Follett's novel is set in twelfth-century England, the time of knights in shining armor; but according to The Pillars of the Earth, those knights were not always as well behaved as most storytellers would have readers believe. This was due, in large part, to the era's numerous civil wars, many caused by the feud between King Stephen and the monarch from whom he stole the throne, Empress Maude (also referred to as Matilda). Empress Maude wanted the throne and was willing to fight for it, which threw England into chaos. The monarchy was so distracted with fighting for its right to rule that crimes often went unheeded. This constant presence of lawlessness is what sets the general tone for Pillars.

The other side of the power struggle was that between the church and the monarchy. During the twelfth century, popes and other leaders of the church, who had once held great power and influence in politics, witnessed a waning of their authority. When Maude's son was crowned King Henry II, a confrontation between the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, and the king ended in Becket's death. In the novel, the king later denounces this murder and does penance by donning clothes of the poor and walking on his knees to Becket's tomb. As the monarchy and the church react to Becket's death, the confrontation reverberates out into the far reaches of the country, affecting the citizens and the monks of Kingsbridge in a variety of ways.

Another battle is mentioned in the novel, when Aliena's brother Richard needs to run away from England so he will not be put on trial for killing Aliena's husband, Alfred. Richard escapes to Spain to fight for what is referred to as Spain's Holy War. This is a reference to Spain's Christian government forcing Muslims out of leadership positions, especially in the southern portions of Spain, where Muslims still maintained authority.

However, the more intimate setting, which makes up the...

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Ideas for Group Discussions

1. Compare the differences between the characters Philip and Waleran Bigod. How do their religious beliefs differ? How do their moral practices differ? Who is the more ambitious? Who is stronger and in what ways? What are their individual weaknesses?

2. Discuss the novel’s four young men—William, Richard, Alfred, and Jack. How do their characters differ? Who is the weakest? Who is the strongest? Why and how? Provide examples to back up your choice.

3. What do you think drives Philip to build his cathedral? Is it pride or his staunch appreciation and reverence for his god? Choose passages from the novel to back your opinion.

4. There are several graphic descriptions of sex in the novel. Why do you think the author included these scenes? Was it for sensationalism, or do they add to the story? Could the novel have been as strong without them?

5. Why do you think the author included the story of Jonathan, the abandoned child of Tom the builder? How does Jonathan affect the story? Does his character in some way tie up the loose strings at the end? Or is he a symbol of the future?

6. Agnes, Ellen, and Aliena are very strong female characters. In what ways do they display their strengths? Which, in your opinion, is the strongest? Which is the weakest? Why have you come to these conclusions?

7. In what ways does twelfth-century England remind you of the twenty-first-century United States? How do they differ? Think of the influence of government and religion as well as social pressures, family matters, and romance.

Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. Read about Thomas Becket’s life. How did he rise to power? What was the status of the English church when Becket was young? How did it change as Becket came into power? How many kings did he serve under? What was his relationship with them? Pay special attention to Becket’s connection with Henry II. What led to their great disagreement? What is the controversy surrounding the king’s involvement in Becket’s life? Write up a report and present it to your class.

2. Gather pictures of the most famous cathedrals in Europe. What types of architecture do they represent? How do they differ? What mathematical concepts improved, and what were the major changes in the construction? Do the cathedrals still exist? Include temples built in Spain under Muslim influence. Show the pictures to your class and present the information you have found.

3. Draw your conception of what the villages of Shiring and Kingsbridge looked like at the end of the novel. Draw it to scale, showing how far apart the two towns were. For Kingsbridge, mark off the boundaries of the village in the beginning of the story and how far it spread by the end. Use as many details as you can from the novel and make up the rest.

4. Jack ends up in France and Spain as he searches for his father. Create a map of his travels. Mark the cities that are mentioned. Also pinpoint the cathedrals that Jack visited. Pay special attention to Cherbourg, France, where Jack’s father was from. Show the map to your class.

Related Titles / Adaptations

Follett’s long-awaited sequel to The Pillars of the Earth is his 2007 novel World Without End. The sequel does not include the same characters, but it does take place in Kingsbridge, almost two hundred years later. Instead of the building of the cathedral holding up the center of this story, in World Without End it is the Black Plague. The ravages of the plague as well as the foundation of modern medicine are explored in this best seller.

Pauline Gedge explored another part of English history in her novel The Eagle and the Raven (2007). In this fictionalized look at history, Gedge tells the story of Boudicca, a notorious warrior of ancient Britain and a strong-willed woman. Boudicca helps Caradoc, the son of the Celtic king, to fight off Roman armies.

T. S. Eliot, one of England’s greatest poets, wrote a dramatization in verse of Thomas Becket’s murder called Murder in the Cathedral (1935). This long poem has been praised for its poetic imagery.

If you want to delve into the authentic history of the twelfth century, you might want to read W. L. Warren’s Henry II. The book is well researched and very readable for a general audience. In it, Warren provides the details, including the strengths and weaknesses, of this complex and controversial monarch.


Cox, Meg. 1990. “Publishing: Literary World Is Debating How Much of a Huckster a Book Writer Should Be.” Wall Street Journal, August 2, 1990, p. B1. Cox covers the controversy of authors using new ploys to sell their books. Follett is one of Cox’s main focuses.

Gabaldon, Diana. 2007. “The Bridge Builder.” Washington Post, October 14, 2007, p. T3. Gabaldon reviews the sequel to Pillars, Follett’s novel World Without End.

Goldberg, Beverly. 2001. “Pillars of the Earth Toppled.” American Librarian, 32 (7): 21. Goldberg discusses the efforts of parents to take Follett’s Pillar off school library shelves.

Novak, Ralph. 1989. “Review of The Pillars of the Earth.” People Weekly, 32 (12): 35–36. In one of the earlier reviews of the book, Novak provides a somewhat disappointed assessment of Follett’s novel.