The book begins early in the 12th century, with the hanging of an unusual looking red-headed man. A woman named Ellen is in the crowd of onlookers. She is pregnant and in rags. After the hanging, she curses the priest, sheriff and knight who condemned him. We follow Ellen throughout the book and learn more about the man’s accusers and ultimate ends.
Shortly after the hanging, we are introduced to Tom, a master builder, who is building a home for a soon to be married couple, William Hambley and his bride-to-be, Eliana Bartholomew. When the wedding is called off, the groom-to-be is enraged, and he angrily demands that, Tom, the mason, stop his workers from continuing. Losing his job and with his wife pregnant, he and his family wander to other towns in search of work, but he can find none and soon they are hungry and cold and alone. Ellen appears on the road and they encounter her. The story follows all of their lives and the lives of their offspring. Ellen has lived in the forest with her son Jack, in poverty and with no social contacts, since the hanging of her husband. William and his family are landed gentry. Eliana and her family have been disgraced by the Hambley’s treachery and they have taken over her father’s title and land. Tom meets the Pryor of Kingsbridge on their travels and although he can offer him no work, as time passes, he becomes the master builder there, to rebuild the church and cathedral. Although he built what was necessary to earn money to support his family, his dream was to one day, build a magnificent cathedral.
As the book moves on, the rivalries between the aristocracy and the king and the Church take center stage with the power moving from one to the other with frequency. They rule, often unjustly, and they abuse their power. Being a monarch, aristocrat and/or a priest, obviously did not preclude injustice, greed, venal desires or behavior.
Marriages and alliances were made, just as enemies and battles were fought. The rule of law shifted as monarchies changed and bishops were replaced. Who had more power, the King or the Church? This was a constant battle of wits with the victor and vanquished becoming a moving target. Townships rose and fell on the sword tip of a monarch, who thirsted for power, or the landed gentry that supported him amassing armies to defend their lands and desires, often selfishly and barbarously, or based upon the strict doctrine of the church and some of its not so high minded members. As the world turned, so did the lives of these people; they were on the spokes of a wheel with new windows of opportunity presenting themselves constantly, and often capriciously with some being evil while some were worthy of praise.
The book does make you stop and wonder about the power of the monarchy and the power of the Church? By what right does either rule? Are the people governed by fear and superstition or is it simply a matter of who has more strength and wields more brutality to maintain their stature?
Although there are sexual scenes in the novel, they are not overly descriptive or gratuitous as it seemed to be in Follett’s later series, the “Century Trilogy”, which must be a reflection of the times and the proliferation of books today that are not truly literature but seem to be more designed to excite the reader, to titillate rather than to educate or elevate.
While the book is well written, and the history is interesting, though somewhat confusing at times, the story is rather thin. Basically it concerns the development of the town of Kingsbridge over a period, just shy of half a century, in which it rises and falls and rises again, with the center of it being its magnificent Kingsbridge Cathedral, which drew worshipers from far and wide. If it were not for interesting characters who are developed well as time went on, the book would not be as memorable.