The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Don’t be put off by the size of this book. From the first page I found it almost impossible to put down and at the end I couldn’t wait to read to sequel – ‘World Without End‘. The book was very captivating and I was able to see the building of a great cathedral through the eyes of the main characters.

The book is an historical epic following the intertwining lives of the main characters and the fictional cathedral town of Kingsbridge. The story is rich in religious, historical, architectural and political detail of 12th century England during the reign of King Stephen, his battles with Matilda and the succession to the throne of Matilda’s son Henry. The fictional characters are set in real and fictional events of the time to bring the story to life. While reading the book I was fortunate to see a documentary about the building of Chartres Cathedral near Paris around the time that this story was set and found many parallels to the building of the fictional Kingsbridge Cathedral.

The story is based around the lives of the key characters. Through the story a number of the characters hold the key to a secret that could affect the succession to the throne.

In order to become prior of Kingsbridge, Phillip makes a deal with Walerand Bigod that he regrets for the rest of his life. On becoming prior, Phillip finds that after many years of mismanagement, the monastery and cathedral are run down and broke. He sets out to get the monastery running smoothly and efficiently and to rebuild the crumbling church into a great cathedral. In order to fulfill his ambitions, Phillip must outsmart the narrow minded old guard within the monastery, the greedy and corrupt Bishop Walerand Bigod, the vicious Hamleigh family and ultimately King Stephen who is more interested in men to fight his war than he is in the building of a cathedral.

Stonemason Tom and his family arrive in Kingsbridge unemployed and starving. Tom’s goal in life is to build a cathedral. Through Tom’s taking charge in a crisis, Prior Phillip recognises his skills and employs him as master builder for Kingsbridge cathedral.

After Tom’s wife Agnes dies, Tom meets Ellen and her son Jack. Jack develops the same vision as Tom for the building of a great cathedral.

Aliena’s family tragically lose all their lands and possessions. Aliena fights against prejudice and her circumstances to once again become wealthy. She has promised her father that she will regain the family’s rightful inheritance and this drives her. A key theme through the book is her much thwarted love for Jack.

The Hamleigh family have schemed through deviousness and sheer brutality to rise from small landholders to and earldom and having the ear of the Bishop and the King. Throughout the story William Hamleigh’s greed and viciousness rears it’s head in his attempts to destroy Aliena and the town of Kingsbridge.

Walerand Bigod is the ambitious, evil, scheming Bishop of Kingsbridge. Early in the story Prior Phillip is unfortunate to make a lifelong enemy of Walerand. Walerand’s goal becomes to destroy Prior Phillip and the town of Kingsbridge and to stop the cathedral from being built.

The interactions between the main characters make this a brilliant epic tale of life in medieval England with all it’s superstitions and prejudices. If you love history, then this is a great book for you.


Book Published 1989


See a full list of books by Ken Follett

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Filed under Book Reviews, Family Saga, Follett, Ken, Historical

One Response to The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

  1. Pingback: A Column of Fire by Ken Follett | Written Gems

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