The Pillars of the Earth

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This article is about Ken Follett's novel. For the television miniseries adaptation, see The Pillars of the Earth (miniseries).
The Pillars of the Earth
First edition
Author Ken Follett
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Historical fiction
Publisher Macmillan
Publication date
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 fictional 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".[1] The book was selected in the United States for Oprah's Book Club in 2007. Follett published a sequel, entitled World Without End (2007).[2]



The sinking of the White Ship leaves King Henry I of England without a clear heir, and The Anarchy begins upon his death. Henry's nephew Stephen of Blois and Henry's daughter Maud fight for the throne. Ambitious nobles and churchmen take sides, hoping to gain advantages. 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[edit]

A red-headed man is hanged for theft after being condemned by a priest, a knight, and a monk. His pregnant lover curses the men who condemned him and flees.

Construction of a house for William Hamleigh, the son of a knight and his future wife is halted, forcing Tom Builder and his family to seek work after coercing William to pay his workers and thus making an enemy of the young man. When his wife dies in childbirth, Tom abandons his newborn in the snowy woods because he is destitute and has no way to feed the infant. He comes across Ellen, an outlaw they had met earlier in the woods. When Tom tries to find the child again, she says the baby was taken to a monastery cell belonging to the Kingsbridge Priory and that he will be charged with abandonment if he says the baby is his. 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.


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.[3]

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.[4]

Historical accuracy[edit]

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 immigrants, together with other continental nationalities such as Bretons, Frenchmen (Paris and Île-de-France), Flemish and Angevin people. Anglo-Norman 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,[5] but Thomas Beckett's parents for example, who did not belong to the nobility, were traders and emigrated to England from Normandy and they were not the only one. 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."[6]
  • 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.[7][8]
  • 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.
  • Shareburg could not have been anglicized as such, because in the Norman pronunciation of the modern town Cherbourg, the Cher- element was pronounced [tʃɪr-] or [tʃɛr-] and was the same in Anglo-Norman, [tʃ] would have been retained in Middle English as well. [ʃɛr-] is Modern French. In the Old and Middle English and Anglo-Norman documents, Cherbourg is mentioned with different spellings from the 11th to the 15th century : Kiæresburh, Chirburg(h), Chierebour, Cheerebourg, Chierbourg(h), Ch(i)erburg(h), Chierbourc, Chirbourg(h), Chirburt, Chireburgh, etc.
  • Significantly, Tom and Ellen are rebuked for perpetuated fornication, and try an 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.
  • Follett depicts Toledo, in medieval Spain, as a country with no wheat supposedly due to a lack of proper flat terrain to cultivate it. In reality, the Kingdom of Castile's plains, to which Toledo belonged, were actually famous for their rather extensive wheat fields.
  • Santiago de Compostela, northwest of Spain, is portrayed as a very hot city, like southern Spain is. In reality, Galicia, the northwest region of Spain, is about as cold and rainy as the south of England.

Major characters[edit]

  • 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 Bartholomew, the original Earl of Shiring, and the intended bride of William Hamleigh.
  • 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, Alfred and Jonathan.
  • Martha: Daughter of Tom, sister to Alfred and Jonathan and 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[edit]

  • 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[edit]

Board game by Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler

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[9] 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"[10] and the Norwegian "Best Family Game of 2007"[11] and the GAMES Magazine Game of the Year 2007.[11]
  • 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[edit]

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.[12] 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.

Video game[edit]

Game developer and publisher Daedalic Entertainment has announced their intention to develop an adventure game based on The Pillars of the Earth, to be released in 2017.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Follett, Ken. "The Pillars of the Earth". 
  4. ^ Follett, Ken. "Kingsbridge: Real or fictional?". 
  5. ^ Green, Judith A. (1997). The aristocracy of Norman England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 13. ISBN 978-0521524650. 
  6. ^ "History of sugar". About sugar. Sugar Nutrition UK. Retrieved 2012-06-17. 
  7. ^ Forrester, James (2010-08-06). "The lying art of historical fiction". Books Blog (London: The Guardian). Retrieved 2012-06-17. 
  8. ^ "The Breakfast Conundrum". Medieval Cookery. 2007-10-12. Retrieved 2012-06-17. 
  9. ^ The Pillars of the Earth at BoardGameGeek
  10. ^ Castro, Jesús Torres (2007-12-24). "JESS: Los Pilares de la Tierra - JdA 2007". Boardgame News. Retrieved 2007-12-24. 
  11. ^ a b Martin, W. Eric (2007-11-01). "Pillars of the Earth Wins, and Wins Again". Boardgame news. Retrieved 2007-12-24. 
  12. ^ Guider, Elizabeth; Roxborough, Scott (June 8, 2009). "Three sign on for 'Pillars of the Earth'". The Hollywood Reporter. Archived from the original on June 11, 2009. 
  13. ^ Maiberg, Emanuel (November 30, 2014). Best-Selling Novel The Pillars of the Earth Is Being Made Into a Game Retrieved December 1, 2014.  Missing or empty |title= (help)

External links[edit]