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Philip's brother Francis, chaplain for Earl Robert of Gloucester, tells Philip that King Henry has died with no legitimate male heir. His nephew, Stephen, has seized the throne. Francis wants to see Stephen remain on the throne because Stephen's brother is a bishop, which means the church would gain some political power. However, Earl Robert is the dead king's eldest illegitimate son and is conspiring against King Stephen with Lady Aliena's father, Earl Bartholomew of Shiring. For fear of treason, Francis asks Philip to warn the bishop of Kingsbridge about the rebellion.

Philip travels to the bishop's palace. Archdeacon Waleran Bigod tells him the bishop is away, so Philip confides in him instead. Philip then travels to the dilapidated Kingsbridge Priory and discovers the prior is dead. Philip becomes a candidate to replace the prior, but faces opposition from the current sub-prior, Remigius. In a last minute development, the priory learns the bishop himself wants to nominate a candidate. Philip reaches out to Waleran, who has the power to nominate the bishop's choice. He cuts a deal with Philip—he will nominate Philip if Philip helps him get elected as the new bishop when the current bishop dies. Philip agrees—not realizing how quickly he will be called on to return the favor. Philip becomes prior, and Waleran announces at Philip's first mass that the bishop is dead.

At the same mass, Waleran informs William Hamleigh's family of Earl Bartholomew's role in the conspiracy against King Stephen. Tom's family arrives at Shiring and Earl Bartholomew hires Tom to reinforce the castle walls for battle. Young Jack becomes enamored with the slightly older, beautiful Lady Aliena. The Hamleigh's plan to disarm Shiring castle and capture the earl is successful. Bartholomew, Aliena and her brother, Richard, are now prisoners in their own home, and Tom is out of a job again.

Tom and his family travel to Kingsbridge. He is delighted to see the poor condition of the cathedral. He asks for work and learns Philip, whom he had met on the road, is now prior, and the son he abandoned, now called Jonathan, is there. Philip, however, cannot offer Tom any work, just some food and a place to sleep for the night. Fearful of going hungry once more, Jack burns down the cathedral so Tom will get work.

Not everyone wants Tom and his family around. Sub-prior Remigius claims Ellen is a witch and is determined to have her sent away from Kingsbridge. The day Bishop Waleran arrives at Kingsbridge, Remigius tells everyone Ellen and Tom have not been married in a church.

Waleran, who also knew Ellen from years past, says Ellen must confess her sin and do public penance that involves leaving the priory and living away from Tom for a year before they can marry. But that's not all Waleran has to say to Philip. Thanks to his information about the rebellion, King Stephen is in their debt and Waleran has a reward in mind—a new cathedral at Kingsbridge—an idea that excites both Philip and Tom.

At dinner that night, Tom tells Ellen about her penance. Ellen creates a scene and leaves tearfully with Jack, swearing an oath to Tom that she will return someday.

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