Ancient Welsh bones continue journey

March 24, 1993|By Susanne Trowbridge | Susanne Trowbridge,Contributing Writer

Surely the greatest treasure of the Abbey of St. Peter and St Paul at Shrewsbury, England, was the silver-ornamented reliquary containing the bones of St. Winifred. A seventh-century Welsh girl, Winifred was beheaded by a prince who grew enraged when the young virgin spurned his advances. According to legend, when her severed head was fitted back on her neck, she came back to life.

About 500 years later, Winifred's remains were brought to Shrewsbury's abbey by a group of Benedictine monks who had been looking for a "spare saint" to adopt. Winifred fit the bill, and despite the protests of the Welsh people, who didn't wish to see her bones disturbed, she was carried off to England in 1137.

In Ellis Peters' medieval mysteries, the story of Winifred's remains has quite a different ending. Her gentle hero, Brother Cadfael, could not bear to displace the saint -- "From the moment I uncovered those slender bones, I felt in mine they wished only to be left in peace," he later confided -- so he let her stay in the Welsh soil.

The bones in the reliquary are those of a young man, but only Cadfael and his friend Hugh Beringar know the truth.

In "The Holy Thief," Ms. Peters' 19th Cadfael novel, that long-kept secret is in jeopardy.

The story begins innocently enough: Brother Herluin of Ramsey calls upon the monks of Shrewsbury to solicit funds for the rebuilding of his abbey, which has been severely damaged by marauders. The brothers and townspeople give generously, and when Herluin and his young companion, Brother Tutilo, leave Shrewsbury, their offerings include a wagonload of timber and a bag of valuable golden trinkets.

After the departure of Herluin's party, the monks are shocked to discover that St. Winifred's coffin is gone. When the donated treasures are stolen en route to Ramsey, they fear that her reliquary must have been hidden among the logs, perhaps by the crafty Tutilo.

Cadfael has even more reason to worry -- if someone finds the coffin and peeks inside, his well-meaning fraud will be exposed.

Ms. Peters again presents a beautifully detailed portrait of 12th-century abbey life, and this novel's focus on St. Winifred gives readers a wonderful glimpse into the brothers' spiritual lives.

To them, that reliquary is more than a box of bones. It is capable of miracles, and the long-dead saint is still fully in control of her own destiny. (There's an animated debate over whether Winifred willed her coffin aboard Herluin's cart.)

The complete story of Winifred's "removal" from Wales is told in the first Cadfael mystery, "A Morbid Taste For Bones." That book and "One Corpse Too Many," the second in the series, have been collected in a new volume, "The Benediction Of Brother Cadfael" (Mysterious Press, 348 pages, $35). Also included are 50 color photographs of Shrewsbury Abbey and the surrounding countryside, along with commentary on the historical events and people that inspired Ms. Peters' novels.

Peters fans also won't want to miss the just-published "Shropshire" (Mysterious Press, 168 pages, $35), the 79-year-old author's "wandering memoir" of her life in one of England's most picturesque counties. The stunning photos by Roy Morgan round out this delightful armchair tour of the region's rolling hills, quaint towns and ancient churches.


Title: "The Holy Thief."

Author: Ellis Peters.

Publisher: Mysterious Press.

Length, price: 246 pages, $17.95.

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