A book review of sorts. Yesterday I finished Brother Cadfael's Penance by Ellis Peters, which is the last of Brother Cadfael's Chronicles. I still have to read a book containing 3 short stories with the same character, but as far as I know they are a prequel to the events described in Chronicles since in them Cadfael hasn't joined the monastery yet, so that Penance is really the end of the cycle. I'm planning to write a post about this whole series when I'm through.
Brother Cadfael's Penance is different from the other books in the series in a number of ways. It doesn't contain any romance though it does hint on the possibility in the beginning; and while there is a crime committed, there is little if any investigation on Cadfael's part, and the whole mystery and its solution play a very insignificant role in the book. On the other hand, the author keeps the tradition by inserting a nice amount of situational ethics into this story as well.
For those not familiar with Cadfael and his adventures, he is a Welsh crusader turned a Benedictine monk who lives in England during the war between King Stephen and Empress Maud for the throne and whose hobby is investigating crimes. Somewhere half way through the series, he learns that his Palestinian mistress bore him a son who later converted to Christianity, came to England and joined the fighting. Cadfael meets and recognises him, but decides to keep his peace.
In this last novel, he learns that his son Olivier is missing in action and leaves the monastery to search for him. Cadfael soon finds out that Olivier is kept prisoner by Philip FitzRobert, the younger son of Maud's illegitimate half-brother Robert of Gloucester. The two used to be friends and fought on the same side, until, by some reason, Philip decided to switch his loyalties and to betray the Empress's cause. The conflict between Philip and Maud, and to some extent, his own father forms the central theme of the book.
In the first couple of Cadfael stories, it appeared to me that Miss Peters was more or less sympathetic to the Empress, but as the story line progressed, Maud was shown less positively. In Penance, she's described as a venomous, murderous *itch with vile temper, who is neither particularly intelligent, nor thankful towards those who help her cause and who manipulates naive young men with her sexual charms to get what she wishes. The one worthy of the throne is Robert, but unfortunately, he's a bastard. In Wales, where the daughters don't inherit, he'd get his rights, thinks Cadfael.
I was intrigued enough to do some research online and that is what I found out. While Stephen was the late king's nephew through his mother, Maud was his only legitimate daughter, and before he died, he made all his court swear loyalty to her. She was married off quite young to the Emperor (of the Holy Roman Empire, I think), who died soon afterwards, and then she was married off again to the Count of Anjou who was several years her junior. She nearly died in childbirth, but went on to have several more children with her husband after this.
When Stephen took the crown, she was in France together with her husband and made no attempts to restore her rights. The rebellion was started by Robert who had sworn loyalty to Stephen before. Robert was but one of many illegitimate children of the late king, but he was his eldest son and thus the most prominent. He probably could have taken the crown for himself, but refused to do so, citing English customs of the time, even though his grandfather William the Conqueror was illegitimate, too. If his father had wanted it, Robert could have probably become the next king.
Anyway, this and the civil war that followed, were hardly the fault of his half-sister. And, while some sources described her as aloof and even arrogant, there is little evidence that she was such a nasty piece of work as she comes across in Penance, neither was the real King Stephen this nice chivalrous guy the author portrays. Also, though illegitimate, Robert was still very well provided for.
Unlike in the novel, he had many sons and not just two by his legal wife, and, in fine family tradition, several more illegitimate kids. It's also noteworthy that the Welsh, like the Irish were Celtic and tolerated de-facto polygamy and easy divorce much later than their Anglo-Saxon neighbours. I'm not quite sure whether I agree with Miss Peters that their system was better, though. This is a topic open for discussion. However, I should say all these invented details make for some fine drama. If you like escapist fiction, this book (and the series) are definitely for you!