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The Pillars Of The Earth by Ken Follett

Updated on November 19, 2015
York minster
York minster | Source

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett - A Review and Companion

In Pillars of the Earth the author, Ken Follet is an historical novel that paints a vivid picture of the building of a cathedral and the everyday details of medieval life in England in all its glory.

He sets his epic story at the time when the cathedrals of Europe were shedding the old, solid romanesque style of artchitecture in favour of a new style - gothic. Gothic architecture was one of light, of soaring spires and walls of stained glass and is about the ambitions of the church to reach upwards to God and the ambitions of the builders to reach to the sky. Follet's historical romance is a tale of love and hate and politics is equally ambitious.

The story takes place in a fictional town in S W England in the middle of the 12th century and during a time of polical upheaval and civil war. It begins with the death of the heir to the English throne in the sinking of the White Ship and ends with the murder of Thomas Becket. Throughout the story fact and fiction are intertwined, bringing history to life before your very eyes.

Image: York Minster: an excellent example of the new gothic style.

Pillars Of The Earth - The book - Read Ken Follet's gripping story for yourself

The Pillars of the Earth (Kingsbridge)
The Pillars of the Earth (Kingsbridge)

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Ken Follett comes this spellbinding epic set in twelfth-century England. The Pillars of the Earth tells the story of the lives entwined in the building of the greatest Gothic cathedral the world has ever known-and a struggle between good and evil that will turn church against state, and brother against brother. View our Ken Follett feature page. Learn more about The Pillars of the Earth miniseries on Starz.


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NEWS! On TV Saturday 12 January - More4

Ken Follett travels around Europe to discover the impact of the 'Black Death' or bubonic plague in the fourteenth century.

This was followed by 'World Without End' on channel 4 - excellent!

Rochechouart Medieval Festival - held every year in August
Rochechouart Medieval Festival - held every year in August | Source

The Story Begins in Medieval England 1123

Two boys come to watch a hanging

There are many reviews of The Pillars of the Earth where the plot is outlined and discussed, but inthis companion, my main aim is to discover more about the people and the places mentioned in the book, and to tease our fact from fiction.

The general story centres around a monastery overseen by prior Philip, and two families: the Earl of Shiring and his daughter Aliena and Richard, and Tom the builder, his son Alfred, daughter Martha, his second wife Ellen and her son Jack. These are, with the exception of Alfred, the 'good' characters. The 'bad' characters are from Percy Hamleigh's family; Pery, his wife Regan and their son William, together with Philip's Bishop, Waleran.

The central thread of the book is the building of a cathedral and the struggle for survival and power in medieval England.

Kingsbridge - Where the action takes place

According to Follett, Kingsbridge is a fictional town, although there are several towns of this name in Britain, including one not so very far from this location, near Exeter. The Kingsbridge of the novel is roughly where Marlborough is today.

There is no cathederal in this area though, and the one built in the book is based on a fusion of Wells Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral.

Kingsbridge - where the action for The Pillars of the Earth takes place

Marlborough UK:
Marlborough UK

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Winchester uk:
Winchester uk

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Wells uk:
Wells uk

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The Pillars of the Earth on TV - A great historical novel on our screens

Donald Sutherland, Ken Follett and Executive Producer Ridley Scott made 'The Pillars Of The Earth,' into a mini-series which then won the Emmy Award. It was produced by Tandem, and stars Ian McShane, Donald Sutherland, Rufus Sewell, Matthew Macfadyen, Sarah Parish, Hayley Atwell, Eddie Redmayne and Gordon Pinsent. It was shown in July 2010 in the USA and Canada, and since then it has travelled around the world.

The Pillars of the Earth - Trailer (HD) - Historical romance

See The Pillars of the Earth for yourself! - See Kingsbridge and The Pillars of the Earth Come Alive before your very eyes

The Sinking of the White Ship in the English Channel near the Normandy coast off Barfleur, on November 25, 1120. Dated 1320
The Sinking of the White Ship in the English Channel near the Normandy coast off Barfleur, on November 25, 1120. Dated 1320 | Source

The Sinking of the White Ship 25th November 1120

The book begins with an account of the death of a king to be

It all began with historical accuracy, when the 'White Ship' set sale from France to England in 25th November 1120 with the heir to the English throne on board. King Henry I's son, William Adelin, and two of his illegitimate sons, together with many other of the aristocracy all drowned, leaving England without any clear successor. This led to a power struggle between Stephen and Maud

The epic story soars like the pinacles of the cathedral at the centre of the tale

flying butresses from a church in York
flying butresses from a church in York | Source

From Romanesque to Gothic

From the dark into the light

The story starts with Tom Builder and his family, trudging through the countryside of southern England looking for building work on one of the many cathedrals being constructed at the time. He dreams of being a master builder and building his own cathedral. Eventually, he realises his dream and designs a solid structure with a wooden roof, (to save cash), in the style he was used to, the round-arched, solid walled Romanesque.

Ken Follet describes in some detail how the cathedral was built physically, which is fascinating, but even more interesting to me was the politics behind these massive projects, and the raising of funds.

The central thread of the book is the change of style when Tom's son travels to France and sees the new Gothic style in the church of St Dnis, with it's skelleton of stone and huge areas of stained glass.

Find Out More About the History of Architecture - Romanesque and Gothic explained

Outline of European Architecture, An
Outline of European Architecture, An

This is the standard classic text book on European architecture. It's not only authoritative, but also readable and well-illustrated. This was one of my text books in my history of art and architecture course (many moons ago), and it's certainly stood the test of time.


The best line ever:

"... he saw that the sun was streaming in through rows of tall windows, some of them made of coloured glass, and all this sunshine seemed to fill the vast, empty vessel of the church with warmth and light."

The Life of the Knight in Medieval England - The role of the knight in the power struggles of England in the middle ages


Richard and Percy are both Knights and Ken Follett describes the costs, the tasks, the perils and the rewards of being a knight in medieval England. The choosing and switching of allegiance, the dangers, the strategies of fighting and the pitfalls of the 'profession' are told in memorable detail.

Image: Knights at Lexion Castle S W France

 Saint-Eutrope in the village of Les Salles Lavauguyon, Limousin, France
Saint-Eutrope in the village of Les Salles Lavauguyon, Limousin, France | Source

The Pilgrim Routes to Santiago de Compostela

Follow in the footsteps of St James

The pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela are spread out all over Europe but they all converge on one small town in Northern Spain, Santiago de Compostela. Jack and Aliena both walked the route of the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. They could possibly have passed near by our house! It was on this route that Jack passed through St Denis and saw the cathedral of Abbot Suger, built in the new Gothic style.

We are lucky enough to have one of the main threads of the pilgrim route passing through Limousin. The church of Saint-Eutrope in the village of Les Salles Lavauguyon, just on the borders of the Limousin and the Dordogne regions. This pretty church, built in the old, heavy Romanesque style, is one of the stopping points for pilgrims.

It was built in the late 11th and 12th centuries but only the barrel vault of the nave remains from this period now. The the bell tower and the choir were rebuilt at the end of the twelfth century, but they retained the Romanesque style for the choir. You can find the symbol of St James, (or Saint Jacques in French) on the seats of the church chairs.

Before arriving at the church, the pilgrims would have passed through the town of Limoges. If you keep your eyes open, you'll see the symbol of the shell embedded in the pavements and in other places around the city.

Read more about The Pilgrim Routes to Santiago de CompostelaThe Pilgrim Routes to Santiago de Compostela

Image above: Saint-Eutrope in the village of Les Salles Lavauguyon

Image below: One of the Shells of St James embeded in the pavements of Limoges.

One of The Pilgrim Routes to Santiago de Compostela - There are several that all converge in Spain

Jack followed the pilgrim route through St Denis and ended in Toledo. The route that I've marked is the one that passes through Limoges and near to Les Trois Chenes.

Follow the medieval pilgrim route to Santiago taken in The Pillars


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Les Salles Lavauguyon:
Les Salles Lavauguyon

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get directions


get directions


get directions


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Leon spain:
Leon spain

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Santiago de Compostela:
Santiago de Compostela

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Toledo spain:
Toledo spain

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St Denis france:
St Denis france

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IHenry I, Miniature from illuminated Chronicle of Matthew Paris (1236-1259),
IHenry I, Miniature from illuminated Chronicle of Matthew Paris (1236-1259), | Source

Who Was King Henry I?

Henry I (c. 1068/1069 - 1 December 1135) was the fourth son of William I of England.

Henry's reign was a period of peace and prosperity in England and Normandy, and was filled with judicial and financial reforms. He made peace with the church, but failed to establish the Empress Matilda as his successor to the throne after the loss of his son, William, in the sinking of the White Ship.

This failure to produce a clear heir to the throne led to a period of civil war known as 'The Anarchy'.

Portrait of Empress Mathilda, from "History of England" by St. Albans monks (15th century)
Portrait of Empress Mathilda, from "History of England" by St. Albans monks (15th century) | Source

Empress Matilda

Empress Matilda (c. 7 February 1102 - 10 September 1167), also known as Maude, was the daughter and heir of King Henry I of England. Henry had one other legitimate child who survived into adulthoo, William Adelin, and it was William who was drowned in the White Ship disaster in 1120 making Matilda heir to the throne.

Matilda gained the title of Empress when she married Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor, but they had no children and upon the death of Henry V she married Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, with whom she had three sons, the eldest of whom became King Henry II of England.

Matilda died at Notre Dame du Pr near Rouen in 1167 and was buried in Normandy but she reached her final resting place when her body was later moved to Rouen Cathedral. Her epitaph reads: "Great by Birth, Greater by Marriage, Greatest in her Offspring: Here lies Matilda, the daughter, wife, and mother of Henry."

Matilda was the first woman to rule the Kingdom of England.

 Robert Consul in St James' Priory, Bristol, 1840,
Robert Consul in St James' Priory, Bristol, 1840, | Source

Robert - 1st Earl of Gloucester

Illegitimate son of King Henry Ist of England

Robert Fitzroy, 1st Earl of Gloucester (before 1100 - 31 October 1147) was an illegitimate son of King Henry I of England and the half-brother of the Empress Matilda. Robert was the chief military supporter of Matilda during the civil war known as 'The Anarchy', as she struggled to claim the throne of Engalnd against her cousin Stephen of Blois.

Robert of Caen was the father of Maud of Gloucester, also called Maud FitzRobert. She married Ranulf de Gernon, 4th Earl of Chester, also known as Ranulf le Meschin.

When Matilda captured King Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln on February 2, 1141 she gained the upper hand in her battle for the throne, but she failed to engage the hearts of the citizens of London and was defeated at the Rout of Winchester on September 14, 1141.

Robert of Gloucester was captured nearby at Stockbridge and was exchanged for Stephen, but by freeing Stephen, the Empress Matilda had given up her best chance of becoming queen.

King Stephen of England.
King Stephen of England. | Source

King Stephen of England

Fought against the Empress Matilda for the throne of England

Stephen (c. 1092/6 - 1154), was a grandson of William the Conqueror. He was King of England from 1135 to his death in 1154, and he was also the Count of Boulogne.

Stephen managed to crown himself King after the death of Henry I and this plunged the country into a civil war as he fought to retain his throne against his cousin the Empress Matilda.

He was succeeded by Matilda's son, Henry II, the first of the Angevin kings.

King Henry II.
King Henry II. | Source

King Henry II of England

He died without leaving an obvious heir

Henry II (5 March 1133 - 6 July 1189), ruled as King of England (1154-89). He was the son of Geoffrey of Anjou and Matilda and he was involved in his mother's struggle for the throne of England. At the age of 17 he was made the Duke of Normandy and he inherited Anjou in 1151.

He married Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose marriage to the French king Louis VII had recently been annulled.

King Stephen agreed to a peace treaty with Henry in 1153 and agreed that Henry would inherit the kingdom on Stephen's death a year later. Still quite young, he now controlled what would later be called the Angevin empire stretching across much of western Europe. He also ruled in Wales, Scotland and Brittany for periods of time.

 Earliest known portrayal of Thomas Becket's murder in Canterbury Cathedral 1200.
Earliest known portrayal of Thomas Becket's murder in Canterbury Cathedral 1200. | Source

Thomas Becket - Archbishop of Canterbury

Murder in the Cathedral

Thomas Becket (also known as Thomas Becket) was born about 1118 and died on 29 December 1170. He was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until he was murdered in 1170 by followers of the King Henry II, in Canterbury Cathedral because he disagreed with Henry over the rights and privileges of the Church. Soon after his death, he was canonized by Pope Alexander III.

Murder in the Cathedral By T. S. Eliot - Thomas Beckets death is the subject of this powerful play.

I remember studying this account of the death of Thomas Becket in the form of a play by T S Eliot when I was at school and the haunting images are with me still, many moons later. Now a classic, it is well worth a read if you love good literature or are interested in thomas Becket and this period of history.

More books by Ken Follett - Vote for your favorites, or add any I missed.

World Without End

View our Ken Follett feature page. The #1 New York Times bestselling sequel to The Pillars of the Earth. Ken Follett astonished the literary world with The Pillars of the Earth, a sweeping epic novel set in twelfth-century England that centered on the building of a cathedral and the men, women, and children whose lives it changed forever. Now, two centuries after the townspeople of Kingsbridge finished building the exquisite edifice, four children slip into the forest and witness a killing-an event that will bind them all by ambition, love, greed, and revenge...

Winter of the World: Book Two of the Century Trilogy

Ken Follett follows up his #1 New York Times bestseller Fall of Giants with a brilliant, page-turning epic about the heroism and honor of World War II, and the dawn of the atomic age.Ken Folletts Fall of Giants, the first novel in his extraordinary new historical epic, The Century Trilogy, was an international sensation, acclaimed as sweeping and fascinating, a book that will consume you for days or weeks (USA Today) and grippingly told and readable to the end (The New York Times Book Review). If the next two volumes are as lively and entertaining as Fall of Giants, said The Washington Post, they should be well worth waiting for.Winter of the World picks up right where the first book left off, as its five interrelated familiesAmerican, German, Russian, English, Welshenter a time of enormous social, political, and economic turmoil, beginning with the rise of the Third Reich, through the Spanish Civil War and the great dramas of World War II, up to the explosions of the American and Soviet atomic bombs.Carla von Ulrich, born of German and English parents, finds her life engulfed by the Nazi tide until she commits a deed of great courage and heartbreak. . . . American brothers Woody and Chuck Dewar, each with a secret, take separate paths to momentous events, one in Washington, the other in the bloody jungles of the Pacific. . . . English student Lloyd Williams discovers in the crucible of the Spanish Civil War that he must fight Communism just as hard as Fascism. . . . Daisy Peshkov, a driven American social climber, cares only for popularity and the fast set, until the war transforms her life, not just once but twice, while her cousin Volodya carves out a position in Soviet intelligence that will affect not only this warbut the war to come.These characters and many others find their lives inextricably entangled as their experiences illuminate the cataclysms that marked the century. From the drawing rooms of the rich to the blood and smoke of battle, their lives intertwine, propelling the reader into dramas of ever-increasing complexity.As always with Ken Follett, the historical background is brilliantly researched and rendered, the action fast-moving, the characters rich in nuance and emotion. With passion and the hand of a master, he brings us into a world we thought we knew, but now will never seem the same again.

A Dangerous Fortune

In 1866, tragedy strikes at theexclusive Windfield School. A young student drownsin a mysterious accident involving a small circleof boys. The drowning and its aftermath initiates aspiraling circle of treachery that will span threedecades and entwine many loves... From theexclusive men's club and brothels that cater to everydark desire of London's upper classes to the dazzlingballrooms and mahogany-paneled suites of themanipulators of the world's wealth, Ken Follettconjures up a stunning array of contrasts. Thisbreathtaking novel portrays a family splintered by lust,bound by a shared legacy... men and women swepttoward a perilous climax where greed, fed by theshocking truth of a boy's death, must be stopped, ornot just one man's dreams, but those of a nation,will die...

Fall of Giants

Fall of Giants: Book One of the Century Trilogy
Fall of Giants: Book One of the Century Trilogy

A thirteen-year-old Welsh boy enters a man's world in the mining pits; an American law student rejected by love finds a surprising new career in Woodrow Wilson's White House; a housekeeper for the aristocratic Fitzherberts takes a fateful step above her station, while Lady Maud Fitzherbert herself crosses deep into forbidden territory when she falls in love with a German spy; and two orphaned Russian brothers embark on radically different paths when their plan to emigrate to America falls afoul of war, conscription, and revolution.From the dirt and danger of a coal mine to the glittering chandeliers of a palace, from the corridors of power to the bedrooms of the mighty, Fall of Giants takes readers into the inextricably entangled fates of five families-and into a century that we thought we knew, but that now will never seem the same again.


© 2012 Barbara Walton

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    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I love Pillars of the Earth. I always looked forward to my reading time when I was on this book.

    • BLouw profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Walton 

      5 years ago from France

      @John Dyhouse: Let me know what you think, artyfax. Since writing this I've come across many readers who really enjoyed the books AND who liked his style - maybe I'm being picky when I say I'm not so keen on the 'ecriture'.

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 

      6 years ago from UK

      Ken Follet is one author I have never gotten around to reading. I used to be a solid Sci fi / fantasy fan but late ly have been reading thrillers including historical thrillers/novels so I am going to make sure that I get one of Ken's books and see how I get on.

    • BLouw profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Walton 

      6 years ago from France

      @traveller27: I must say the books and TV / films really bring the times alive. Thanks for dropping by.

    • BLouw profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Walton 

      6 years ago from France

      @GeekGirl1: The programme presented by Ken Follet on TV last night about the black death was good and I enjoyed the TV film that followed, World Without End, too. Many thanks for leaving a message.

    • BLouw profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Walton 

      6 years ago from France

      @RetroMom: Thanks for the kind words, RetroMom.

    • traveller27 profile image


      6 years ago

      Listened to this as an audio book - really enjoyed it. Also watched the TV series.

    • GeekGirl1 profile image


      6 years ago

      I haven't seen the tv series but the book is definitely good.

    • RetroMom profile image


      6 years ago

      Great lens.

    • BLouw profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Walton 

      6 years ago from France

      @SheGetsCreative: Ha! Just looked up 'miniseries' - thought it was some medieval architectural term like 'Misericords'. Thanks for dropping by and making me laugh, Upon-Request!

    • SheGetsCreative profile image

      Angela F 

      6 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Loved the book and thought the miniseries was done fairly well too. We share a few likes when it comes to "good books"!


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