The Pillars of the Earth (Novel)
The Pillars of the Earth Cover
The Cover of a later edition.


Ken Follet




Historical/ Drama

Pillars of the Earth is a historical novel written by Ken Follett, and published in 1989. The main plot follows the building of a magnificent cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, and the various other stories that surround it such as family feuds and civil war. It is set in the middle of the 12th century, primarily during The Anarchy, between the sinking of the White Ship and the assassination of Thomas Becket.


Set during the reign of King Stephen and the Anarchy, the novel explores themes of intrigue and conspiracy using historical events to explore medieval architecture, 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 summaryEdit

Tom Builder, having lost a commission to build a home for Percy Hamleigh’s son, roams southern England, seeking work. After losing his wife in childbirth and encountering the dark and empowered Ellen living in a forest cave with her son, Jack, Tom settles in Kingsbridge under the auspices of Prior Philip, who aspires to expand his priory by rebuilding a cathedral.

Seeking construction funds, Philip appeals to King Stephen and is given land and the right to take stone from the quarry. The quarry itself, however, is granted to Percy Hamleigh as part of the earldom of Shiring. Hamleigh’s interests lie elsewhere, setting up one of the many conflicts within the narrative. In addition to currying favour with the king, Hamleigh has reason to topple Bartholomew, as his daughter, Aliena, rejected Hamleigh’s son, William. William finds Aliena and her brother Richard living at the castle and in revenge, he rapes her and maims Richard. Homeless and destitute, Aliena and Richard travel to petition the king, and instead find their dying father in prison. Both swear an oath that Richard will regain the earldom. Aliena works to support Richard in becoming a knight for King Stephen, fighting in the civil war against Maud. William also fights for the king, but Richard gains his favour when he defends 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 despises and bullies Jack, and one fight reveals that Ellen and Tom are not married, bringing a charge of fornication. Outraged and hating the clergy, Ellen urinates on a sacred book and returns to the forest with Jack. Tom befriends Prior Philip and when Ellen returns, he persuades Philip to forgive her and allow them to marry. Now both masons, Jack and Alfred fight again. While the better mason and a skilled sculptor, Jack is expelled from the cathedral construction and is compelled to become a novice monk to stay in Kingsbridge.

Upon Sir Percy’s death, 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. Aliena loses her fortune again, forcing her to agree to marry Alfred as he promised to support Richard in exchange. However, Jack and Aliena spend the night before her wedding together but Aliena marries Alfred regardless and Ellen curses the wedding, rendering Alfred impotent.

Despondent, Jack goes to France and hones his skills as a sculptor and mason, unaware that Aliena is pregnant. In Kingsbridge, Alfred persuades Philip to replace the wooden roof with a stone vault. The building collapses during a service, killing many people but revealing that Aliena has given birth to a red-headed son, causing Alfred to disown her as he is not the father. Jack cleans up the mess after Aliena brings him home but Philip forbids the union until her marriage is annulled: an act requiring Waleran Bigod’s approval. This is not forthcoming since Bigod and the Hamleighs are allies, intending 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 a deal whereby Henry succeeds Stephen and all properties revert to those who owned them prior to Stephen’s reign. Frustrated that the earldom will not go to Richard until Stephen's death, Aliena takes action and persuades William's wife, Elizabeth, to hand the castle over to them. This forces William to return to the village of Hamleigh.

After Alfred, in a attempt to rape Aliena, is killed by Richard in a vicious fight, both she and Jack are able to marry, which they do, much to the village's, and Philip's own delight. However, Richard's 'murder' of Alfred comes to William's attention, who after losing the Earldom has become Sheriff and he attempts to capture Richard, but the latter escapes and, on Philip's suggestion, leaves to Crusade in the Holy land to repent his sins, leaving the Earldom in Aliena's care. On his eventual death soem 20 years later, his nephew Thomas inherits the titles.

After many years, Kingsbridge cathedral is completed, thanks to inventive problem-solving by Jack. Conflict continues as Waleran accuses Prior Philip of unchastity and fornication by claiming the monk, Jonathan, is Philip's son. Ellen swears that Jonathan is Tom Builder’s son but Waleran accuses her of perjury so she exposes his complicity in a conspiracy to sink the White Ship carrying William Adelin, heir of King Henry I. Ruined by this, Bigod lives out his days as a humble monk.

Meanwhile, William Hamleigh has led a wastrel’s life and ultimately is involved with the plot to assassinate Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Convicted of this sacrilege, William is hanged. The Pope forces King Henry’s public repentance and symbolic subjugation of the crown to the church.[1]


  1. Wikipedia: The Pillars of the Earth