The novel opens at the gallows. A young stranger has been convicted of stealing a silver chalice from the monastery. With a noose around his neck, the red-headed prisoner sings a sad song in French to a pregnant 15-year-old girl dressed in rags with beautiful gold eyes. When the French man's neck snaps, the pregnant girl curses the knight, priest and monk who accused him. The girl disappears in the crowd, as her lover's lifeless body swings on the gallows and a headless cock runs in circles.
Part One: 1135–1136
A mason named Tom Builder is constructing a home for a rich lord's son and his future wife. Tom and his wife, Agnes, have two children—14-year-old Alfred and 7-year-old Martha. Just as Tom learns Agnes is pregnant and due in the winter, William Hamleigh, the lord's son, fires him. William's bride-to-be, Lady Aliena, has rejected him, and her father, Earl Bartholomew of Shiring, has promised that he will never force her to marry a man she doesn't love.
Tom and his family set off to find work with a bag of silver and a fat pig they intend to sell. In the woods, an outlaw steals the pig, injuring Martha in the process. An outlaw woman named Ellen appears with her red-headed son, 11-year-old Jack, to help. They live in the woods and she says she has been outlawed for cursing a priest. She tells Tom a cathedral is being built nearby and Tom's family starts toward the town.
Unfortunately, Tom cannot find work and the weather is growing colder. One freezing night they stop to set up camp in the woods and Agnes goes into labor. A healthy baby boy is born, but Agnes dies. Grief-stricken, destitute and starving, Tom buries his wife, abandons the newborn on top of her fresh grave, and starts walking again with his two other children.
Realizing what he's done, he returns only to find the baby missing. Ellen appears again and tells Tom a priest rode away with the child. Francis has taken the baby to his brother Philip's small monastery in the woods. Deciding the baby is better off cared for by monks than living on the road, Tom leaves his child with the monks and proposes to Ellen. (More plot points...)
Part 1 reading questions
Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
More from the complete reading guide to The Pillars of the Earth.