Dead Man's Ransom
Dead Man's Ransom  
Dead Man's Ransom cover.jpg
Cover of the Grand Central Publishing paperback edition
Author(s) Ellis Peters
Series Brother Cadfael
Genre(s) Mystery novel
Publisher Macmillan
Publication date 1984
Media type Print (Hardcover, Paperback) & audio book
Pages 288 pp (paperback edition)
ISBN 0708914071
OCLC Number 12585570
Preceded by The Devil's Novice
Followed by The Pilgrim of Hate

Dead Man's Ransom is a medieval mystery novel by Ellis Peters. It is the ninth in the Brother Cadfael series, and was first published in 1984.


Plot summary

The book is set in the late winter and early spring of 1141. Brother Cadfael is a Benedictine monk at Shrewsbury Abbey. Of Welsh origins and formerly a widely travelled soldier and seaman, he is content in middle age to have charge of the Abbey's herb and vegetable gardens. He is also skilled as a physician and apothecary.

England is in the grip of civil war, as King Stephen and the Empress Maud are contending for the throne. Shrewsbury and the county of Shropshire are loyal to King Stephen, and a contingent from the county has gone to fight for him at the Battle of Lincoln. Cadfael's friend Hugh Beringar, Deputy Sheriff for the county, returns with the survivors and brings news of a disastrous defeat. Stephen has been captured, and the future of England is uncertain. Gilbert Prestcote, Sheriff of Shropshire, has also been taken prisoner by Welshmen allied to Maud under Madog ap Maredudd, Lord of Powys in Mid Wales, and Cadwaladr ap Gruffydd, the brother of Owain Gwynedd, ruler of Gwynedd in North Wales.

A few days later, Sister Magdalen, a friend of Cadfael who runs a Benedictine convent at Godric's Ford a few miles from Shrewsbury, reports that some of the Welshmen returning from Lincoln tried to raid the convent but were easily driven off, leaving as a prisoner a young man who had fallen into a stream and nearly drowned. Questioned in Welsh by Cadfael, the prisoner identifies himself as Elis ap Cynan, a distant cousin of Owain Gwynedd. Hugh Beringar dispatches Cadfael into Wales to negotiate an exchange of prisoners; Elis for Gilbert Prestcote. At Owain's court, Cadfael meets Cristina, who was betrothed in infancy to Elis, and Eliud, his foster-brother. He overhears them arguing bitterly, and concludes that Cristina is jealous of the friendship between Eliud and Elis, which is making Elis neglect Cristina.

While Cadfael is away in Wales, Elis has met Gilbert Prestcote's daughter Melicent, and they have fallen in love. Melicent believes that her father will never consent to their marriage.

A party under one of Owain's captains, Einon ab Ithel, brings Prestcote from Wales. Eliud accompanies them, as Einon's groom and as the planned hostage to remain in Shrewsbury while Elis returns to Wales. Prestcote is ill and wounded, and is taken to the infirmary at Shrewsbury Abbey. While Einon dines with Abbot Radulfus and Hugh Beringar, Elis tells Eliud of his love for Melicent and his intention to ask her father for her hand in marriage. Eliud protests, but Elis goes to Prestcote's room, only to be ejected from the ward by Brother Edmund, the Infirmarer.

As Einon prepares to leave, Eliud asks Cadfael to go with him to recover Einon's cloak, which had been left behind in Prestcote's room. They find that Prestcote is dead, smothered in his sleep.

Einon has been in company throughout his visit to the Abbey and thus has an alibi, but Eliud and other Welshmen of his party must remain as suspects, as must Elis. After Einon departs for Wales, Melicent accuses Elis of murdering her father to remove the obstacle to their marriage. As Elis protests his innocence, Cadfael belatedly recalls that an ornate gold pin which had fastened Einon ab Ithel's cloak was missing when Prestcote was found dead. It had presumably been stolen from Prestcote's chamber by the murderer. Elis does not have it, but remains under suspicion, and under Melicent's contempt. He and Eliud are allowed to share a cell in the castle under their parole of honour not to leave the castle. Melicent later departs for Godric's Ford with Sister Magdalen, with a half-formed intention of joining the convent.

Cadfael examines the body of Prestcote carefully and recovers richly-dyed woollen threads and even some gold thread, which came from whatever was used to smother him. Neither Elis's clothing nor any other cloth within the Abbey matches them. Suspicion meanwhile falls on Anion ap Griffri, a half-Welsh lay servant of the Abbey who was in the infirmary with a leg injury at the time of Prestcote's death. It is known that his half-brother had been hanged by Prestcote for his part in a fatal brawl, he was heard by a blind monk in the infirmary (who recognised the tapping of his crutch) to enter Prestcote's chamber and he has fled, presumably into Wales.

Reports reach Hugh Beringar of raids by Maud's allies into the northern part of the county, and he has to take most of his armed men to join forces with Owain Gwynedd and deal with them. Elis and Eliud warn him that Welshmen from Powys are likely to seek revenge for their earlier failure and raid Godric's Ford in his absence. Elis in particular is anxious for Melicent's safety.

As Elis and Eliud fear, the men of Powys gather for a raid. Cadfael meanwhile wonders whether Einon ab Ithel innocently took with him the rich cloth with which Prestcote was smothered. With Abbot Radulfus's permission, he takes news of the threatened raid to Tregeiriog in Gwynedd, close to the border with England, where Owain Gwynedd and Einon are expected. There he meets Cristina who asks him for news of Elis and Eliud. He realises that his first impression was mistaken. Cristina and Eliud are in love with each other, but Eliud had refused to speak of his love, for loyalty to his foster-brother. Although she does not yet know of Elis's love for Melicent, Cristina has decided to ask her father to set aside her childhood betrothal to Elis.

When Owain arrives later, a local man named Griffri ap Llywarch asks Owain to acknowledge his illegitimate child, Anion ap Griffri, as his heir. He is wearing Einon's gold pin stolen from Prestcote's chamber. Einon ab Ithel arrives at the same time and accuses Griffri of theft. Anion admits taking the pin, and Owain is prepared to convict him of Prestcote's murder also. Cadfael intercedes, and establishes that Anion mistakenly thought the pin was Prestcote's, and took it to give to his father in compensation for his hanged half-brother, under the Welsh tradition of paying a "blood price" for a death. Anion swears that Prestcote was alive, though asleep, when he removed the pin. Cadfael testifies that Anion never possessed the sumptuous cloth which was the murder weapon and that another, fit man was heard to enter Prescote's chamber after Anion left it. Anion is declared a free man, and is acknowledged as Griffri's heir.

At dawn, before Owain and Einon can properly examine the threads from the cloth used to smother Prestcote, Hugh Beringar arrives in haste, with news that raiders from Powys are nearing Godric's Ford. He obtains fresh horses and prepares to pursue them. In the bustle, Cadfael catches sight of Einon ab Ithel's ornate saddlecloth and realises it was the murder weapon. Now knowing who the murderer is, he asks Owain Gwynedd whether Prestcote's murder must be atoned for by another death, pleading that atonement by penitence would be preferable. Owain agrees that mere revenge is pointless but is otherwise noncommittal, and Cadfael does not yet reveal the murderer's identity.

The news of the raiders also reaches Shrewsbury Castle. Elis overhears the messenger and, frantic with worry for Melicent, he breaks his parole, leaves the castle, and makes his way to Godric's Ford on foot. Hugh Beringar's inexperienced lieutenant, Alan Herbard, sets out to intercept the raiders. He takes Eliud with him, under sentence of death if Elis proves false. As the raiders prepare to attack the convent, Elis confronts them, telling them they are shameful to attack innocent holy women. A Welshman looses an arrow at him, but Eliud throws himself in front of Elis and is badly wounded. Elis's intervention has given time for Beringar and Herbard to arrive, and the raiders are routed and flee into Powys.

As Cadfael treats Eliud's wound, Eliud confesses to the murder of Prestcote. He confirms what Cadfael already knew; that Eliud, frantic to delay the return of Elis to Wales to wed Cristina, went to Prestcote's chamber to recover Einon ab Ithel's cloak while almost everyone else in the Abbey was at dinner. He was carrying Einon's saddlecloth and on the spur of the moment, he smothered Prestcote with it. He left the cloak behind, and later asked Cadfael to accompany him to the room as a charade, to ensure that the death was discovered before Elis could leave the Abbey. Melicent, already convinced by Elis's actions of his innocence, overhears the confession.

Hugh Beringar has no option but to try Eliud for Prestcote's murder, and almost certainly hang him, when he is fit to be tried. Elis has also been wounded, and Hugh sends the other Welshmen of Einon ab Ithel's party to carry him back to Wales. Cadfael, Sister Magdalene, Elis and Melicent conspire to substitute an unconscious Eliud for Elis, thus removing Eliud from Hugh's jurisdiction.

Although exasperated, Beringar does not press any charge against Elis and Melicent, who are properly betrothed. Eliud and Cristina are presumably reunited in Wales. Cadfael observes to Hugh Beringar that even God, when He intends mercy, needs tools to His hand.

Background and setting

Like all of the Cadfael Chronicles, the book describes events in England and Wales at the time of The Anarchy, the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Maud for the throne of England. The Battle of Lincoln was real and took place as described in the novel, including the defeat of Stephen's forces, the capture of Stephen, and the involvement of a Welsh force under Madog and Cadwaladr. Many other real historical figures are mentioned in passing in the text; for example, Ranulf of Chester and Robert of Gloucester.

Wales at the time was not a single principality, but was divided into several small kingdoms. Powys, under Madog ap Maredydd, intervened in England's troubles on the side of the Empress. Powys at the time held Caus Castle, only a few miles from Shrewsbury, and used it as a base from which to launch livestock-thieving raids into English territory.[1]

Gwynedd under Owain Gwynedd remained aloof from England's quarrels, but Owain Gwynedd's wayward younger brother, Cadwaladr ap Gruffydd, took some men from Gwynedd to the Battle of Lincoln alongside the Powys contingent. Both historically and in later books in the Brother Cadfael series, Owain several times exiled Cadwaladr only to be later reconciled with him.

Owain Gwynedd appears prominently in the novel. He is portrayed as a more statesmanlike character than the other Welsh rulers, and allies with Hugh Beringar to deter Maud's ambitious allies. He must manoeuvre carefully to repair the damage done by Cadwaladr, whose men capture Gilbert Prescote, the fictional Sheriff of Shrewsbury, but lose the fictional Elis ap Cynan in the misguided raid on Godric's Ford on the way home.

The Welsh characters are named by patronymics e.g. Elis ap (= son of) Cynan, or Einon ab Ithel, where the patronymic begins with a vowel. Cadfael himself was born in Trefriw in Gwynedd. Though not used within the Abbey, his full name is Cadfael ap Meilyr ap Dafydd, and he claims he would be ashamed if he could not trace his ancestry back five generations.

Radio Adaptations

The book was adapted for BBC Radio 7 in 2008, starring Philip Madoc as Brother Cadfael.


  1. ^ Talbot, Rob; Robin Whiteman (1990). Cadfael Country. Little, Brown and Company. p. 131. ISBN 0-316-90562-3. 

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