Some time in the 1100s, the Abbey of Shrewsbury—specifically the ambitious Prior Robert—decided that they needed the bones of a saint to enhance the Abbey’s glory. One of brothers, a young, ambitious, younger-son Norman lordling named Brother Columbanus had bought of “falling-sickness” in the middle of Chapter, and during the night Prior Robert had a vision of Saint Winifred while attending him. They took him to Holywell, one of the sites of the saint, and he was healed. The Abbey was granted permission to move the relics of Saint Winifred from the Welsh village where she had headed a small convent (it was in resurrecting from a rejected suitor who cut off her head that she got her saint status) by the bishop and the prince of Wales, so a party set out.
Prior Robert had no use for Brother Cadfael, who had been a soldier previous, a bit of a man of the world, even having been part of the conquest of Jerusalem. He consciously chose monasticism (unlike his helper, young Brother John, who was rejected by a woman and figured all he had left was to become a monk), but he sought rational explanations over miraculous ones. However, Brother John wanted to see the world a bit, and Brother Cadfael was a native Welshman and could translate, so he petitioned the abbot and was assigned to the party.
They arrived at the village of Gwytherin and told their mission (and the episcopal permission) to the priest of the church, Father Huw. He acknowledged the bishop’s jurisdiction, but noted that saints were not noted for seeking glory for themselves (Prior Robert suggested the omens suggested that she wanted the greater glory the Abbey could provide), and in any case, in important village matters, the village counsel needed to agree. The village appreciated their saint, but the truth is that her grave had not been attentively cared for, so for the most part the village was willing to go along with the authorities. However, the local lord, Rhisiart, thought that barging in and relocating the saint was not entirely appropriate, and his speech tipped opinion against. Brother Cadfael could see that some finesse on Prior Robert’s part could bring him around, but instead the prior tried to bribe Rhisiart, who while he would not publicly say that the prior had tried to bribe him, it certainly cemented his opinion. But he did consent to come at noon the next door to discuss things.
At noon he did not show up, and by sundown he still was missing. His daughter Sioned came and did not know why he had not come at noon, since he had certainly set out to come. So they went looking, and found him, dead in the middle of some trees, his body twisted oddly, and an arrow in his chest. Now the daughter was young and attractive, and Peredur, a handsome and skilled lad, sought her hand. Her father thought she should marry him, but she had secretly been in love with a young English lad named Engelard who came from minor nobility but had fled the law for poaching, until things blew over. She had taught him Welsh, and he had taught her English. He also was well-liked by Rhisiart, and vice-versa, and a very effective with animals, but of course not a suitable match for the local lord’s daughter. But Engelard’s arrow was in Rhisiart’s chest, and he had no effective alibi.
Nobody but Prior Robert thought that Engelard might have done it, but Prior Robert had rank and wanted to escalate to the authorities. Engelard saw an opportunity and ran for it. Peredur slipped on a log chasing him, not in a way that convinced Brother Cadfael, nor did it convince Brother John, who tackled the brother who had barely caught Engelard’s clothes, and Engelard escaped. Prior Robert ordered Brother John be imprisoned until the bailiff arrived. Sioned volunteered one of the buildings on her small estate, which was really the only suitable place, promising that she would assign someone other than herself to bring food to Brother John. Brother Cadfael knew that her maid, Annest would see to it. She had demurely kept herself in view of Brother John ever since his arrival, and the latter had been interested in making a better acquaintance of the view, so Brother Cadfael could see that this imprisonment was more likely to bud into romance, but the brothers’ celibacy kept that out of their minds. All for the better in Brother Cadfael’s view, as he had been thinking that Brother John had taken vows hastily and would be a better fit for life outside the monastery.
Before this Brother Cadfael had observed the body and noted some interesting things. It had rained just before noon, but the grass under the body was wet. He died in close trees, where no archer would be able to get a shot off, and the position of the arrow required an impossible shot anyway. He quietly advised Sioned, who wanted the traditional blood price, which Brother Cadfael understood. The brothers were keeping a nightly vigil at Saint Winifred’s shrine the next three nights, and she could ask the two praying that night to pray for her father, and touch the corpse for a blessing. It was well-known that the victim of murder would start bleeding if his murderer touched him, and while Brother Cadfael had not seen any evidence of this in all his fighting days, he knew that everyone else believed it. Unfortunately Brother Columbanus was excused that night due to penance for falling asleep in a vigil the night they arrived, and one or two others did not end up doing a vigil for one reason or another. But Brother Cadfael faithfully prayed for him and to the saint, kept his vigil, and offered a blessing.
At Brother Cadfael’s suggestion, Sioned asked Peredur to place her silver cross on Rhisiart’s neck just before he was buried. Peredur could not do it, and confessed that he had come across Rhisiart’s already dead body in the morning, and seeing an opportunity to put blame on his rival he put the arrow in the existing dagger wound, but he felt terrible about it and had repented and regretted what he had done. After Sioned forgave him and with some kind words from Brother Cadfael, he then willingly put the cross on Rhisiart’s neck and said goodbye.
Brother Columbanus had another falling fit and was out for some hours. Peredur’s rather narcissistic mother flew into a fit of hysterics that he had brought dishonor to the family, specifically on her, and Father Huw asked Brother Cadfael, who was walking by, to help him. After some effort, which was then spoiled by another member of the village, he decided that the only solution was some poppy oil infusion (he had brought poppies from the East and cultivated them, along with other herbs in the garden at the monastery), and since he had given a vial to Brother Columbanus (for his illnesses) who had been staying at the house, he went to his room to get it. It was mostly empty, which was surprising, since he had given it to Brother Columbanus full, but it was enough for Peredur’s mother to settle down sleepily.
After some thinking (and some discreet inquiries over the evening round of drinks at the village, which as a Welshman he had quickly been accepted into), he suggested a course of action for Sioned the next night, since Brother Columbanus had seen a vision of Saint Winifred and vowed to hold a vigil at her shrine, even requested to be taken into heaven, if possible. She hid behind the altar in a thin white veil, and in the middle of the night she arose like the ethereal Saint Winifred and accused Brother Columbanus from conspiring to take her from the village where she had never desired to leave, of disrupting the vigil of Brother Jerome with the poppy oil and even of then slipping out while Brother Jerome slept and killing Rhisiart with a dagger to end the opposition to his plan for her bones. Brother Columbanus treated her like the saint, until she got a little too close, and the cloth slipped, revealing a very fleshly finger. Brother Columbanus attacked her with the dagger, but she was just as quick in assessing the situation as he was, and she moved out of the way. Brother Cadfael burst in, and Brother Columbanus fled. Sioned called out to Engelard, who was nearby, warning him that he had a dagger. Engelard was able to intercept Brother Columbanus before he escaped the graveyard, and when they had quickly explained to him what happened, he upbraided Columbanus and shook him in rage, for he loved his liege-lord Rhisiart, as he loved Rhisiart’s daughter Sioned, and hated that he had brought pain to either, let alone both. In his rage he was strong, and he broke Columbanus’ neck.
Since Columbanus had confessed and the blood price was paid by the killer, Engelard thought they should just tell Father Huw, but Brother Cadfael knew that the bailiff was in the village, and Engelard was an outsider who had killed a man, and questions needed to be asked. Prior Robert would also not take the death of a favorite fellow-scheming brother. This approach was not to be thought of. But the village had grudging acquiesced to the removal of the saint’s bones, and they had been packed the specially made, lead-lined reliquary coffin just the previous day, and Rhisiart also buried that day. Brother Cadfael and Engelard dug up Rhisiart’s grave, moved Saint Winifred to share a grave with him, and put Brother Columbanus in the reliquary. This partially solved the problem of Brother Columbanus, and only the village need know that Saint Winifred had stayed behind. Brother Cadfael had Sioned gather some of the flowers that were blooming, and they took Brother Columbanus’ cloths and placed them on the ground prone before the altar, with flowers scattered about.
When the brothers opened up the chapel the next morning, they could see that the saint had granted Brother Columbanus’ prayer and translated him to heaven. The villagers had gotten wind of the situation, and hastened to offer help to carry the now-heavier reliquary to the cart, where it remained until it arrived back at Shrewsbury Abbey. As the procession left the village, Brother Cadfael could see his new friends from the village at discreet distance waving him goodbye. And a year later, one of them visited the abbey as the first stop of a pilgrimage he had wanted to make. John and Annest were happily married, as were Engelard and Sioned, and both expecting children. He even described some amazing miracles that Saint Winifred had done, which eclipsed those the abbey had seen and made Prior Robert jealous until Brother Cadfael noted that the saint’s miracles in her hometown were all part of the glory that fell to the saint in her resting place in the abbey.
There really was a major abbey in Shrewsbury, and a Prior Robert did negotiate the translation of St. Winifred’s remains (by bribing the one holdout), and he wrote a history of St. Winifred. The author, Edith Pargeter (the novel was written under the pseudonym Ellis Peters), seems to have been a good historian, as theculture of Wales and the English side of the River Severn she portrays feels consistent. For instance, there is the right of the descendants of a murdered man to have blood vengance on the murderer. Later novels give a background on the state of the war between Queen Maud of Wales and the King of England as part of the opening, and sometimes work the historical events into the murder mysteries.
This novel (and later ones) have that quiet English beauty about them, as Brother Cadfael is completely content with his garden, but helps out those in need, which is usually some young lovers. Even when Brother Cadfael is pressed for time in solving the mystery before the party returns to the abbey, he does not feel hurried. He is also very considerate of the common people he interacts with, meeting them in their own culture, which contrasts with the high-handed, imperious manner of the more ambitious monks, like Prior Robert.
However, the people feel like they are moderns planted in a medieval world. Despite the novel revolving around the Church and the monastic hours, the only people who seem like they actually believe are the naive monks, who play bit parts. Brother Cadfael is kindly, but his view of God seems much more Deist than medieval Catholic. The monks who are not naive believers are ambitious deceivers, faking supernatural events to get their way. It is always possible that there is historical truth to this (the real Prior Robert did, in fact, bribe his was way to getting St. Winifred’s bones, and thereby an income for the abbey; bribery is roundly condemned in the Bible), but it seems to reflect how moderns think about the medieval church—they could not possibly believe that stuff, so they must have been naive or faking. But people generally believe their religion, and this does not come through; rather the opposite, in fact.
Aside from the common problem of modern people in medieval dress, A Morbid Taste for Bones (and later novels) are a fun read, where Brother Cadfael resolves the social problem surrounding a murder, rather than the intellectual problem of how the murder occurred. As such, they are very human-oriented, and set in a charming historical medieval setting.