Kingsbridge Series by Ken Follett

In his critically acclaimed Kingsbridge Series, Ken Follett transports the reader back in time to Kingsbridge, a small cathedral city in England. From here, a story follows that knits together the history of the people of England. While lower caste noblemen and women are often part of the stories; the books focus on the everyday living of a people dominated by religion and nobility. Follett finds a way to bring the common people to life and treat them with the importance we often see royalty given in fiction – the ability to be great; to be flawed; to be interesting.

Let me start from the beginning. The Kingsbridge books were my pandemic series read and they were absolutely wonderful. Even if you are not a historical fiction reader, trust me when I say that these are story-driven books with fantastic character development and lots of historical detail told in a way that isn’t boring.

Each book follows a sort of pattern. There’s a nobleman who’s usually an ass, his wife who is in love with someone else, a willful girl in love with someone outside of her station or out of reach, and a young ambitious man who finds a way to work his way out of poverty and move up in the world. The books are very long and usually follow these people through the whole of their lives. The formula is a winning one, with many plot twists, tragedies and triumphs. The books take a really long time to read but I found them to be absolutely wonderful. In fact, I wish they would just have kept going. I’d love it if he would publish more Kingsbridge novels that take place in the gaps between current books. I’m considering moving on to the next series of books of Follett’s that are similar.

Pillars of the Earth

Pillars of the Earth was published in 1989. By the time I picked up the first book in 2020, several editions had been released, and I was fortunate to listen to the Foreword written by Follett decades after publication, reminiscing about the origins of what had become one of the most critically acclaimed historical fiction series in history.

Follett was a well known author when he first published the Pillars of the Earth – but not for historical fiction. He was a suspense/thriller novelist – I’ve not read any of the other books, yet. Follett, being raised in a sparse Puritan faith, had developed an interest in cathedral architecture over time. Being a novelist, he soon developed an idea for a book about the building of a cathedral. History shows that these ancient cathedrals often took a hundred years or more to construct, as governments and churches become involved in wars or financial issues, so Follett’s story follows some characters through their entire lives and beyond.

The historical event that begins The Pillars of the Earth is “The Anarchy”- a long war of succession after King Henry’s heir dies suspiciously aboard a burning ship. The church is involved with the politics of succession, of course, and this is how Follett ties the story up with a neat little bow. The bishops, priests, monks, builders, laborers, quarrymen and their families make up the people that make this one of the greatest historical fiction novels of our lifetimes.

My favorite character is Phillip, a monk who was rescued by the Church and raised by monks from the time he was a young boy. His piety and ascent through the church involves a colorful, yet realistic cast of characters. Like all of these novels, it is the circumstances of the normal people and how they’re affected by the politics of the day is what sets these stories apart from anyone else. Prior Phillip is a moral, kind man of strength and shows great leadership, and somehow that is not boring at all. As the world moves around him with tragedy, scandal, death, sex and betrayal, he stays morally righteous. It is refreshing and a testament to the author’s ability to write characters of such moral depth that they can be compelling without being obnoxious.

The Pillars of the Earth ends in 1174 with the murder and subsequent martyrdom of the Archbishop of Canterbury, perpetrated by the long-running villain of the tale, William Hamleigh.

World Without End

In World Without End, we are transported to the year 1327, again in the town of Kingsbridge. The town is centered around the cathedral, and it now includes a nunnery nearby. The nuns run the hospital, and the priests are the doctors. This novel is centered around the plague, a bridge collapse, and a new builder, descended from the main characters in the first book, to build a new grand bridge. There is much suffering during the plague, and in this book some of the evil comes from the monastery itself.

This book also carries a wonderful love story, between Merthin the builder and Caris, his childhood love, the nun who spends her life fighting the plague. Merthin builds a spire that makes Kingsbridge Cathedral the tallest building in England. Atop the spire is the statue of an angel that watches over Kingsbridge. The face of the angel is that of his great love, Caris.

Each one of the books has a great love story, and Follett weaves traditional romance tropes throughout these books. Forbidden loves, missed connections, high stakes, and great enduring love that overcomes any obstacle. Amidst the politics, the tragedy and the challenges of living, these books are extraordinary and expertly written.

A World Without End does have an ending, of course. Kingsbridge is granted a borough charter and is no longer ruled by the church; Merthin builds a spire onto the cathedral that makes it the highest building in England. The book ends around 1370.

A Column of Fire

A Column of Fire takes you to Kingsbridge in the infancy of Protestantism, in 1558. Kingsbridge cathedral is now 400 years old, and is magnificent. The spire stands overlooking the bustling city and its suburbs. Protestants are meeting in private and awaiting the ascendency of Queen Elizabeth, looking for a monarch who will allow them to worship any way they see fit. King Henry the VIII has dissolved the priory and given the decaying buildings to the Earl of Shiring, the descendants of Ralph Fitzgerald from a World Without End.

Just like the others, it can be read by itself as it occurs two hundred years after the second book. More international affairs are included in the story here, as this edition of the series includes the Spanish Armada in support of the Catholic church. Ned Willard is the young man in this story who is overcoming hardship to become a success – he becomes Queen Elizabeth’s chief spy and secret service agent. He uncovers the Gunpowder Plot, a real plot to take out King James and the entire English parliament. He has two great love stories and they may not be realistic, but they’re still lovely.

The Evening and the Morning

The Evening and the Morning was published the most recently, but it is a prequel. Before Kingsbridge has a bridge, it’s known as Dreng’s Ferry. The little town has a small church and an ale house. The Ale house is owned by Dreng, who lives there with two wives and a slave. This clearly isn’t the England that has been taken over by the church. We’ve traveled much further back in time, at the end of the Dark Ages around 1000 B.C.

A shipbuilder loses everything in an attack by the Vikings and he is the young man who will remain at the center of the story, catch the eye of a French noblewoman, and have a chance at happily ever after. Whether you read this first or last, it’s truly a wonderful book.

Sexual Violence and Realism

The Kingsbridge novels address sexual violence in a way that is pretty accurate. Of course every woman is described as having amazing breasts. The author is male, and most males do find breasts amazing, so we can forgive this. I felt that Follett accurately captured the helpless situation that women of all stations were in at the time, and does this well through all of the Kingsbridge books. For example, one of the characters is repeatedly raped by her drunken Father-in-law, a nobleman. She struggles internally with the knowledge that she can do nothing, and if she speaks up, she may end up sentenced to death. Follett researches the attitudes of the day extremely well; before anyone considered women as normal mammals without magic sex witch powers it was believed that women couldn’t control their sexual urges and that they only became pregnant if they enjoyed the sex. It seems absurd now, but ancient beliefs closely tied with religion and the church were hard to dispel, and there weren’t many scientists studying orgasms and pregnancy five hundred years ago.

History Lessons

For those of us raised in other countries, these novels really bring English history to life. Instead of learning names of kings or wars, reading how the changes in government and law affected the common people brings history to life and gives the reader an understanding of the past that is much more impactful than traditional classroom format. I’d recommend these books as a supplement to anyone studying English history. I wish there were more writers like Follett and we could read stories like this from cultures and countries all over the world. I learned more history from these books than I learned in my entire undergraduate education. Of course, my undergraduate education was in Texas, where I had a total of four years of Texas history and only two of world history. Later, I minored in American History, and these books even really illuminated the circumstances that led Puritans to flee to the new world.

What Order Should the Kingsbridge Series be Read?

The Kingsbridge books can be read in any order. I’m going to present them to you in two ways: Published and Chronological. They were published out of chronological order, with the prequel coming after three books in the series are published.

Kingsbridge Series in Publication Order:

  • Pillars of the Earth
  • World Without End
  • Column of Fire
  • The Evening and the Morning

Kingsbridge Series in Chronological Order:

  • The Evening and the Morning
  • Pillars of the Earth
  • World Without End
  • Column of Fire

I’m not sure that I’d read in chronological order if I knew what I know now. I really enjoyed having read the later books and then get a look into the world before Prior Phillip was born. Someday, if I decide to give these another read, I’ll start with Pillars of the Earth again, I think. It’s the true introduction to Kingsbridge and is simply remarkable.

The Kingsbridge Series on Audio

All four of the Kingsbridge novels are narrated by John Lee. He’s an incredible voice actor who brings these stories alive. I listened to all of the books except for Column of Fire; and I’d recommend that anyone who isn’t sure if they’d enjoy these books to look for the audiobook from their local library. It takes a five-star book to a whole new level. When I was listening to these novels, I wanted my headphones on all the time. They’re very long audiobooks, obviously, and for a week or so I’d be digging for any waking moment I could find to listen to a little more. Lee switches between character voices so easily that you forget you’re listening to one man. He’s incredibly talented and it is a privilege to have been able to listen to so many hours of his work.

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