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61 pages 2 hours read

Ken Follett

A Column of Fire

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Written in 2017 by Ken Follett, A Column of Fire is a historical fiction novel and the third book in his Kingsbridge series, following The Pillars of the Earth (1989) and World Without End (2007). This novel is a loose sequel to the previous two books and is set against the backdrop of 16th-century Europe. Spanning both decades and continents, it follows the lives of a cast of characters who are caught in the conflict and intrigue surrounding the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the religious divide between the Catholics and the Protestants. Follett is a best-selling Welsh author known for his historical fiction and his spy thrillers.

This guide refers to the 2017 hardcover edition published by Viking.

Content Warning: Both the source text and this guide contain references to sexual assault, graphic violence, enslavement, suicide, and abuse.

Plot Summary

The story of A Column of Fire unfolds across three primary countries—England, which is grappling with civil strife as Queen Elizabeth seeks religious tolerance; France, where Mary Stuart contends for the English throne until the death of her husband, King Francis; and Spain, which is ruled by the unyielding hand of the Catholic King Felipe. The book is broken into five parts, each of which covers a broad span of time.

Part 1 begins in 1558 at the end of the reign of Mary I in Kingsbridge, where Ned Willard returns from Calais in the hopes of reuniting with his love, Margery Fitzgerald. However, he discovers that she has been engaged to Bart Shiring against her will, due to her family's insistence on social standing. Amidst political tensions surrounding Queen Mary’s succession, Ned learns of a French attack on Calais that jeopardizes his family's fortune. Meanwhile, Margery’s brother Rollo, facing financial struggles, becomes involved in a risky investment, and the Fitzgeralds pressure Ned’s mother into accepting a loan. Margery is coerced by her family into agreeing to her arranged marriage, believing it is her divine duty. The Fitzgeralds renege on their deal with the Willards, leading to their financial ruin, and a Protestant whose son wronged Rollo is executed. Angry, Ned seeks to support Princess Elizabeth, who seems to be the best advocate for religious tolerance. Rollo's hopes for military support against Elizabeth are dashed, and following Mary's death, Elizabeth becomes queen. Meanwhile, in France, a con artist named Pierre Aumande is tasked by the Guise family to spy on Parisian Protestants. Sylvie Palot, a Protestant bookseller's daughter, is drawn in by Pierre, and he proposes to her in order to spy on her community. Meanwhile, Queen Mary Stuart prepares for her marriage to Francis, the heir to the French throne.

Part 2 is set between 1559 and 1563. Pierre's betrothal to Sylvie is strained due to his hidden allegiance to the Guise family, and he postpones the wedding. King Henri II of France has a fatal jousting accident, and as a result, Francis becomes king; this development effectively places the Guise family in control. Sylvie finally marries Pierre, but the wedding is a trap for the congregation. During the raid, Pierre is revealed as the traitor, and Sylvie realizes that he was only using her. Afterward, Charles de Guise annuls Pierre’s marriage, only to order him to marry Odette, a maid who was impregnated by one of the Guises. Pierre is forced to raise the resulting child, Alain. Sylvie, now living under an alias, sells illegal Protestant Bibles. Meanwhile, Elizabeth sends Ned to persuade Mary Stuart to stay in France. Despite Ned's efforts, Mary is swayed by Pierre's promises of power. On his return to Kingsbridge, Ned aims to thwart violence during the consecration of the new bishop, which leads to the execution of Margery's abusive father-in-law for treason.

Part 3 is set between 1566 and 1573. Mary Stuart temporarily escapes her imprisonment in Loch Leven castle, only for her army to be defeated, forcing her to seek Elizabeth's help. In England, Ned updates Elizabeth on Mary's movements, and he advises imprisoning her. Elizabeth agrees, and her decision devastates Mary, who expected her support. Margery and Ned carry on a secret relationship, but guilt and external pressures escalate as religious intolerance grows. Rollo joins a conspiracy that is working to restore Catholicism in England. In France, Ned meets Sylvie and bonds over their failed marriages. After Sylvie kisses Ned, Sylvie's mother, Isabelle, suggests they marry quickly, but Sylvie hesitates. Meanwhile, Pierre plots to exploit conflicts arising from Princess Margot's marriage. He confronts Sylvie, but she stands up to him, and Sylvie's mother threatens to force him into leaving. As the royal wedding between Margot and Henri de Bourbon begins, Ned learns of a plan by the Guises to assassinate influential Protestants if there is a riot. He succeeds in preventing one from occurring, but Pierre still manages to convince the attack to go ahead. This leads to the death of a Protestant leader and the massacre of thousands of Protestants. Sylvie rushes to warn those she can of the escalating violence. Pierre confronts Isabelle in her shop, but Isabelle shoots at him and his men and refuses to betray her daughter. After Isabelle is killed and her shop is burned, Ned gets Sylvie to safety in the English embassy. Rollo smuggles Catholic priests into England with Margery’s help, although she expresses her displeasure regarding the violence in France. Sylvie, now married to Ned, visits Kingsbridge and meets Margery, along with Margery’s son, Roger, who is also Ned's child.

Part 4 is set between 1583 to 1589. Mary is imprisoned for over 20 years, and Ned and his superior, Walsingham, search for evidence that Mary is conspiring to overthrow Queen Elizabeth. Margery and Ned argue over Ned’s religious discussions with their son, Roger, leading to a bitter parting. Sylvie reveals her infertility to Margery and asks Margery to marry Ned if both she (Sylvie) and Margery’s husband Bart should die. In Paris, Rollo continues to work as part of the conspiracy to overthrow Elizabeth, and they are seeking Mary Stuart's support. Pierre finally kills Odette but faces suspicion from his stepson Alain. Sylvie asks Alain to spy on Pierre. Rollo provides Pierre with maps of England, but their plans for an invasion are delayed. While Mary Stuart faces stricter confinement, Rollo informs her of the invasion, and they establish a covert means of communication. However, when Mary agrees by letter to have Elizabeth killed once she becomes queen, Ned intercepts the message and uses it as evidence for her arrest and subsequent execution. Meanwhile, the Spanish continue their plans to invade with their armada. The English temporarily cripple them, which leads Margery to discover Rollo's role in the invasion. As a way to strike back at Rollo, she stops aiding the Catholic priests that he is bringing into the country. In a raid on her home, her husband, Bart, dies. The English engage in a desperate battle against the Spanish Armada, winning despite the odds. In France, Pierre’s plans crumble, and his stepson kills him. Rollo, returning to Kingsbridge, blackmails Margery for help. Sylvie recognizes Rollo, and he kills her by pushing her off the cathedral roof. At Sylvie's funeral, Margery is torn between deceiving Ned about Rollo’s involvement or telling Ned and risking Rollo’s vengeance on her and her children. However, the two of them ultimately marry.

The fifth and final part of the book is set between 1602 and 1606. Queen Elizabeth dies, and Ned works to declare James the new King of England. A year later, Rollo seeks revenge against James for betraying Catholic interests. He plots to assassinate the royal family, the courtiers, and Ned during the opening of Parliament. Despite Ned’s dislike of the new king due to his abandonment of Elizabeth’s attempted religious tolerance, Ned is concerned about his own safety. After learning of Rollo's plot, Margery chooses to betray her brother and confess Rollo’s assassination attempt to Ned, which causes a rift between them. Ned ultimately thwarts the attempted bombing, and Rollo is executed for treason. Margery is pardoned for her role, and Ned retires to Kingsbridge with her. In the Epilogue, in 1620, Ned reflects on his life and listens to his grandson’s plans to travel to the New World in search of true religious tolerance.

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