Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I think this would be the first ever Historical Novel that I read that got me into reading books of that genre (and yes, this is entirely different from the historical romances I’m into).

I discovered this book one day while scouring for other books to read at Gram’s house. It was thick, apparently, with 900+ pages. I remember being drawn to the book because of a cover. It featured a statue of sorts that is somehow bent grotesquely backwards. The statue (male) was holding a…pillar? I have no knowledge with masonry but it looks like it’s supporting the weight of something.


I know it looks tattered and worn. I obviously read it many, many times.

The story’s setting is in 12th century England in the fictional town of Kingsbridge primarily during The Anarchy (civil war between England and Normandy), the sinking of the White Ship  (the ship wherein the heir of King Henry I was a passenger. He died), and the murder of Thomas Becket (the Archbishop of Canterbury). It also depicted Gothic Architecture and how building where constructed during those days.

The book is divided into 6 parts including the prologue:

  • 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

The dates shown are just the headings/titles. There is no specific title for each section unlike some other novels.

Wanting to make sure that its content is as intriguing as its cover, I read the prologue.

The prologue begins with a hanging and ends with a woman (the pregnant wife of the person hanged) cursing the people who were involved with the hanging (a knight, a monk, and a sheriff). The spectators, upon seeing the woman kneel in some sort of witch’s cursing pose and holding a beheaded-cock, fled. As we all know, witches are feared during this era.

I was immediately drawn in to the story. I read on…

Plot Summary

The story opens with the building of a house by Tom Builder. This house is for William Hamleigh and his bride. However, the construction was halted because the house wouldn’t be needed. Tom Builder and his family to seek work after coercing William to pay his workers and thus making an enemy of the young man.

Tom’s wife died in childbirth and he was forced to leave the baby in the forest (it was close to winter at this time). He is poor and has no way to feed the baby at this time. He comes across Ellen whom he had met earlier in the woods. When they try to find the baby again, they couldn’t find him. They later found out that a monk had taken the child to a monastery. Ellen encouraged Tom to leave the child in the monks’ care, pointing out to Tom that he has no means of providing for the child but the monks do.

The baby is found by a priest called Francis who is coming to visit his brother Philip, the leader of the cell. Philip has made the cell a very efficient and disciplined establishment. The baby is named Jonathan and kept by Philip. Francis tells Philip of a plot against the new king, Stephen. Philip tells the archdeacon Waleran and travels to Kingsbridge Priory where the prior has died only a few days before. Waleran promises to make Philip the bishop’s nomination for prior, practically guaranteeing Philip’s election, in return for Philip’s support to later make Waleran bishop though Waleran conceals that the bishop is also already dead. Philip agrees as the priory is destitute, financially and spiritually, and he believes he can correct that. He wins, making enemies of the rivals for the post, and Jonathan is sent to live with Philip at the priory. Tom’s family settles in Kingsbridge with Ellen and her son Jack. Waleran tells the Hamleighs that the Earl of Shiring is plotting against the king. The Earl of Shiring’s daughter, Aliena, is the one who rejected William. The Hamleighs arrest the earl. Prior Philip wants to expand his priory by rebuilding a cathedral. Jack burns down the old Romanesque cathedral without getting caught. Philip hires Tom to build a new one.

Philip and Waleran go to King Stephen to ask for stone from Shiring, but Waleran wants the stone for his own castle (later other lords are revealed to be punished for building castles without the king’s consent as building fortifications can be a precursor to rebellion). Philip is informed that Waleran, whom Philip believes will be loyal to him as a fellow cleric, is conspiring with the Hamleighs. Philip secretly conspires with the Hamleighs and they agree that Kingsbridge Priory will be given the quarry and some other lands with the rest of Shiring going to the Hamleighs. The Hamleighs betray this deal and are given ownership of the quarry with Philip getting rights to, not ownership of, the stone. Percy Hamleigh does not support the cathedral. Finding her still living in Shiring Castle William attacks Aliena and her brother Richard at their castle. He mutilates the boy to coerce Aliena into not resisting as he and he his man-at-arms gang rape her. Homeless and destitute, Aliena and Richard petition the king for aid though he refuses. Their dying father Bartholomew is in prison and demands they swear an oath to work to regain the earldom and reveals to them he has given a small fortune to the safe keeping of a parish priest (who embezzled most of it). Aliena supports Richard financially by becoming a wealthy wool merchant (by, as described in the book, the hitherto unheard of act of buying wool from the farmers on their farms and selling it at market rather than the farmers having to travel to market themselves, saving them time and effort), with Phillip’s help when the existing wool merchants pay Aliena less because she’s a girl. William and Waleran try and fail to have the cathedral moved to Shiring.

Tom’s strong son Alfred physically bullies smaller and weaker Jack through repeated acts of battery which creates friction with Ellen as Tom sees no fault in his son and never disciplines him. Brother Remigius, who is opposed to Philip as prior, charges Ellen and Tom with fornication. Waleran, who was cursed by the woman at the hanging, orders Ellen to live apart from Tom. Outraged by Tom’s willingness to accept this, Ellen returns to the forest with Jack. Tom befriends Prior Philip and, when Ellen returns, he persuades Philip to allow them to marry. Jack and Alfred fight over Aliena. While the better mason, after a fight started by Alfred causes a fire that destroys some workshops, apprentice Jack is expelled from the cathedral construction. Philip contrives a new construction overseer position for Jack who reluctantly agrees to this and becomes a monk to stay in Kingsbridge though he is repeatedly disciplined for breaches of the monks’ rules.

Richard becomes a knight and gains the favour of King Stephen by defending him at the Battle of Lincoln in the civil war against Maud. William and Richard compete for the earldom which, after years of putting off the decision following the death of Earl Percy Hamleigh, Stephen finally gives to William but its market is being outcompeted by a new market at Kingsbridge. William proves a hapless and merciless lord who mishandles the earldom financially and routinely rapes any peasant women he wishes. Attempting to restore his fortunes (and after switching sides in the civil war as took his fancy), William leads an attack that burns down Kingsbridge and kills many people including Tom Builder (killed by a horse kick to the head). After losing her fortune again (she had spent all her money on merchandise which was burned in the attack), Aliena agrees to marry Alfred if he supports Richard. For his continued infringements (largely for fraternizing with Aliena) Jack is imprisoned. However, he is imprisoned in the same room that his mother used to break into to meet with Jack’s father. Ellen breaks in and Jack learns that his father, a French jongleur who washed ashore, was framed for theft. Freed by his mother Jack and Aliena make love on the morning of her wedding. When she marries Alfred anyway, Ellen curses him. He blames this for making him impotent and he and Aliena never consummate their marriage. When he learns she is pregnant Alfred forces Aliena to sleep on the floor and she realises he never loved her, he simply didn’t want Jack to have her.

Jack goes to Spain and France to hone his skills as a mason. While in Spain he studies texts such as Euclid rather than actually building and is befriended by a Moorish spice merchant whose daughter falls in love with Jack. The merchant says it is time for Jack to start working as a builder and make a commitment or for their friendship to end, Jack realises he is being told to marry into the family or leave and he chooses to leave. In her pursuit, Aliena finds her way to this house but is rebuffed as oafish and uncivilised by the merchant’s wife and daughters and sent away without a clue as to where Jack is now and is about to give up, but the daughter who loved Jack secretly tells Aliena where he went so that at least one of them could be happy. Jack makes his way to Cherbourg where he is mistaken for the ghost of his father Jacques Cherbourg, before meeting his grandmother and other relatives.

Alfred persuades Philip to replace the wooden roof with a stone vault, which collapses during a service, killing many people. (Alfred disavows all responsibility for this though Jack later reveals it was due to the now heavier roof pushing the walls apart and was thus Alfred’s incompetence.) Aliena gives birth to a red-headed son, and Alfred abandons her. Aliena follows evidence of Jack’s sculpture through France, finding him in Paris.

They make love, and she tells him of the collapsed roof. Jack helps to complete a cathedral and a miracle is attributed to his statue (a wooden statue of a woman he was given by the spice merchant appears to weep; Jack determines it only happens when the statue is taken from a hot place to a cold place). Jack leverages this “miracle” for financial support to rebuild the cathedral in Kingsbridge. The pair travel there with their baby where they live together until their unmarried status, as happened to Jack’s mother, is pointed out and they seek permission to marry but Philip orders them apart until her marriage to Alfred is annulled and Aliena remarries. This requires Waleran Bigod’s recommendation to the archbishop, but Waleran and the Hamleighs intend to ruin Philip and Aliena and permission is refused. Waleran allows William to attack Kingsbridge again but it fails as Richard overhears fighters discussing the attack in another town. The warning allows the villagers to build a set of masonry and wooden walls and earthen ramparts in about two days and they kill many of the attackers. Jack learns his father was hanged by Waleran.

Many years of famine pass. Alfred has left Kingsbridge for Shiring. Following a downturn in business he returns to Kingsbridge and begs for a job from Jack who gives him one. Inspired by Aliena, Richard attacks William’s land, organising the starving peasants, who would have turned to outlawry in the forest, into a militia. William is attempting another gang rape in a mill when the brigands arrive to steal flour and he learns the brigand’s leader is Richard. By treachery William learns of the location of Richard’s forces, the old quarry, and plans an overwhelming attack to kill all the rebels only when he arrives Richard’s men have left to join 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 the owners who held them prior to Stephen’s reign. However, Stephen is not forcing the handovers meaning that Richard might not gain the earldom until Stephen’s death.

Aliena persuades William’s young wife, who looks like a young Aliena and who loathes William, to hand the castle over to them before William returns making Richard the de facto earl. William returns to the village of Hamleigh and Waleran proposes to sell him the position of sheriff of Shiring as he can then oppose Richard. They plan again to move the diocese from Kingsbridge to Shiring and Alfred supports them (as the priory is short of money Philip wants to lay off half the workers immediately and they, described as a new idea in the book, decide to strike; Alfred launches this ‘coup d’état’, promising to take all the workmen to Shiring in return for being in charge of Shiring’s cathedral construction). After some time Richard kills Alfred, who is out of work again after Shiring Cathedral is abandoned, for trying to rape Aliena. However, all the authorities (specifically Waleran and William) reject as laughable the notion that a man trying to have sex with his wife is rape so Richard will be condemned as a murderer and hanged. To avoid this Richard is sent to fight in the Holy Land where he is quite successful (and where he dies after about 15 years). Aliena and Jack can now marry, the pair moving into Shiring Castle to act as Richard’s regents.

After many years, Kingsbridge cathedral is completed. Waleran accuses Philip of fornication by claiming the monk Jonathan is Philip’s son. Ellen swears that Jonathan, now a well liked and committed monk, is Tom Builder’s son and this is largely accepted by most but Waleran accuses her of perjury. She exposes his own perjury in the framing of Jacques Cherbourg. Brother Remigius, now elderly and contrite over his many years of antagonistic behaviour in the priory, confirms her testimony and Waleran is convicted.

Jacques was framed because he was the sole survivor of the deliberate sinking of the White Ship carrying William Adelin, heir of King Henry I and it was feared he would reveal this information and identify the attackers (though Jacques was ignorant of all such details).

Meanwhile, William Hamleigh has become involved with the plot to assassinate Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, so that Peter of Warehem can be appointed bishop of Kingsbridge to the point where William leads the attack. William is convicted of sacrilege and hanged. The Pope forces King Henry’s public repentance and symbolic subjugation of the crown to the church. (source)


It took me 2-3 days to finish the book. I stayed up very late at night since it was hard for me to put down. The plot was full of twists and turns and it put me at the edge of my seat. I would often ponder about who’s fault was it or who was the culprit behind this person’s murder.

It is generally a drama with a few bits of romance and action thrown here and there. I am amazed about how the characters would think and plot each other’s demise. I was left awed and slightly bereft after I finished the book.

TV series/Others

It has been made into an 8 part series wherein the author himself made an appearance as a merchant. It was directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan and released in 2010.

There were board games that had been developed with The Pillars of the Earth as inspiration.

Game developer and publisher Daedalic Entertainment had announced their intention to develop an adventure game based on the book and is set to be released on 2017. I can’t wait to try this one.

Personal rating

I give this book a 4.5/5. If you are into intrigues then this is your book.

Perfect pairing

I recommend a mason jar of iced mint coffee with this book and a plate of sugar cookies. 😀 You will want to stay up for the best parts and the refreshing taste of mint would cool your head because you might get frustrated at some parts of the story.


Good Reads:


Up Next: In the Company of The Courtesan by Sarah Dunant


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