The Sanctuary Sparrow


Ellis Peters


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

December 9, 2022

ook seven in the long running series of mystery novels starring Brother Cadfael, a monk who is part of the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury in twelfth century England. Although the mysteries aren't too puzzling, the characterization is terrific. Perhaps because I have read seven volumes now, I am able to easily identify with Brother Cadfael. He seems like a wise, kind guy, but also worldly enough to recognize all the failings of humanity. Greed, envy, lust, pride - Cadfael knows what motivates some humans to perform their most sinful, violent deeds.

The Sanctuary of the Sparrow begins with the brothers of the Abbey gathered for a midnight rite - they are chanting Matins, when a great outcry is heard outside the church doors. An angry mob pursues a young man. Barely eluding their violent grasp, the man manages to sprint into the church and throw himself before the altar, claiming sanctuary. The drunken citizens are ready to beat him to death, but Abbot Radulfus stands before them and declares that their very souls are at risk for violating the sanctity of the holy place. As the mob sullenly retreats, their leader bitterly exclaims that the young man is in fact a murderer and a thief. The accuser is Daniel Aurifaber, and he proclaims that the wretch who so narrowly escaped rough justice had in fact just killed his father, Walter Aurifaber, and stolen a great sack of treasure stolen from the strongbox.

This night was in fact the wedding night of Daniel Aurifaber, and a great celebration feast was held in his honor. A jongleur was hired to provide merriment - he would juggle, sing, play his rebec, and generally provide merriment for the wedding guests. But during the course of the feast, someone bumped into the jongleur from behind and he stumbled forward, knocking a pitcher to the ground where it promptly shattered. The miserly old lady, Dame Juliana, who tightly controlled the fortunes of Aurifaber household, declared that the cost of the broken pitcher must be deducted from the jongleur's fee, and so paid him but a single coin. Angry and bitter, the young jongleur had left. Just an hour later, Walter was discovered face down in his storeroom - someone had crept up from behind and delivered a killing blow to Walter's skull as he greedily was locking away the dowry that came with the newly married bride. Someone cried out that the evil deed must have been the work of the vengeful jongleur, and a drunken crowd quickly rose up in pursuit. They chased the jongleur to Shrewsbury Abbey, where he claimed sanctuary.

Sanctuary must not be violated, but should the young jongleur - whose name is Liliwin - step outside the church grounds, the waiting men will seize him and deliver him up to immediate justice. Once claimed, sanctuary only lasts for forty days, after which the sheriff's men will take the accused to trial. Liliwin is now trapped within the church, unable to flee, unable to prove his innocence. But fortunately for Liliwin, Brother Cadfael is skeptical of Daniel Aurifaber's accusations, and decides to investigate what really happened.

Peter's does a great job describing the habit, customs and beliefs of twelfth century England. Details about their foods, clothing and work all appear in the story - not as long exposition, but as quick description that fits seamlessly into the flow of the tale. The world building is excellent, as is Peter's completely convincing portrayal of the people of England. Of course Cadfael figures out what truly happened, who is guilty and what motivated them. It is a well told story, and I see that I have the next volume, The Devil's Novice on my own bookshelf, so I won't even need to scour the library shelves for it.