In 1123, English villagers await the hanging of a petty thief who stole a chalice from a monastery. When a young, pregnant woman appears and pronounces a curse on three principal characters who allowed the hanging, it foreshadows a series of overlapping events to come.
Eleven years later, Tom Builder has nearly completed his work on a house, though his lifelong passion is to be the master builder of a cathedral. In the meantime, he has worked for William Hamleigh, son of the ruthless Regan and Percy Hamleigh, until William abruptly dismisses Tom. The Hamleighs had pressed William’s union with Aliena, daughter of Earl Bartholomew of Shiring, but she refuses to marry anyone she cannot respect. Neither William nor his parents can easily forgive a slight, which Bartholomew, Aliena, her brother Richard and even Tom eventually learn.
With no means of providing for his pregnant wife, son Alfred and daughter Martha, Tom wanders around England. He meets a mysterious forest dweller, Ellen, and her awkward son Jack, who offers them a brief respite from their journeys. Tom suffers a series of misfortunes that culminate in the death of his wife, and he decides to abandon their newborn at her gravesite. Luckily, a traveling priest finds the baby boy. The priest Francis delivers the child to Prior Philip, who possesses a genuine, selfless heart. His one flaw is pride that will not allow anyone to get the better of him. Francis arrives with news of a planned revolt against King Stephen of England, a plot supported by Bartholomew of Shiring.
Philip believes that delivering the news to a highly placed clergyman will benefit the Church. He meets with the ambitious Waleran Bigod and determines he can be of assistance. In exchange for his loyalty, Philip gains Waleran’s support for his quest to become prior of Kingsbridge. But he also learns that Waleran’s backing is costly, to more than himself. Waleran informs the Hamleighs of the plot and they launch a surprise attack on Bartholomew’s castle, resulting in the arrest and eventual death of Bartholomew, and the ruin of his children. Tom, who had worked at Bartholomew’s castle before the raid, now travels to Kingsbridge with Ellen and their respective children. He is desperate and Ellen’s son Jack provides him work with an impetuous decision to burn down Kingsbridge Cathedral.
Before his death, Bartholomew extracted oaths from Aliena and her brother Richard that they would do everything possible to regain Shiring. Others have their own designs on the children’s birthright: Philip and Waleran have competing interests in the stone quarry, while the Hamleighs want the property outright. King Stephen’s decision brings the conflict to a boil, ensuring that Philip, Waleran and the Hamleighs will remain lifelong adversaries.
Although Aliena and Richard know nothing of Philip’s role in their downfall, he soon becomes their benefactor when Aliena enters the wool trade and Philip becomes her first buyer. She prospers at Kingsbridge, ensuring her brother’s training as a knight in King Stephen’s service, but remains totally ignorant of the attachment Jack has developed for her. The only rival for Jack’s devotion to Aliena is his admiration for Tom’s work. He pursues the study of it with the same zeal as he does Aliena. Tom’s son Alfred becomes his rival in both aspects. Philip sees the perfect solution to their rivalry in having Jack become a monk, but the boy’s passion for building the new cathedral and Aliena can’t be suppressed for long.
Kingsbridge has prospered and cannot escape the notice of the Hamleighs. When William attacks the town, Tom Builder dies. William burns Aliena’s wool stores. Penniless, she accepts Alfred’s marriage proposal to maintain the support Richard requires. She makes love to Jack on the night before her wedding, but still chooses Alfred. Devastated, Jack leaves for the Continent. Ellen puts a curse on the wedding, and the birth of Jack’s son ensures Alfred and Aliena will never be happy. Aliena sets out to find Jack and she does, at a moment where he has learned about working with stone and his heritage. It's time to return and continue the work on Kingsbridge Cathedral. The novel comes full circle, with the revelation of some of the characters’ earlier connections and to the thief hanged in the prologue.
The Pillars of the Earth is one of the best works in historical fiction, in terms of its immense scope and rich details. It’s not a short read, but an entertaining one. The writing tugs at the emotions, evoking sadness, happiness and spirituality. Of all the diverse characters, Prior Philip truly stands out. His persistent flaw plagues him, but he demonstrates the difficulty to rise above the challenge each time. It isn’t often clear he is aware of the consequences of every action, but those that result in great harm to others cause him deep pain. The characterizations of the villains are also excellent. Their actions are sickening, yet there is also understandable motive behind almost each deed. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and the cable series that premiered this summer. While there is often something lacking in the dramatization of historical fiction, and certain story elements are different, both the series and the book are excellent. The Pillars of the Earth is a must-read for anyone who loves historical fiction.