Edith Mary Pargeter, better known as Ellis Peters, was born in Horsehay, Shropshire, in 1913. She attended the Dawley Church of England School and Coalbrookdale High School for Girls, and never lost her love of the landscape and history of Shropshire, where she lived her whole life.
Pargeter began writing while still a young girl, from poems when she was seven to writing for the school magazine while a teenager. On leaving school, she became a temporary Labour Exchange (now the Jobcentre) clerk, before working as a chemist's assistant in Dawley. Her experience with medicines would become invaluable in future novels.
She spent all of her spare time writing, with her first novel, Hortensius Friend of Nero, published in 1936, and her work also appearing in the magazines 20-Story and Good Housekeeping. Pargeter's first novel was not well received, however, and she had to wait until 1939 and her second novel, The City Lies Foursquare, before tasting success.
Wartime and Czechoslovakia
During World War II, in 1940, she became a petty officer in the Wrens1 in Liverpool, and received the British empire medal. During this time she wrote numerous novels, including She Goes to War, which was based on her own experiences.
Pargeter joined a young worker's summer school in Czechoslovakia in 1947, which led to her novel Fair Young Phoenix. She also to learnt Czech and became a teacher of the language and a translator of Czech poetry and prose into English. Pargeter was recognised for her work in service of Czech literature with the gold medal of the Czechoslovak Society.
At times, she wrote under pseudonyms, including John Redfern, Jolyon Carr and Peter Benedict. Most people, however, know Pargeter best as the mystery writer Ellis Peters. This was the name she adopted to draw a distinction between her mystery works and other projects. The idea for the name came from her brother's name, Ellis, and a Czech friend's, Petra. Her first mystery novel was Fallen in to the Pit, which introduces Sergeant George Felse as the investigating officer.
Peters' most famous creation, however, is Brother Cadfael, the mystery-solving monk. He first appeared in A Morbid Taste for Bones which was, along with the rest of the Cadfael series, set in Shrewsbury Abbey in the 1100s. The book was inspired by the bones of Saint Winifred2.
The main character is an ex-crusader-turned-monk who solves crimes with his knowledge of human nature and medicinal herbs. He appeared in 21 novels3 for the next 18 years, until Pargeter (and of course Peters with her) died in Madeley, Shropshire, in 1995.
Pargeter won numerous awards for her work, such as from the British Crime Writers' Association and the Mystery Writers of America. She also received an OBE, and an honorary masters degree from Birmingham University. A memorial to her can be found in Shrewsbury Abbey, and at one time there was a Cadfael-themed 'Shrewsbury Quest' attraction next to it. There, visitors could immerse themselves in the world created by Peters as they tried to solve a Cadfael-type mystery.