Why Cadfael Is No Ordinary Detective Drama

A clever crime-solver cracking cases? It may not sound particularly different as whodunits go, but here are four reasons why Cadfael really stands apart…

Derek Jacobi as Cadfael


There aren't many crime shows which boast a bona fide acting giant in the lead role. But this is where Cadfael triumphs, with Sir Derek Jacobi donning the monk's robes as our heroic sleuth. Sir Derek wasn't actually the first to portray Brother Cadfael - there were previous radio adaptations made way back in the 1970s. And in fact there was some doubt whether Jacobi was the right fit for the part. It was only after he met with Cadfael creator Ellis Peters that she gave him her official approval.

Cadfael brought Derek Jacobi to a whole new generation of viewers, although he was already a legend thanks to his award-winning stage roles and his previous, iconic TV hit I, Claudius. Having gone to university with fellow acting genius Ian McKellen, and having been groomed for stardom as a protégé of Laurence Olivier, Derek Jacobi may have the most polished pedigree of any TV detective.

Cadfael is set in 12th Century Shrewsbury.

Cadfael is set in 12th Century Shrewsbury.


Period crime shows are everywhere, but Cadfael isn't just a costume drama. It throws us into an unfamiliar world which really hasn't had much telly attention: 12th Century England. Specifically speaking, we're in Shrewsbury in the time of the "Anarchy". For such a violent and colourfully-named epoch of British history, the Anarchy isn't that well known to most of us. The name refers to the civil war unleashed between King Stephen and Empress Maud, who were competing over the throne after the death of Henry I. This battle-torn background provides a fascinatingly unique background to Cadfael's crime-solving, revealing the intricacies of a turbulent England most of us never knew about.


What about Brother Cadfael himself? Well, he's a detective like no other, and not just because he also happens to be a Benedictine monk. Cadfael has other sides to him as well: herbalist, scientist, and man of action, with a keen deductive mind and a sense of justice and fair play that puts him ahead of his time. This may be the medieval period, but Cadfael is really a bit of a Renaissance man, drawing on all his many skills to bring killers out of the shadows.

Derek Jacobi's Benedictine monk Cadfael is a detective like no other.

Derek Jacobi's Benedictine monk Cadfael is a detective like no other.

He's got a complex past as well. Cadfael only became a monk later in life, so unlike most of his brothers he's been around and seen the world, fighting in the Crusades, having romances, and killing men in combat. This also explains why he lacks the superstitions of other Englanders of the time, using real science and real logic to unravel cases, forensically inspect corpses, and help those in need.


When author Edith Pargeter sat down to write the first Cadfael novel under the pen-name Ellis Peters, she probably didn't realise what a landmark moment in crime fiction it would be. The very idea of a "medieval whodunit" was new and exciting, and virtually created a whole new genre. It was only a few years later that Italian author Umberto Eco came up with the best-selling The Name of the Rose - another tale about a crime-solving monk - and soon the world was hooked on stories of wickedness and skulduggery in dark and exciting periods of the past. So when you're watching the adaptations of Cadfael, you're actually watching the game-changing sagas that first got us into the idea of historical crime, and still inspire books and TV shows to this day...