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Pillars of the Earth

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Pillars of the Earth

This article is about Ken Follett's novel. For the television miniseries adaptation, see The Pillars of the Earth (TV miniseries).

The Pillars of the Earth
First edition
Author Ken Follett
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Historical fiction
Publisher Macmillan
Publication date 1989
Published in English 1989
Media type print
Pages 816
ISBN 0-333-51983-3
Followed by World Without End

The Pillars of the Earth is a historical novel by Ken Follett published in 1989 about the building of a cathedral in the town of Kingsbridge, England. It is set in the middle of the 12th century, primarily during the Anarchy, between the time of the sinking of the White Ship and the murder of Thomas Becket. The book traces the development of Gothic architecture out of the preceding Romanesque architecture, and the fortunes of the Kingsbridge priory and village against the backdrop of historical events of the time.

Before this novel was published, Follett was known for writing in the thriller genre. The Pillars of the Earth became his best-selling work. The book was listed at no. 33 on the BBC's Big Read, a 2003 survey with the goal of finding the "nation's best-loved book". The book was selected in the United States for Oprah's Book Club in 2007. Follett published a sequel, entitled World Without End (2007).



Set during the reign of King Stephen and the Anarchy, the novel explores themes of intrigue and conspiracy against historical events. It explores the development of medieval architecture, the civil war, secular/religious conflicts, and shifting political loyalties.

The story is divided into six sections plus a prologue. The headings are:

  • Prologue, 1123
  • Part One, 1135–1136
  • Part Two, 1136–1137
  • Part Three, 1140–1142
  • Part Four, 1142–1145
  • Part Five, 1152-1155
  • Part Six, 1170–1174

Plot summary

After the sinking of the White Ship, King Henry I of England is left without a clear heir, and The Anarchy begins upon his death. Two candidates (Henry's nephew Stephen of Blois and Henry's daughter Maud) present their claims, build their armies, and fight for the throne. Ambitious nobles and churchmen take sides, hoping to gain advantages.

Tom Builder and his family roam southern England, seeking work. In midwinter, his starving wife, Agnes, dies in childbirth, forcing them to leave the baby (later found and brought to Kingsbridge to be a monk, unknown to Tom Builder). He encounters a woman, Ellen, who lives in a forest cave with her son, Jack, whose father, a French jongleur, had been executed after washing ashore and meeting Ellen. Tom settles in Kingsbridge with Ellen and Jack, and his own two children, Alfred and Martha. He works for Prior Philip, who wants to expand his priory by rebuilding a cathedral. Conveniently, the old Romanesque cathedral burns down the night Tom arrives, and none suspect foul play. Tom offers to build a new church, and Phillip agrees.

Philip appeals to King Stephen for financial support and is given land and the right to take stone from a nearby quarry, which has been granted to Percy Hamleigh as part of the earldom of Shiring. Percy's interests are not in supporting the cathedral. Hamleigh wants to topple the earl Bartholomew because Bartholomew's daughter, Aliena, had rejected Hamleigh's son William. William attacks Aliena and her brother Richard at the castle; he rapes the girl and injures the boy. Homeless and destitute, Aliena and Richard go to petition the king for aid; at the court, they find their dying father Bartholomew in prison, who demands they swear an oath to work for Richard to regain the earldom. Aliena supports Richard financially by becoming a wool merchant, with Phillip's help. Richard becomes a knight for King Stephen, fighting in the civil war against Maud. Richard gains the king's favour by defending him at the Battle of Lincoln.

Tom, meanwhile, has been building the cathedral, and living with his children, Alfred and Martha, his lover Ellen and her son Jack. Alfred bullies Jack. When Ellen and Tom are discovered to be unmarried, a charge of fornication is brought against them. Outraged, Ellen returns to the forest with Jack. Tom befriends Prior Philip and, when Ellen returns, he persuades Philip to allow them to marry. As masons, Jack and Alfred fight again. While the better mason and a skilled sculptor, Jack is expelled from the cathedral construction. He becomes a novice monk in order to stay in Kingsbridge.

William and Richard compete for the earldom, but it has been bankrupted by the prosperity of Kingsbridge at Shiring's expense. Attempting to restore his fortunes, William burns down Kingsbridge and kills many people, including Tom Builder. After losing her fortune again, Aliena agrees to marry Alfred, as he promised to support Richard in exchange. Jack and Aliena make love on the morning of her wedding. When she marries Alfred anyway, Ellen curses the wedding and renders him impotent.

Jack goes to France and hones his skills as a sculptor and mason. Having learned his father's identity, he meets his family in Cherbourg. He did not know that Aliena was pregnant.

In Kingsbridge, Alfred persuades Philip to replace the wooden roof with a stone vault. The building collapses during a service, killing many people. Aliena gives birth to a red-headed son, and Alfred abandons her, as he has been impotent: the baby can't be his. Aliena follows evidence of Jack's sculpture through France, finding him in Paris.

They make love, and she tells him of the collapsed roof and lost relic. Jack and Aliena return to England with their baby and they seek permission to marry. Philip forbids the union until her marriage to Alfred is annulled. This requires Waleran Bigod’s recommendation to the archbishop, but Bigod and the Hamleighs are allies, and they intend to ruin Philip and Aliena.

Meanwhile, Richard has joined the forces of Maud's son, Henry, Count of Anjou. When Henry invades, Stephen agrees to have Henry succeed him, with all properties to revert to those who had owned them prior to Stephen’s reign. However Stephen shows no intention of forcing the handovers meaning that Richard might not gain the earldom until Stephen's death. Aliena persuades William's young wife, Elizabeth, who loathes William, to hand the castle over to them before William returns, completing Richard's claim as the righful earl. William returns to the village of Hamleigh and Bigod proposes to make him sheriff of Shiring if, in exchange, William builds a cathedral in Shiring to compete with the one in Kingsbridge.

After many years, Kingsbridge cathedral is completed. Waleran accuses Prior Philip of fornication by claiming the monk Jonathan is Philip's son. Ellen swears that Jonathan is Tom Builder’s son. After Waleran accuses her of perjury, she exposes his own perjury and complicity in a conspiracy to sink the White Ship carrying William Adelin, heir of King Henry I.

Meanwhile, William Hamleigh has become involved with the plot to assassinate Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. William is convicted of sacrilege and hanged for his part in the plot. The Pope forces King Henry’s public repentance and symbolic subjugation of the crown to the church.


In the 1999 preface to The Pillars of the Earth, Follett tells readers that he grew up in a Puritan-based family, whose worship space was very spare. In preparing for writing, he was reading about medieval architecture, and:

...developed an interest in cathedrals. Before too long, it occurred to me to channel this enthusiasm into a novel. I knew it had to be a long book. It took at least thirty years to build a cathedral and most took longer because they would run out of money, or be attacked or invaded. So the story covers the entire lives of the main characters. My publishers were a little nervous about such a very unlikely subject but, paradoxically, it is my most popular book. It's also the book I'm most proud of. It recreates, quite vividly, the entire life of the village and the people who live there. You feel you know the place and the people as intimately as if you yourself were living there in the Middle Ages.[1]

The Preface includes the following sources:

  1. An Outline of European Architecture, by Nicholas Pevsner.
  2. The Cathedral Builders, by Jean Gimpel.
  3. The Medieval Machine, by Jean Gimpel.

The novel's Kingsbridge is fictional. He set it in Marlborough, Wiltshire; Follett chose that location because the cathedrals of Winchester, Gloucester, and Salisbury could be reached from there within a few days on horseback. Kingsbridge Cathedral as described is based on the cathedrals of Wells and Salisbury.[2]

Historical accuracy

While the book has been praised for its description of Medieval life, it also features some historical inaccuracies. Some of these might be to make the characters and the plot more suited for modern readers while some are clear anachronisms:

  • The English nobility of that period were Norman French immigrants. Norman French was the language of the court and upper class and it did not spread far into the rest of the English society. The ability of ordinary Englishmen to speak French was considered unusual.[3] Thus many of the encounters across social classes presented in the book have been characterized as implausible by some critics, although in fact bilingualism was then emerging in English society for practical and mercantile reasons. For example, the noblewoman Aliena (presumably a native Norman French-speaker) becomes a successful wool merchant, communicating with the Anglo-Saxon-speaking locals and running a successful business among them.
  • Sugar is mentioned several times in the book. Sugar was not available in England at that time, except in courtly circles: "It is reported that the household of Henry III was using sugar in 1264, but not until 1319 was sugar in more general use in Britain."[4]
  • Lots of people in the book are reported as having breakfast. There is some debate on whether all people in those times ate breakfast at all.[5][6]
  • Tom tries to find a hibernating squirrel "in the dead leaves on the forest floor […] to put in the broth. He was unlucky." Squirrels found in the UK do not hibernate, although they are known to be lethargic in times of deep cold. (These would have been red squirrels in Medieval times.)
  • The priory storeroom is said to contain hops. Hops were not used in the UK for food production until centuries later.
  • One of the characters is called Francis. It is unlikely that anybody would bear this name fifty years before the birth of Francis of Assisi. Indeed, Francis (Italian: Francesco, meaning "frenchman") was the saint's nickname, while his Christian name was Giovanni (John). The name became widespread only due to the saint's fame.
  • Significantly, Tom and Ellen are rebuked for perpetuated fornication, and try as excuse that there was no priest at hand. Yet the diriment impediment "lack of form" dates back to no earlier than the Council of Trent. The contemporary practice (as treated, for instance, by St. Thomas, S. th. Supp. 45) would have well made it possible for them to marry at once, without a priest, possibly taking their children as witnesses. Even more significantly, unmarried couples were fairly common throughout medieval society, and while the social standing of the woman would have been somewhat lowered by being a "concubine" and not a married woman, the fact itself carried no social stigma and scarcely provoked any intervention by law and church.

Major characters

  • Jack Jackson (known also as Jack Builder): son of Jack Shareburg (Jacques Cherbourg) and Ellen; he becomes an architect and skilled stonemason.
  • Tom Builder: A builder whose lifelong dream is to build a cathedral.
  • Ellen: daughter of a knight. She was unusual in knowing English, French and Latin, and in being literate. The lover of Jack Shareburg and the mother of Jack Jackson, she is discovered by Tom Builder while living in the woods.
  • Prior Philip: A monk who dreams of Kingsbridge rising to greatness with a cathedral.
  • William Hamleigh: The son of a minor lord, he temporarily gains the earldom of Shiring but eventually loses it to Richard, the son of the former earl, Bartholomew.
  • Aliena: daughter to the Earl of Shiring, and the intended bride of Alfred.
  • Richard (Richard of Kingsbridge): Aliena's younger brother, a knight who becomes a skilled soldier and leader, depending on Aliena for revenues from her wool business.
  • Alfred Builder: Tom's son, a mason who later marries Aliena, but abandons her after he finds out that she is pregnant with Jack's child.
  • Agnes: first wife of Tom Builder and mother of Martha and Alfred.
  • Martha: daughter of Tom, sister to Alfred, stepsister to Jack.
  • Bishop Waleran Bigod: an ambitious and corrupt cleric constantly scheming his way to more power.
  • Jonathan: Son of Tom and Agnes Builder, he was raised from infancy by Prior Philip.
  • Lord Percy Hamleigh, Earl of Shiring: father of William, he disposes of the rebel Earl Bartholomew and gains the earldom.
  • Lady Regan Hamleigh, Countess of Shiring: William Hamleigh's mother.

Minor characters

  • Jack Shareburg (Jacques Cherbourg): a jongleur who survives the wreck of the White Ship to become the lover of Ellen and father of Jack Jackson; executed.
  • Francis of Gwynedd: Philip's brother, orphaned with him in Wales and raised by monks; became a secular priest with royal connections.
  • Tommy (later called Thomas): son of Jack and Aliena. With a talent for administration and command, he becomes the Earl of Shiring. He reluctantly oversees William Hamleigh's hanging.
  • Sally: daughter of Jack and Aliena. She becomes a stained glass artisan working on the Kingsbridge Cathedral.
  • Raschid Alharoun: Jack's friend in Toledo, a Christian Arab merchant who introduces him to the scholarly world.
  • Walter: William Hamleigh's groom/squire. Accompanies him through much of the novel.
  • Johnny Eightpence: A gentle, simpleminded monk who cares for baby Jonathan.
  • Remigius: The former Sub-Prior of Kingsbridge who tries to secure the position of Prior. Primarily motivated by envy and spite.
  • Cuthbert Whitehead: Kingsbridge Priory's cellarer. An early ally of Philip after his arrival in Kingsbridge.
  • Milius Bursar: Kingsbridge Priory's bursar, he is an early ally of Philip.
  • Elizabeth: betrothed to William Hamleigh, she is beaten by him on their wedding night. Later befriended by Aliena and surrenders the keep to Richard's forces.
  • Bartholomew, Earl of Shiring: father of Aliena and Richard, he earns the enmity of the Hamleighs and is jailed for treason.


Board games

Three separate board games have been developed that are based on The Pillars of the Earth:

  • A German-style board game by Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler was published in 2006[7] by Kosmos and released at the Spiel game fair as Die Säulen der Erde . The game sold out long before the fair ended. It has been awarded the 2007 Deutscher Spiele Preis, the Spanish "Game of the Year 2007"[8] and the Norwegian "Best Family Game of 2007"[9] and the GAMES Magazine Game of the Year 2007.[9]
  • A 2-player game was published by Kosmos in Germany and reprinted in the US as Pillars of the Earth: Builder's Duel.
  • A trivia game, attributed to E. Follett, was first published in 2008 by the British publisher Sophisticated Games.

Television adaptation

Main article: The Pillars of the Earth (TV miniseries)

A German-Canadian co-production was developed by the Munich-based Tandem Communications and Montreal-based Muse Entertainment, in association with Ridley Scott's Scott Free Films, to adapt the novel for a television movie.[10] It premiered on July 23, 2010, in Canada on The Movie Network/Movie Central and in the United States on Starz. Its UK premiere was in October 2010 on Channel 4. The Australian premiere was 9 December 2012 on ABC1.

See also


External links

  • on Ken Follett's website
  • IMDb listing for Mini-series
  • Tandem Communications' Pillars pages

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