Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 226
As the novel spans many decades of intensively conflict-driven European history, numerous characters appear; some of them are actual historical figures such as England’s Queen Elizabeth I, while others are Ken Follett’s inventions. Set in the years after Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation, the action moves between England, after Henry VIII brought the movement there, and the European Continent.
The protagonist is Edward Willard, known as Ned, who is a dedicated Protestant. We meet several members of his family in Knightsbridge, including his brother, Barney. Along with Ned’s defense of the religion, the reader learns of his personal dilemma in loving a Catholic girl, Margery Fitzgerald. Her marriage to a different man, also Catholic, effectively ends their romance—but for how long?
Ned goes to the Continent, where he becomes involved with a French Protestant woman, Sylvie Palot, who sells clandestinely printed Protestant Bibles. The ethical dimensions of religious zeal, along with complex political schemes, shape all three characters and their relationships.
Ned’s love for Margery is further complicated by his antagonism with her brother, Rollo. Presented as rather one-dimensional, Rollo is the most fervent Catholic activist, intensely dedicated to the goal of dethroning Elizabeth and restoring Catholicism as England’s official religion.
Pierre Aumande, a spymaster, enlists Ned’s help in France; Sylvie is another member of his espionage network.