Thief, one of the characters is turned into a villain. In A Morbid Taste For Bones the climax sequence is altered, giving Cadfael more of a speaking role. In the episode Monk's Hood, Hugh has a somewhat larger role than in the book, following Cadfael to the court and suffering a stab wound when he walks in unexpectedly on Cadfael's accusation of the true criminal. In The Rose Rent, Cadfael gives the young wife a potion to ease her terminally ill husband's pain, warning her that too much will kill him; in the next scene, the man is dead, implying a mercy killing. In the book, there is no such implication; the man dies of his illness without any hint that Cadfael or the widow acted to hasten his end.
The character of Hugh Beringar is markedly different in the television series, particularly in his relationship with Cadfael. In the series, Hugh is the sheriff who sometimes helps, and sometimes hinders Cadfael - friendly but maintaining a professional relationship. In the books, despite the more than thirty years difference in their ages, Hugh and Cadfael are best friends who think alike in crucial ways, particularly as to what is justice.
Hugh and Aline Siward are both introduced in One Corpse Too Many. Hugh appears in all of the books except A Morbid Taste for Bones, whilst Aline does not appear in any of the subsequent television episodes. She appears in several of the books, where she plays an important role in sheltering women (Saint Peter's Fair, An Excellent Mystery, One Corpse Too Many, The Sanctuary Sparrow), and even when she does not appear in the books, Hugh speaks of her constantly and fondly. In the books, Hugh marries Aline and they have a son, Giles, named for Aline's dead brother. Cadfael is the godfather of Hugh's son, and he confides several of his deepest secrets only to Hugh.
These are numbered in order of the time in which the novel was set and the order of publication. Each book has been published in hardback and paperback, and in a number of languages. The first publication in the UK, by Macmillan (or Headline Book Publishing, beginning with The Hermit of Eyton Forest), is the year of first publication.[note 1]
A Rare Benedictine is in the order of publication, but not in the order of setting. That book includes three short stories describing how Cadfael, man-at-arms in the Crusades and Normandy, joined a Benedictine monastery.
Note that the numbering of the Brother Cadfael Chronicles as published in paperback by Mysterious Press does not include A Rare Benedictine (instead, the cover refers to it as "The Advent Of Brother Cadfael"); the total of the numbered chronicles (by Mysterious Press) is therefore 20 (per the covers of this set).
All of the novels are also available as audiobooks. Narrators include Vanessa Benjamin (The Devil's Novice from Blackstone Audio), Derek Jacobi, Roe Kendall, Stephen Thorne, Patrick Tull and Johanna Ward. The series is also available as e-books from multiple sources, as noted in the publication history for each novel.
The first two novels in the series, along with Cadfael Country: Shropshire and the Welsh Borders, are available as one edition from Mysterious Press.
Seven Cadfael Omnibus editions were published, with three novels in each volume. Most are available as paperbacks, and were later published in hardback.
An omnibus edition published as "The Brother Cadfael Mysteries" (published by Quality Paperback Book Club, New York, in 1995) contains "The Leper Of Saint Giles", "Monk's Hood", "The Sanctuary Sparrow" and "One Corpse Too Many".
BBC Radio 4 produced adaptations of several novels in the Cadfael Chronicle with three different actors voicing Cadfael.
Starring Ray Smith as Cadfael:
Starring Glyn Houston as Cadfael: