TV Series Review: Cadfael

CadfaelThumbby Brad Nelson
In this decidedly high-brow series that is made for PBS geeks and Anglophiles, Derek Jacobi stars as a sort of Sherlock Holmes in 12th century Shrewsbury, England.

In the parallel universe inhabited by the people who do not think that Miley Cyrus is anything but a pimple on pop culture, Derek Jacobi is (how do you say?) the man. Perhaps known best for his portrayal of Claudius in I, Claudius, Jacobi is a talented and compelling actor, and never more so than in Cadfael.

Cadfael is one of the elder brothers (a monk) in Shrewsbury abbey. He is an herbalist (that era’s doctor, one presumes) and trusted on-call Holmesian sleuth when mysteries erupt, and they often do in the rough and often uncouth surroundings. Brother Cadfael combines his innate intelligence, and vast worldly experience (he used to be a Crusader), with his own brand of scientific method.

Brother Cadfael often rolls his eyes at Prior Robert and Brother Jerome (his foils in this series) for their more superstitious ways. But Cadfael is far from a modern. He is a man of deep faith but one who also is aware of the decidedly

Prior Robert, Cadfael, and Brother Jerome

Prior Robert, Cadfael, and Brother Jerome

human element when it comes to religion. And both Prior Robert and Brother Jerome add the spice of conflict to nearly every episode. They do not approve of this monk’s unconventional methods. He really ought to know his place.

Usually assisting Cadfael in the odd murder or disappearance is the good and brave Sheriff of Shrewsbury, Hugh Beringar (originally, and definitively for this series, played by Sean Pertwee…there were two others who later took on the role). Beringar is often at odds with Cadfael having little to no understanding of Cadfael’s more scientific methods. But he generally gives him the benefit of the doubt because Cadfael gets the results. They end up becoming good friends.

What makes this show is its particularly strong cast including Terrence Hardiman as Abbot Radulfus, a traditional man, of obvious weight and moral authority, but one who recognizes the usefulness of Cadfael, although the two are often at odds in terms of just how far afield Cadfael may wander into more secular affairs.

CadfaelSmilingAnd outside of the walls of the Abbey was not always a safe place. Twelfth century England could be violent. This show is set inside the ongoing conflict for the throne between the Empress Maude and King Stephen, both who claim title to the throne of England. Cadfael and the Brotherhood often find themselves in the middle of this conflict. And even monasteries do not have the luxury of being neutral.

My only criticism of this show is that from time to time the plots can tend to be a little thick or just don’t string together well into a coherent whole. But this is usually just an annoyance. The true delight of this show is in watching Derek Jacobi fully flesh out the singular and engaging character of this unusual and likable monk.

I highly recommend this series which consists of thirteen episodes. These are based on the novels (there were twenty-one in all) by Edith Pargeter writing under the name of Ellis Peters. I give this TV series 3.5 old bones out of 5.


At and around the Shewsberry abbey, Brother Cadfael is a monk with a difference. Given a choice, he would enjoy just being a simple gardener and herbalist for his home. However too often, events force him to use his other talent as a master sleuth in response to mysterious crimes happening in his community. While he investigates these crimes, he often finds himself at odds with the contemporary attitudes of the times with his own ahead of his time beliefs. More »

The Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters

1. A Morbid Taste for Bones (published in August 1977, set in 1137)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
2. One Corpse Too Many (July 1979, set in August 1138)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon  •  Full Episode (in 8 parts) on YouTube
3. Monk’s Hood (August 1980, set in December 1138)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
4. Saint Peter’s Fair (May 1981, set in July 1139)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
5. The Leper of Saint Giles (August 1981, set in October 1139)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
6. The Virgin in the Ice (April 1982, set in November 1139)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
7. The Sanctuary Sparrow (January 1983 set in the Spring of 1140)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
8. The Devil’s Novice (August 1983, set in September 1140)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
9. Dead Man’s Ransom (April 1984, set in February 1141)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
10. The Pilgrim of Hate (September 1984, set in May 1141)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
11. An Excellent Mystery (June 1985, set in August 1141)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
12. The Raven in the Foregate (February 1986, set in December 1141)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
13. The Rose Rent (October 1986, set in June 1142)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
14. The Hermit of Eyton Forest (June 1987, set in October 1142)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
15. The Confession of Brother Haluin (March 1988, set in December 1142)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
16. A Rare Benedictine: The Advent of Brother Cadfael (September 1988, set in 1120)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
17. The Heretic’s Apprentice (February 1989, set in June 1143)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
18. The Potter’s Field (September 1989, set in August 1143)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
19. The Summer of the Danes (April 1991, set in April 1144)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
20. The Holy Thief (August 1992, set in February 1145)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon
21. Brother Cadfael’s Penance (May 1994, set in November 1145)  •  Wiki  •  Amazon

Cadfael Complete Collection is available on DVD ($47.19 new, $34.95 used) or Amazon Instant Video ($7.99 per episode, $44.99 season 1). Not available for streaming on Netflix.


Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.

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23 Responses to TV Series Review: Cadfael

  1. CCWriter CCWriter says:

    Oh, I loved this series! Have it on DVD. And read all the books too.

    When I was visiting England in the 90s, I went to Shrewsbury for the day with my sister, who was also a fan. They had at the time (I understand it’s since closed) a sort of Cadfael-abbey experience, built across the street from the church which is still standing, though the original abbey was torn down centuries ago. They had typical abbey rooms with typical furnishings and activities staffed by “monks” who are history teachers on summer break, and an outdoor area that included Cadfael’s hut where he keeps his herbs and so forth. It wasn’t hokey at all–it gave you a feel for how things were in times past.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Wow. That sounds so cool. I’d really like to visit that place…especially Cadfael’s herb hut where he prepared and kept his ointments and remedies.

  2. Glenn Fairman says:

    I will be looking for this

  3. Kung Fu Zu says:

    A sort of Father Brown with a tonsure? I wonder was he Benedictine or Dominican? I find the picture interesting because it is Franciscans who wear a brown tunic. But I don’t think the order had been founded yet.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I’ll let you know about that, Mr. Kung. I started reading the first installment of the Father Brown series just last night. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the two share some traits.

      I don’t offhand remember which order that Brother Cadfael belongs to. They would seem to be Benedictines. Okay, just confirmed that with a Google search. Definitely Benedictine.

  4. Timothy Lane says:

    I haven’t seen the TV episodes, though I’ve read many of the books. Peters wrote a story on Cadfael’s decision to become a monk, and also one in which Shrewsbury is a battleground in the civil war.
    An interesting note about Derek Jacobi: he also provided a favorable introduction to one of the revisionist books I have on Shakespeare (i.e., one that considers the Earl of Oxford to have been the playwright).

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I think Jacobi himself is likely a libtard…going by a few things I’ve heard from him. A shame, if true.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        That may be so, but I wouldn’t call him that because he finds the Oxford theory reasonable. I have 3 books on that subject (including one by the late Joseph Sobran, a conservative who became increasingly libertarian later in life) as well as several more orthodox studies of Shakespeare (and 2 complete sets of his works). Incidentally, the particular book for which he did his foreword was Mark Anderson’s biography of Oxford, which I highly recommend.


    I’ve seen some of the episodes years ago, and they were certainly enjoyable enough. I’ve pretty much given up on PBS these days, and not because it’s a Progressive stronghold that needs to be defunded 30 seconds after we get control of the government (although it is) but because I find what they’re doing is so far removed from their glory days back in the 70’s when they had Poldark, Henry VIII, Elizabeth R, and perhaps the best of them all, Jacobi’s I, Claudius in 1976. When sub-standard police melodrama like Prime Suspect is presented as if it were on a par with I, Claudius, you know that as an outlet of culture, PBS is about done.

    But an interesting choice for a review, and basically a worthy one.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      The last thing I recall watching on PBS a couple of years ago was a Masterpiece Classics (I believe that’s what they called it) version of The 39 Steps (which follows the actual book much better than did the superb Hitchcock version).

  6. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    In between Thorndyke novels I’ve been re-watching this series from the start. It’s now hard to find but worthwhile if you can.

  7. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I have watched several episodes over the last couple of weeks and find the series to be quite satisfying, over all.

    A couple of the regular characters are somewhat stereotypical, but I suppose that is to be expected as Brother Cadfael needs to have a foil(s) in contrast to which his qualities shine. Prior Robert and Brother Jerome fit the bill perfectly. On the other hand, I find Cadfael’s assistant, Brother Oswin, to be something of a bore. Daft as a brush, doesn’t begin to describe him. Still, Cadfael shows patience and a loving attitude when dealing with him. He would have to strangle him if he didn’t.

    While I like good plots, I watch such period pieces more for the sets, scenery, costumes and characters, to whit for mood. This being the case, I am not overly disappointed if some of the stories seem somewhat less than completely thought out.

    Although the times during which “Cadfael” is to have taken place were very violent, and someone is murdered in each episode, there is something about the series which is…. gentle.

    Given the period in which the series takes place, it must perforce move more slowly than modern detective stories. And there is that fact that the central character is a monk and all action takes place around an abbey. Such things do not lend themselves to the hectic, some might say frenzied action one encounters in the average twenty-first century film.

    All in all, I not only find the series good, but more importantly I find it restful. It somehow soothes my soul.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      A violent time indeed. One of the books was set in a confrontation between the forces of Stephen and Matilda during that civil war.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Brother Oswin does have good parts in one or two of these. But, yeah, he’s a bit daft. But he’s an innocent, good-natured, well-meaning fellow. Quite the opposite of some of those hard-bitten old saws.

      Yes, I think that’s a good observation. There is something gentle about this series. Although Cadfael does sway a bit toward libtardism a time or two, he is not a hero of Richard Dawkins merely because Cadfael uses logic, reason, and more modern methods of deduction. But it’s never cold logic and reason. (And logic and reason are hardly foreign to the Church and are quite foreign to much of the world…including the libtards of today who believe in global warming as well as other myths).

      At the end of the day, Cadfael is a deep man of faith. And we see the variety of religious people in just that one monastery. It takes all types. His type happens to be a good one. He is a good man. And a complicated one. That’s another reason I like the show. Although perhaps Brother Jerome is a stereotype, he serves a purpose (and a time or two is at least less than Cadfael’s nemesis). Surely some men are one-note axe-grinders such as Brother Jerome. And do you recognize Prior Robert as the fellow that Darth Vader gives a battle promotion after just strangling (with the Force) his superior?

  8. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m working my way slowly through these again. A few comments. It would be interesting to hear what Mr. Kung thinks as well. I could edit his comments into this in a more organized way.

    Series 1 (1994)

    “One Corpse Too many”:

    Me: This episode seems to run on too long, although most of them are around 1 hour 15 minutes. The general setting, which will play in many episodes, is introduced: The conflict between King Stephen and the Empress Maude. The friendship and mutual professional respect between Cadfael and Sheriff Hugh Beringar is also established, although they started out more as adversaries. This is a so-so plot but, as with all things Cadfael, the strength is always in the characters.

    “The Sanctuary Sparrow”:

    Me: A fairly straightforward murder mystery. The historical drama aspects comes in as you see the Church woven in centrally to the plot. A traveling entertainer is suspected of murder. He takes refuge in the Abbey. Almost like a children’s game of tag, he does not actually gain sanctuary until touching the cloth on the altar. Cadfael’s own character is established as a particular good judge of character. He suspects there is another culprit. Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is notable as a central character in this. He is so young, he is barely recognizable as such.

    “The Leper of St. Giles”:

    Me: In each episode so far there has been a reference to Cadfael’s past. He was a Crusader and can hold his own even while wearing the poor sackcloth of a brother in his Order. This aspect rises again. In perhaps the most engaging plot thus far, the Baron Huon de Domville is the corpse-of-choice in this one. He was to marry a pretty young lady who may be doing so against her will. Several motivations for the killing, combined with a possible frame job, create quite the mystery for Lord Beringar and Cadfael. And it is not the only episode where flowers come into play as vital clues.

    Next up:

    “Monk’s Hood”:

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      I watched the above a couple of weeks back. Once I finish the series, I will go back and watch them again.

      I just finished watching “The Rose Rent.”

      The monks bury a wealthy weaver who left behind a good sized establishment with many people in his employ. For those who are not familiar with English history, it was woolen cloth which was exported across Europe which created enormous wealth for the country and this was to the advantage of the Crown. Many believe it was the first large scale industry in Europe.

      In any case, even as the monks are putting the husband into the ground, several men at the funeral are already imagining themselves as the widow’s next husband. They begin pressing the widow immediately and she spurns them all.

      The widow cannot bear living in the same house that she had shared with her deceased husband so she gifts it to the Abbey in lieu of an annual rent of one white rose per from the bush in the house’s garden. The widow moves into another home and the rent is delivered to her by the young monk who tends the garden. He feels a certain warmth for the widow and believes this sin is what causes the rose bush to start wilting.

      Of course, the poor young man ends up dead, lying beneath the rose bush, stabbed through the heart. Thus starts Brother Cadfael’s pursuit of the murderer.

      The reader will have to watch the rest of the episode in order to find out how things progress.

      In some ways I find this the most pleasing episode so far. OK, I admit it, I found Mistress Perle, aka Kitty Aldridge, quite attractive. She is not only a good looking woman, but she played the part of the demure guilt driven widow very well. I am beginning to understand how those spurned suitors felt.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        A true English beauty. I’m glad you’re enjoying those episodes. I think you’ll agree they’re somewhat a mixed bag. But compared to the backdrop of all the utter crap on TV, it’s a breath of fresh air.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          Compared to the rubbish one sees on TV today, this series is the Mona Lisa and The Virgin of the Rocks.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            The service we provide his is not to endlessly sift through The Daily Drama outrages in some kind of shamanistic fashion whereby we suppose our offense will somehow manifest itself in a changed world. We do not believe that if we only ball up our anger enough it will send waves through the world like the righteous exploding of a supernova.

            Sure, we do monitor what’s happening out there. (As noted: George “It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy” Takei has been added to the list of offenders. Huzzah!) But our job here, such as it is, is to provide content, guidance, and resources for operating outside of and above The Daily Drama. And the times we do delve into The Daily Drama, it is mostly to ridicule the ridiculousness of it all.

            And certainly “Cadfael” is a better drama to watch than most of the stuff out there, whether cinematic or political.

  9. Timothy Lane says:

    I think I read the book, but that was years ago, and of course they’re no longer available to me. Note that the wool trade, a couple of centuries later, would be the basis of the initial fortune of William de la Pole, whose familiar would eventually become Dukes of Suffolk (one was a notorious corrupt leader and fierce enemy of York, who was exiled and taken from his boat by angry raiders from Kent; later the family would switch its loyalty to York, and at least one member would be a Yorkist pretender).

  10. Timothy Lane says:

    Note that Ellis Peters has also written books as Edith Pargeter. Much of her work is contemporary mystery, and much consists of historical novels. One, The Bloody Field, is set at the 1406 battle of Shrewsbury and the events leading up to it — also the setting of Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth Part One. Her interpretation of the relationships between Henry IV, his son (later Henry V), and Hotspur is very different from Shakespeare’s; in particular, Hotspur comes off much better, though without any such famous line as his response in the play to Glendower’s claim to “summon demons from the vasty deep”: “Why, so can I, or so can any man; but will they come when you do call them?” I highly recommend it if you can find a copy.

  11. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    Last night I watched “St. Peter’s Fair”, one of the third season's episodes.

    The annual three day fair is to start and the locals are miffed as they must close their shops for three days, i.e. they don't get any of the pickings. They go as a group to the Abbot and demand 10% of the Abbey's take of fair proceeds. Of course, the locals are rebuffed and the cobbler's son makes threats about the monks getting what's due them.

    That night, the tradesmen of Shrewsbury riot and attack some of the traveling tradesmen who have come to town for the fair. The wine merchant, who has a beautiful niece with him, knows how to defend himself and gives the cobbler's son a good wack with a stout wooden staff, ala Little John of Robin Hood fame.

    The next day, the wine merchant is found floating in the water with a knife would in his back.

    Thus is the stage set for Brother Cadfael to work his wonders of detection.

    I found the reasons behind the murder/s in case this very believable, which I cannot say for every episode I have seen.

    One of the pleasures of such a British series is that familiar faces keep popping up. Some guy's mug comes on screen and I think to myself, "I know that man", but I can't exactly place where I have seen him before. In "St. Peter's Fair", the guy was the cobbler. He looked very familiar, but not famous. It took a while, but I finally recalled he had played Lol Ferris, the country bumpkin in "As Time Goes By."

    As with all the Cadfael episodes, this one is in no rush to get to the end. Some might find that a negative, but I don't. I am happy to take a ride on the ox-cart which brings us to our destination just as surely and the latest McLaren speedster.

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