When Lord William Hamleigh’s engagement to Lady Aliena of Shiring is ended, Tom Builder is forced to look for work as winter is approaching. He has a pregnant wife, Agnes, and two children, Alfred and Martha. Tom seeks work as a mason and hopes to fulfill his life’s dream of working on a cathedral. When a thief attacks Martha, an outlaw named Ellen helps the struggling family. With her son, Jack, Ellen is hiding in the forests since she cursed a priest. When Agnes gives birth to a boy and dies soon after, Tom reluctantly chooses to leave the baby on Agnes’s grave because he has no means to keep it alive. When he regrets this decision and returns to the grave, he finds that the baby is gone. Ellen reappears and makes love to Tom. Then she leads him to the abbey where a priest has taken his baby. Ellen convinces Tom to leave the baby to be cared for by the monks, then she confesses that she has loved him since they met. Tom is overwhelmed by his passion for this wild woman and asks her to be his wife.
Philip of Gwynudd, prior of St.-John’s-in-the-Forest, was an orphan raised by monks but is now the reformer of the small priory. His brother Francis, who is a priest in service to Robert of Gloucester, asks Philip to inform the bishop of the intentions of King Henry I’s daughter Maud to lead a rebellion against her cousin, Stephen of Blois, who has promised support for the Church in his role as monarch. Philip delivers the message to the archdeacon, Waleran Bigod, and proceeds to the Kingsbridge Priory, which is in disrepair due to the lax rule of the present prior. When the prior dies, Philip and the subprior, Remigius, campaign for the position. When Archdeacon Waleran agrees to nominate Philip for prior in exchange for his support for being named bishop, Philip reluctantly agrees.
Waleran tells the Hamleighs of the planned rebellion and the involvement of the Earl of Shiring, Aliena’s father. They see this as a way to gain revenge against Aliena’s rejection of William. Tom Builder has been given a job at the Earl’s castle. He notices how vulnerable the castle would be to an attack but is unable to make the repairs before the Hamleighs and their knights invade and arrest the Earl for treason.
Tom goes to Kingsbridge to seek work repairing the cathedral, but Prior Philip informs him that they have no money to pay for labor. Jack sets the cathedral on fire, which provides a job for Tom. When Waleran Bigod comes to inspect the damage, he sees Ellen and is frightened. Remigius, out of bitterness toward Philip, tells Waleran that Ellen is not legally married to Tom and is a witch. Waleran pronounces that she must do penance and separate from Tom for one year and then marry. Ellen is furious that Tom will not stop Alfred from bullying Jack, so she refuses and goes back to living in the woods.
Waleran takes Philip with him to see King Stephen with the intention of obtaining the earldom of Shiring, ostensibly to finance the Kingsbridge Cathedral. When Waleran crosses him to finance the building of his castle, Philip double crosses him and makes a deal with the Hamleighs: they receive the title and the land while the priory gets the use of the forest, the hills for sheep, and the rocks from the quarry. Philip realizes that Waleran has become his enemy for life. When William shows up at the castle in Shiring, he rapes Aliena in revenge and cuts off her brother Richard’s ear.
Aliena and Richard escape the castle on William’s horses and then travel to Winchester, where they discover their father in prison. He binds them to a vow to regain the earldom of Shiring for Richard. Aliena resents being bound by an oath that will not directly benefit her, but she agrees. To earn money, they become wool merchants. Prior Philip helps them get a fair price for their wool. To get his revenge on Philip, Waleran reports to Bishop Henry, King Stephen’s brother, that Philip is having trouble building the cathedral. When Bishop Henry visits Kingsbridge, he sees a mass of people (villagers Philip has rounded up as volunteers) working busily. Ellen and Jack return to Kingsbridge, and Ellen promises to marry Tom.
Over the next three years, William fights alongside King Stephen in the civil war with Empress Maud. He learns that his father has died, thus making him the new earl of Shiring, although Richard, Aliena’s brother, is also claiming the earldom. When William returns home, however, he discovers that the treasury is empty because so many of the serfs have left their homes to work in Kingsbridge. After terrorizing the countryside, William visits Kingsbridge and is surprised at how much it has grown. He confronts Prior Philip for not carrying a license to operate a market, but Philip counters with the many sins William has been committing; he warns him of the fires of hell unless he repents. William has an intense fear of damnation, so he confesses to Waleran, who suggests that he take back the quarry, thus depriving Philip of the stones he needs to finish the cathedral and leading to the withering of the market in Kingsbridge. When William attacks the quarry, he is shocked that the workers fight back. William drives the laborers from the quarry.
To secure a license for the market in Kingsbridge, Philip travels to Lincoln, where King Stephen is laying siege against Maud’s forces. In Stephen’s defeat, Philip is taken prisoner. His brother Francis, who is now employed by Maud, releases him. William and Waleran have judiciously changed sides and now support Maud. To please her new ally, Maud grants William the rights to the quarry but gives the market license to Philip, charging both a hundred pounds. To raise this fee, Philip sells his following year’s wool on credit to Aliena, who plans to hold a market fair the next year, which will draw business from Shiring; this infuriates William. Maud’s hold on the throne of England is weak, and it soon reverts to Stephen.
Jack becomes Tom’s apprentice and shows more talent that Alfred does. Jack falls increasingly in love...