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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