Pillars Of The Earth Summary

Ken Follett

Pillars Of The Earth

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Pillars Of The Earth Summary

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Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett, is an epic novel that kicks off the Kingsbridge trilogy. The subsequent novels are World Without End and Column of Fire, though Pillars of the Earth also can stand alone. It begins with two prologues. The first takes place in the year 1120. The sinking of the White Ship leaves King Henry of England without a legitimate heir, and the succession of the throne is disputed. The second prologue, which takes place in 1123, begins with a hanging. A man is to be executed, accused by a priest, a knight, and a monk of stealing a chalice from the monastery. The villagers don’t believe he’s stolen the chalice. On the gallows, the man watches a pregnant woman in the crowd, who curses the accusers before fleeing the execution.

Part One, which comprises the first four chapters of the book, takes place between the years 1135 and 1136. Tom Builder, his pregnant wife, his son Alfred, and his daughter Martha are looking for work. Tom’s wife dies in childbirth and he abandons the baby because he cannot feed it. He meets Ellen, a woman who lives in the woods, and her son Jack. The two families join together, though there is discord between Alfred and Jack, and they go to Kingsbridge. There, the cathedral is failing. Jack burns it down so that Tom can get work building a new one. Philip, the new prior of Kingsbridge, who clashes politically with Waleran Bigod, hires Tom. After much negotiating and maneuvering, Philip is able to secure building materials from the Hamleighs.

The Hamleighs came to power by claiming that Earl Bartholomew had betrayed King Stephen, King Henry’s nephew who maneuvered his way to the throne, bypassing Henry II, the king’s grandson by Maud. The Hamleighs are allied with Waleran, and seek Bartholomew’s title for their own. Their son, William, had tried to marry Bartholomew’s daughter, Aliena, but she refused him. Once in power, and with her father arrested, William rapes Aliena. At the monastery, Tom’s abandoned son, Jonathan, who has been raised as an orphan by the monks, befriends Tom, unaware that he is his father.

Part Two takes place between 1136 and 1137, and includes chapters five through seven. Clashes continue to escalate between factions, with increasing violence. William Hamleigh won’t let Tom draw stone from the quarry, even though Philip had been promised this right by the king. Philip devises a plan to secure the stone. Aliena and her brother Richard are thrust into poverty, but build a fortune selling wool with Prior Philip’s help. Richard becomes a soldier. Waleran tells Bishop Henry that the cathedral is coming along poorly, so he should move the priory to Shiring, where the Hamleighs rule. Philip and Aliena manage to muster the villagers to help work on the cathedral so that it progresses more quickly, and when Bishop Henry arrives, he is pleased to see both that and Tom’s plans. Jack becomes an apprentice under Tom, and both he and Alfred fall in love with Aliena.

Part Three, chapters eight through ten, takes place from 1140 to 1142. Maud and Stephen are engaged in civil war for the throne. Percy Hamleigh dies, and William goes to the king to ask to be made Earl of Shiring. Richard contests the request, and William is given custody of Shiring. William continues to treat people with violence, raping and beating them to secure more income or to satisfy his personal desires. Waleran and William continue their alliance, and Waleran offers William absolution for any murders he commits. Philip decides to go and see the king about his broken promises to the Church and to Kingsbridge. Maud attacks, and Stephen is taken hostage. Philip requests an audience with Maud, who grants the quarry to William, but gives Philip market rights for Kingsbridge. Meanwhile, Jack and Aliena get closer, and this angers Alfred. The two get into a fight and Jack is forced to leave the cathedral, because Alfred is a mason and Jack is only an apprentice. During Kingsbridge’s first fleece fair, William attacks, burning it and killing many, including Tom.

Part Four, chapters eleven through fourteen, takes place from 1142 to 1145. Waleran, now a bishop, refuses to give William absolution for those he has killed. He is back to supporting Stephen, who is king again. Alfred becomes master builder, and vows he can make the roof out of stone, not wood. He convinces Aliena to marry him, because Richard needs money and Alfred has it. Jack confronts Alfred, but Ellen tells Jack to go to France to seek his father’s family. After the wedding, Alfred treats Aliena cruelly, so she goes to France to find Jack. Together they return, and Jack takes over building the cathedral.

Chapters fourteen through sixteen make up Part Five, which takes place from 1152 to 1155. Kingsbridge is prospering. Aliena meets Elizabeth Hamleigh, William’s battered wife, and they become friends. Famine strikes. In Shiring, Waleran and William hire Alfred to build a church. Richard allies with a group of outlaws to take Shiring castle from William. Stephen loses to Maud; Duke Henry, Maud’s son, will take power. The transfer will take time, though, and so even though Henry has promised Shiring to Richard, he must wait. Elizabeth and Aliena conspire to give Shiring castle to Richard more quickly. When Alfred attacks Aliena, Richard kills him and is then sent to the Holy Land in a crusade. Aliena and Jack marry.

Part Six, the final chapters, takes place from 1170 to 1174. Kingsbridge, now a city, is thriving. Waleran attempts to try Philip, thinking Jonathan is his son; Ellen accuses Waleran of conspiring to execute Jack Shareburg for stealing a chalice from the monastery. It comes to light that Waleran conspired with barons to sink the White Ship, and he is arrested. William is executed for killing Thomas Beckett. When Richard dies overseas, Aliena and Jack’s son Tommy is named Earl of Shiring.