For those trivia lovers, A Morbid Taste for Bones is the very first Cadfael mystery, though it wasn’t the first one adapted for television.
Shrewsbury. The monks are having a medieval blood drive by the look of it. Actually, they’re just being bled because…I don’t know, it’s Tuesday and that’s what they do? One of the monks suddenly gets up and has some sort of fit. Cadfael is summoned and holds him down, shoving a stick in between his teeth and calming him with poppy juice. Jerome thinks the guy was in the grips of some sort of religious ecstasy, while Cadfael thinks he was just weakened and loopy from blood loss. I’m surprised nobody thinks witchcraft was at work, but then, maybe they though no spell could be effective in such a holy place.
Cadfael asks for someone to sit with the young monk and Jerome immediately volunteers. When the young monk, Columbanus, starts to come around, he tells Jerome he saw a beautiful, radiant lady. Apparently it’s not the first time he’s seen this woman. Jerome eagerly coaches him to say the woman is Saint Winifred, and when Columbanus repeats the name, Jerome runs to the abbot and tells him all about it.
The abbot and most of the other monks go to the abbey, where Columbanus is wandering around, hands outstretched, attracted by the light coming through a cross-shaped window. The monks talk amongst themselves about Winifred, who’s buried and allegedly neglected in Wales. The prior proposes an expedition to collect the bones, so they can bring them back to Shrewsbury and start milking pilgrims for all they’re worth. Cadfael thinks that’s creepy, which prompts Jerome to accuse him of being a Welsh sympathiser, since he was born in Wales. Cadfael accuses Jerome right back of using Columbanus, so the abbot calls a halt to the bickering and asks Cadfael for a private word.
In his office, the abbot warns him to show respect for his fellow brothers. He admits he, too, thinks it’s wrong to go graverobbing, unless that grave is neglected and the occupant wants to be moved. In that case, it’s totally fine. The expedition will go ahead, and Cadfael will be part of it, along with Jerome, Columbanus, and Prior Robert. The abbot gives the funds for the trip to Cadfael for safekeeping.
The brothers prepare to leave, and Cadfael confirms that Columbanus has poppy juice on him. Columbanus, smiling like he’s more than a little touched in the head, says he won’t need it. Better prepared, though, right? The expedition sets off, taking with it a covered cart with a reliquary for the bones.
In Wales, a young woman named Sioned is throwing a hell of a tantrum over the marriage her father’s arranged for her. Her father lays down the law, telling her she’s his only child and heir and he wants her settled. Her intended, a friend since childhood named Peredur, comes in just then and she yells at him to go home before she stomps out. Her father says she’s definitely softening. Jesus, what was she like before? Peredur thinks the father’s too indulgent and counsels the man to be more firm. Dad—Lord Rhysart—tells Peredur he needs to step up and lend a hand with this suit. In comes the local priest, Father Ianto, to tell Rhysart the English monks are closing in. Rhysart darkly says they’ll have the welcome they deserve.
Sioned runs off to steal her boyfriend, Godwin, from the fields so they can have a little afternoon nookie session, which Peredur spots. He looks sad.
The Shrewsbury Crew arrives in the town, or settlement, rather, and are warily watched by the locals. Robert immediately gets off on the wrong foot by asking the locals if they know or care where Winifred lies. One of them steps forward and says they both know and care. He directs them to the burial site. Rhysart meets them there, along with Sioned and several others, and says Winifred was born and died in this place and wouldn’t want to go to some English abbey. Robert objects to the fact that the gravesite is somewhat unkempt, but Rhysart reminds them that Winifred was a country girl and now lies in country soil. Cadfael looks embarrassed to even be here. Rhysart tells them the story of how Winifred had her head sliced off by a man she refused to sleep with, only to have the head grow back. The man then melted into the ground. Creepy! Rhysart tells the monks they’ve all been deceived. Robert finally remembers his diplomacy and asks Rhysart for a private word. Before they go into a nearby chapel, Robert demands the money the abbot gave for the expedition from Cadfael, who hands it over reluctantly.
In the chapel, Robert tries to use the money to bribe Rhysart, who’s totally offended by this Englishman steaming into his town and trying to buy their saint. Well done, Robert.
Back outside, Rhysart tells everyone he was right to oppose this and Winifred will remain where she is. He gives the monks until dawn the following day to clear out.
Back in the chapel, Cadfael yells at Robert for being such an idiot. Jerome thinks Rhysart should be struck down where he stands for threatening the holy brothers with violence if they didn’t leave on schedule. Somewhat mollified by having an ally, Robert tells both Columbanus and Jerome to hold vigil in the chapel that night. He then rudely orders the priest to find the rest of them lodgings for the night.
A little later, Cadfael warns Robert not to unnecessarily upset Rhysart. Robert tells Cadfael to have a talk with the man, Welshman to Welshman. Cadfael says he won’t be able to do that until the man’s temper has cooled a bit, which could be a while.
That night, Columbanus brings some wine to Jerome ahead of their vigil. Jerome swigs away, the greedy little bastard.
The following morning, Rhysart makes his way into the forest for some reason.
Back in town, Cadfael gets his day started by ducking his head in a bucket.
Out in the woods, one of the monks comes across Rhysart, dead with an arrow sticking out of his chest.
Jerome and Columbanus are fast asleep in the chapel when Oswin comes to rouse them with news of the murder.
Robert, still proving that he knows nothing about winning people over, declares Rhysart’s death to be Winifred’s vengeance. Cadfael calls BS on that and determines the arrow was fired from a short bow. The blacksmith identifies the arrow as belonging to Sioned’s boyfriend, Godwin, who’s apparently been arguing with Rhysart for some time. Sioned says Godwin couldn’t have done such a thing, but Peredur thinks a man could be driven to do terrible things for love. Sioned accuses Robert of having a hand in this, and he tells her to bite her tongue and directs attention back to Godwin. The townspeople rush off to find him, but Peredur gets to him first and warns him to run away.
Back with Sioned and the body, Cadfael continues his investigation and realises the arrow didn’t kill Rhysart. The ground beneath him was soaked with blood, but the arrow didn’t go all the way through. He was stabbed in the back and the arrow pushed in later. Columbanus leaps forward and says he wants to confess. He admits to having fallen asleep instead of praying, and that he only awoke when Jerome shook him that morning. He thinks the death happened because of his own sinful failing. The blacksmith threateningly asks Jerome to account for his whereabouts and accuses the monks of having killed Rhysart. Cadfael says everyone there is a suspect and they mustn’t go jumping to conclusions. Robert, of course, has to make everything worse by telling the blacksmith that he has no authority over the monks and therefore can’t sit in any sort of judgment on them. Cadfael angrily asks Robert when he’ll face reality and realise they can’t just turn their backs on this matter. He asks for three days to look into this and Robert agrees.
Cadfael wanders the forest for a bit and finds Peredur. He guesses the young man warned Godwin off and Peredur doesn’t deny it. Cadfael tells Peredur the arrow didn’t do the deed, which doesn’t surprise Peredur, since he doubts Godwin could kill anyone.
Cadfael starts asking the townspeople for info. The blacksmith says Peredur wouldn’t have done it, since he and Rhysart were tight. Cadfael learns that Godwin is allegedly heir to some manor in England but was forced to flee after being caught poaching. Rhysart gave him work, but not his daughter. The blacksmith had a bit of a beef with Rhysart too, over a field, but nothing worth killing over.
Sioned brings supplies to Godwin (he, by the way, is played by Stephen Moyer, who’s better known now as Bill Compton on True Blood), and apparently Cadfael follows her there and gets to see Sioned telling Godwin there’s nothing to keep them from getting married, once this pesky murder rap is dispensed of.
Back home, she sits with her father’s body and is joined by Cadfael. He tells her he followed her earlier and warns her that someone less open minded could think the two lovers were working together to get rid of the one obstacle in the way of their marriage. She’s so offended she slaps him and calls on her father’s body to give forth blood if she’s guilty. No blood appears, so according to medieval CSI rules, she’s innocent. Cadfael asks if Godwin would pass the test as well, and she counters by asking if the monks would. She’s sure the murderer is one of Cadfael’s own. Cadfael doesn’t outright deny that a monk could be a murderer, though he hopes she’s wrong.
That night, Sioned and the townspeople find Robert and ask for permission to lay her father’s body before St Winifred’s alter and have the monks say a prayer for his soul. Robert agrees, acting like he’s doing her a huge favour, and the body is brought into the chapel. Jerome looks slightly freaked out at the sight of it and asks what’s going on. Sioned fills him in and asks Jerome to lay his hand on her father, apparently in the hope of performing that blood test again. Jerome babblingly makes excuses and rushes out of the chapel. She takes that as a sign of guilt. Cadfael’s not so sure, reminding her that there are others who need to be examined first.
Sioned keeps trying out the test with the other monks, but Robert interrupts just before Oswin’s going to lay his hand on the body. Robert demands and gets an explanation and derides this as a pagan test. Sioned urges him to lay his hand on the man if he’s so innocent. He refuses to do so and orders everyone out of the chapel. Only Cadfael remains behind and Robert reminds him that half his time is gone, so he’d better use the remainder wisely.
Cadfael and Columbanus are sitting vigil that night. Columbanus is totally chill about this whole murder business, because they’re not on earthly business. Cadfael probes the young man a bit, trying to find out if he’s ambitious at all, and seeing these ‘visions’ in a bid to get ahead. Before they go in, Columbanus smells something sweet, which Cadfael identifies as elderflower.
Inside, Columbanus begins praying, and his eyes roll up in his head in a strange ecstasy. Staring at the light coming through a window, he suddenly shouts ‘my lady!’ and collapses on the floor. Cadfael rolls his eyes and makes sure he’s ok. He is, just unconscious.
The following morning, Columbanus is carried on a litter to the village, where he tells Robert he’s experienced such bliss and was transported to a wonderful place where Winifred waited for him and conveniently approved the monks’ enterprise. She then gave Rhysart divine absolution and told Columbanus to tell the villagers to bury Rhysart in Winifred’s soon-to-be-empty grave. The blacksmith thinks this is all just too convenient, and Sioned agrees, though Cadfael says Columbanus is no trickster. Ianto tells everyone to chill out and stop fighting over this young woman like dogs over a bone. He tells the monks they can remove the bones, but they’ll remain in town until the murderer is found. For some reason, all the townspeople who have been fighting against Winifred’s removal this whole time are just fine with this.
Everyone gathers to start unearthing the grave, which is quite a production. Some guy’s waving what looks like a rake in the air while a monk chants aloud from a bible on a hefty stand. There’s also a wheel hung with what appears to be coloured rags turning in the background and incense burners being waved. The monks take turns digging in the grave, and it’s Cadfael who finally finds the bones. He delicately unearths them as everyone watches. The bones are wrapped in a sheet and sealed in the reliquary.
Once that’s done, Rhysart’s body is brought to the gravesite. As it’s laid beside the open grave, Peredur emerges from the woods and is led to the body by Sioned. She asks him to lay a cross on her father’s chest, but he can’t seem to do it. Instead, he drops to his knees, weeping, and cries that he’s not guilty of murder. He’s just guilty of trying to frame his friend, Godwin, for the murder by planting that arrow. He hoped Godwin would run back to England and Peredur could marry Sioned in peace. Sioned forgives him and he puts the cross on the body.
That night, Jerome wakes from a bit of a nightmare and finds Columbanus still sleeping peacefully beside him.
Peredur, meanwhile, is having some kind of nervous breakdown, screaming and sobbing. Cadfael is sent for and goes to fetch some of Columbanus’s poppy juice. When he finds the vial, however, he’s surprised to find it nearly empty when it should be full.
Now that he’s gotten what he wanted, Robert declares that the monks will leave the following morning. Columbanus asks to spend the last night in the chapel, making amends for having fallen asleep that first night. Not to be outdone, Jerome volunteers to stay up as well, but Robert tells him to let Columbanus honour Winifred in solitude.
Cadfael’s gotten Peredur calmed down and is tucking him into bed. Ianto stops by and Cadfael apologises for having brought so much strife to their village. Ianto kindly says that Cadfael wasn’t the cause of it. Cadfael agrees, but he does regret not having sussed out the murderer yet. Sioned comes running in and tells Cadfael that Jerome has returned. From where? I wasn’t aware that Jerome had gone anywhere.
Cadfael finds Jerome praying before a small cross and Jerome prissily reminds him it’s time for vespers. Cadfael asks where Columbanus is and hears about his plans to sit vigil in the chapel. It quickly becomes apparent that Jerome is super jealous and, with little prompting, Jerome starts spitting that Winifred has brought out pride and hate and has spoiled plenty of lives since calling them there. Cadfael reminds Jerome that she didn’t call them there at all and asks why Rhysart’s death is so heavily on Jerome’s conscience. Jerome thinks he’s to blame because he wished Rhysart dead. Cadfael tells him how stupid that is and then brings up the almost empty poppy juice vial, asking if he knows what happened to the rest. Jerome doesn’t know, but he lets slip that Columbanus brought food and wine for Jerome that first night but didn’t take any for himself. Cadfael has a lightbulb moment, and after Jerome leaves, Sioned comes in and asks if he knows the truth. He thinks he does.
That night, he surprises Columbanus in the chapel. Columbanus seems a little pissed off to find Cadfael there but kneels to pray, ignoring him. Cadfael kneels as well, and after a little while he whispers that he can feel the saint’s presence and is sure she’s there with them. Columbanus agrees and seems to see a vision of a pretty young woman. Cadfael continues that she seems troubled for Columbanus and asks the reason for his penance when he didn’t fall asleep that first night at all. Jerome did, though, because he was dosed with poppy juice. Cadfael urges Columbanus to speak the truth and, in some sort of trance, Columbanus says that Rhysart defied the will of God. He drugged Jerome and lay in wait for Rhysart. When the man passed him by the next day, he stabbed him, so they could take the saint back to England, as she wanted. Sioned, who’s been listening in, throws herself on Columbanus, who throws her off and rushes outside, where Godwin’s waiting. In the fight that ensues, Columbanus falls on a stone and breaks his neck, which kills him. Cadfael goes into damage control mode and gets the young lovers to bring Columbanus into the chapel. Godwin’s not sorry the man’s dead, but Cadfael says Columbanus was sick, and furthermore, there’s no truth of his guilt beyond the confession that only Cadfael and Sioned overheard. There’s also the matter of the huge scandal this could create. In an effort to cover up Columbanus’s guilt, it’s likely Godwin would be accused of and hanged for murder. They need to get creative here. Cadfael heats a knife over a candle flame and gets ready to cut through the seals on the reliquary while Sioned gathers elder blossoms and Godwin redigs Winifred’s grave.
Winifred is laid to rest once again in her old grave, sprinkled with elder blossoms, and Columbanus is hidden in the reliquary. Wait, what? How would that work out? That body would start to smell very quickly, especially since it’s evidently summertime. And that would give the whole game away, because no way would anyone believe that holy bones would stink like a decomposing corpse. You couldn’t possibly cover that up.
The following morning, the monks prepare to leave. The townspeople meet them and the blacksmith tells them that they’ve held a council and are now convinced that what’s in the reliquary is theirs to take. Heh. Robert doesn’t really know how to react to that and they head into the chapel to collect Columbanus and the reliquary. Inside, they find the reliquary, as well as Columbanus’s robe, laid out in front of the altar as if someone had actually been in it, scattered with elder blossoms. Robert and Jerome think Columbanus was miraculously taken by the saint and they all kneel to pray. Superstition can be a great tool when used correctly. They collect the reliquary and load it onto the cart, Jerome commenting that it’s surprisingly heavy. Cadfael tells him that’s the weight of the saint’s worthiness. Again, superstition is great. Sioned embraces Cadfael and thanks him for his help. Robert scolds him for unseemly behaviour, so Cadfael zings him by asking if Robert plans to return the abbot’s bag of gold to him, or if he’d prefer Cadfael do it?
Back to Shrewsbury, the reliquary is placed in the abbey, where it can be used to bilk pilgrims out of their hard-earned cash for generations to come. Oswin asks Cadfael if he believes in the miraculous power of bones and Robert joins them, asking if Winifred will reach out to those in need. Cadfael replies that she certainly will, and that he even hears she still works miracles in Wales.