The year is 1138. King Stephen and Empress Maud are contending
for the throne of England, dividing the country in civil war. As
Brother Cadfael, herbalist in the Benedictine Abbey at Shrewsbury,
weeds his beds of herbs and vegetables and tends to the harvest,
Stephen has Maud’s forces hemmed in the castle.
Brother Cadfael is woefully short of help in the gardens, so he is
pleased when Brother Oswald brings him help in the form of Godric, a
seventeen-year-old boy who is seeking refuge in the abbey.
However, Cadfael came to the cowl late in life and it takes him little
time to realise that Godric is not who or what he purports to be.
When the castle falls to Stephen, two of his most hated enemies,
William FitzAlan and Fulke Adeney, escape and it becomes imperative to
Stephen that he find Adeney’s daughter, Godith, to hold in ransom for
her father. It seems providential that Hugh Beringar of Maesbury
should choose that moment to declare his allegiance, for Hugh has been
engaged to marry Godith since childhood. Stephen immediately sets
Hugh the task of proving his allegiance by finding Godith and
surrendering her into custody.
Stephen is more kindly inclined to receive the allegiance of the lovely
Aline Siward, who admits that her brother Giles supported the Empress
Maud but who is herself of her late father’s mind in supporting
Stephen. Hugh also finds Mistress Siward very attractive, as does
Adam Courcelle, one of Stephen’s officers.
Stephen’s rage against Maud’s adherents boils over in Shrewsbury and he
orders all ninety-four of the castle’s defenders to be hung from the
It then falls to the brothers at the Abbey to attend
to their Christian burial, an undertaking which is led by the one-time
soldier crusader, Brother Cadfael.
When Brother Cadfael discovers that there is one corpse too many among
the dead and realises that that man was not hanged like the others, he
sets out to find out how and why the man was murdered. In doing
so, he finds himself matching wits both with the killer and with Hugh
Beringar, who is seeking not only Adeney’s daughter Godith, but also
the treasury which FitzAlan had smuggled out of Shrewsbury even as the
The solution to the murder mystery and the fate of FitzAlan’s gold
becomes entwined with a double romance, one on each side of the civil
war, with Brother Cadfael cheerfully in between. All situations
are satisfactorily resolved with wit and humour, and justice is done
even in the midst of war.
Ellis Peters provides a wealth of detail about twelfth-century life in
Shrewsbury throughout the story, without bogging the reader down in
political trivia or slowing down the action. This is a tale which
will enthrall mystery, romance, and history buffs alike.