42 pages 1 hour read

Ken Follett

The Pillars of the Earth

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1989

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Welsh writer Ken Follett begins his novel The Pillars of the Earth (1989) with the sinking of the White Ship in 1120 and ends it with the murder of Thomas Beckett in 1170. This is the first book in the Kingsbridge series, followed by World Without End (2007) and A Column of Fire (2017). Follett later released the prequel, The Evening and the Morning, in 2020.

The White Ship sinking in the English Channel resulted in the death of Henry I’s only male heir. Subsequently, England descended into a period historians call the Anarchy, in which Henry’s female heir Matilda (called Maud in Follett’s book and in this summary) and his nephew Stephen went to war over succession from 1135 to 1153. Maud’s son Henry II ascended to the throne in 1154. Henry II’s feud with Thomas Beckett over ecclesiastical versus monarchic control of the English church eventually led him to attack and kill Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, a shock that carried across Christendom, leading to Beckett’s martyrdom.

Though these real-life figures appear in Follett’s bestselling work of historical fiction, the book mainly deals with the lives of ordinary people. It centers around the fictional town of Kingsbridge, and of Prior Philip’s attempts to build a church worthy of his temperaments and beliefs. The book was first published in 1990, and this summary refers to the Penguin mass market paperback edition.

Plot Summary

Jack Shareburg, a travelling minstrel, survives the sinking of the White Ship in 1120, and makes his way to the small village of Kingsbridge. There, he meets and impregnates Ellen. Jack knows the ship was purposely sabotaged, a truth inconvenient to the local men in power. Two members of the local church, Walerian Bigod and Prior James, along with a local named Percy Hamleigh, arrange to have Jack framed for the theft of an expensive bowl, and he is hanged in 1125. Ellen curses the three men and escapes into the forest, where she will raise her boy, also named Jack. A decade later, in 1135, Ellen meets and assists Tom Builder and his children, Alfred and Martha. Tom is grief-stricken after his wife Agnes dies in childbirth, forcing him to abandon the newborn. Ellen informs him that the child, Jonathan, has been adopted by Prior Philip at the nearby Kingsbridge priory. Tom and Ellen fall in love, joining their families.

Prior Philip, an orphan himself, has recently been elected with the help of Walerian Bigod to head the Kingsbridge priory after the death of Prior James. Walerian ascends to become a bishop. Soon after, Tom Builder’s starving family arrives at Kingsbridge looking for work. The priory is quite poor but agrees to take Tom on for temporary work on the crumbling church. That night, Ellen’s precocious son Jack secretly sets fire to the church, and Tom is elevated the next morning to the post of master builder, in charge of the rebuilding.

William Hamleigh, Percy Hamleigh’s son, captures the earldom of nearby Shiring. He acts under the protection of “King Stephen,” as Henry’s nephew has called himself, against Bartholemew, the earl of Shiring, who has declared himself in support of Maud’s line for the throne. Bartholemew is thrown into a pauper’s jail, and his children, Aliena and Richard, are dispossessed. He makes them swear a vow to one day take back the earldom. In the meantime, Aliena starts a wool selling business in order to fund Richard’s training as a knight. In the political mayhem, Philip independently negotiates the rights to some of the Shiring lands in order to fund his new church. This independence earns him the ire of both Walerian and the Hamleighs. 

The church grows by leaps and bounds under Philip’s care, and Kingsbridge grows from a small village into a town with a thriving market. William takes advantage of the lawless atmosphere of the civil war to attack Kingsbridge and burn its market to the ground. In the process, Tom dies, and his less talented son Alfred takes over. In the meantime, William fights on Stephen’s side for succession in the battle of Lincoln, which Stephen loses. Maud is triumphant, and William soon switches sides. In the meantime, Aliena is destitute again after losing her store of wool in the Kingsbridge attack. Although she loves Jack, she agrees to marry the witless Alfred in order to maintain her brother’s standing as a knight. This tears the family apart, and Jack leaves Kingsbridge. An insecure Alfred is incapable of consummating their marriage, and his shoddy building leads to part of the priory toppling over. He leaves, and Aliena attempts to find Jack. Years later, both return with riches and new ideas about building. Jack is now made master builder. As the war passes, William’s power grows, and Kingsbridge thrives.

Henry II’s ascension means mostly good fortune for Kingsbridge. In the end, the church is completed. Aliena and Jack’s son ascends to the Shiring earldom. A deposed William is demoted to the sheriff of Shiring, where he continues to cause trouble. Philip becomes a bishop with Thomas Beckett’s assistance, replacing Walerian, while Jonathan becomes the new prior. When Beckett is murdered, William is hanged for the offense. In the backlash, Philip is among those who publicly participate in Henry II's atonement.

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