Compare and contrast Kingsbridge from the beginning of the novel to the end. How has it changed? What do you think the most defining events were? Who were the most influential characters?
Two of Philip's rivals—Ellen and Remigius—come to his defense at his ecclesiastical trial. What does it take for both of them to speak up? Why did they decide to defend a man who has caused them difficulty in the past? What do their actions say about Philip as a person?
In Chapter 17, Ken Follett writes: "Philip had made Jonathan cellarer at a young age, and had now promoted him to sub-prior. Did I do that for my own pride and pleasure? he asked himself. Well, yes, he thought" (p. 911). In Chapter 18, Philip discusses King Henry and Thomas Becket's disagreement with his brother, Francis. Their conflict has escalated because, Francis says, "It's become a question of pride, now" (p. 939). Why is pride so important to these men of God? How has pride created conflict throughout the novel?
Part 6 reveals a different side of William, from his regretting the missteps that prevented him from having success and a family like Jack to his reluctant leadership in the plot to kill Thomas Becket. Do you think old age has changed William? Is he any wiser? Is he any less of an evil character or a more sympathetic one?
Although The Pillars of the Earth is fiction, it includes some real-life characters and incidents from history, such as King Stephen at the battle of Lincoln and the murder of Thomas Becket. Why does the author mix fact and fiction like this? Are the factual scenes told from the point of view of the real-life characters or the fictional ones? Are the fictional characters major or minor players in the big historical events of the time?
Why do you think Philip's march after Thomas Becket's murder touched so many people? Were Philip's actions a religious statement or more of a statement on society?
Describe Aliena's reaction to William's hanging. Were you surprised at how she reacted? How did you feel when William met his death?
What do you think about Waleran's confession to Jack? If you were Jack, would you have handled it another way? Have you ever been in a position where you had to tell someone a difficult truth? How about being on the receiving end of such a conversation?
Some readers have said they look at medieval churches with new eyes after reading The Pillars of the Earth. Do you think you will do the same? In the book, churches are usually viewed through the eyes of a builder. How does this affect your understanding of the architecture?
Ken Follett has said: "I'm not a very spiritual person. I'm more interested in the material problems of building a cathedral." Is The Pillars of the Earth a spiritual book?
More from the complete reading guide to The Pillars of the Earth.
Plot Points Part 6: 1170–1174 Over the years, Kingsbridge has grown into a prosperous city that is bigger, busier and wealthier than Shiring. Sheriff William arrives at Kingsbridge on Easter for the consecration of the breathtaking new cathedral. There, he spies Jack and Aliena with their children in church and feels that everything they had should have been his.
Bishop Waleran also attends the service and notices Jonathan, now 30, has been appointed sub-prior of Kingsbridge. Waleran thinks Jonathan is Philip's biological son, and he and William accuse Philip of fornication and nepotism at the ecclesiastical court. The church takes the accusations seriously and sets up a trial in Kingsbridge. Philip is confident his innocence will be proven—until he discovers his old adversary, Peter of Wareham, will preside. If found guilty, Philip worries Waleran will recommend his choice for prior and destroy everything he worked for at Kingsbridge. Waleran stands to gain much from Philip's downfall, especially since his ally King Henry is in dispute with the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, who is in exile in France.
Philip's only hope is finding Jonathan's true father. He tells Jonathan that Tom Builder and his family were passing through St.-John-in-the-Forest when he was born. Joanathan approaches Jack to see if he remembers anything about the time of his birth. Jack connects Jonathan to the infant he and his mother found in the woods and reveals that Jack's father was Tom Builder. Jack's testimony will help Philip, but they need Ellen to prove beyond a doubt that Philip is innocent.
Just as Philip begins his defense at trial, Jonathan, Jack and Ellen interrupt and declare that Tom Builder fathered Jonathan. When Waleran accuses her of lying, Ellen accuses him of being a perjurer and exposes the role Waleran played in the death of Jack Shareburg.
The court is shocked, and Remigius speaks out, confirming the story. Peter of Wareham adjourns the court, and Waleran leaves quickly, ignoring Jack's questions. More plot points...
More from the complete reading guide to The Pillars of the Earth.
Plot Points After the trial, Philip receives a letter from King Henry nominating Waleran as bishop of Lincoln, one of the richest bishoprics in the world. Philip fears that Waleran is being groomed to take over for Archbishop Thomas Becket, who has been living in exile after a disagreement with the king. If Waleran is confirmed at Lincoln, King Henry recommends that Peter of Wareham become bishop of Kingsbridge. Horrified, Philip sets off for France to see the exiled Thomas Becket.
When Philip reaches Thomas, he vows to write the pope but says he can do nothing else until his dispute with King Henry is resolved and he is restored at Canterbury. Philip has a brilliant idea and heads back to England to see Francis, who works for King Henry. Together, they work out a compromise, and the king and the archbishop finally make peace with one another.
But a short-lived peace it is. Henry is furious when Thomas refuses to endorse Waleran as bishop of Lincoln and recommends Philip instead.
William and Waleran then conspire with some of King Henry's more ambitious men and decide to kill Thomas Becket. William leads the mission but is concerned that killing an archbishop will send him to hell. Waleran assures William he will grant him absolution.
When William's party arrives at Kent and surrounds Thomas Becket, he realizes Philip is there, too. William's men try to arrest Thomas Becket on treason charges. He refuses to answer them. In a dramatic standoff in his own cathedral, William's men kill the archbishop.
In shock and feeling rage, Philip picks up part of the sword that killed Thomas and speaks to the people. He urges them to tell others what they have seen—the murder of a saint. Philip starts a crusade to show the sword to other churches and tell their story along the way. King Henry, who never sanctioned William's mission, sentences all of the men involved to be hanged. William is escorted to the gallows by the new earl of Shiring—Aliena's son Tommy, who took over after Richard. Aliena is one of many in the crowd who watches her old nemesis die.
One day, while Jack watches his daughter Sally—a talented stained glass artist—work, he is summoned by Jonathan, now the new prior of Kingsbridge. A simple monk wants to talk to Jack...and it turns out to be Waleran Bigod. The disgraced man has decided it's time to tell Jack the truth about his father's death.
Meanwhile, the mystical cult of Thomas Becket sweeps the world, and Philip, the bishop of Kingsbridge, hears King Henry's confession of guilt in front of a crowd of people. The novel ends with the king receiving a symbolic caning for his sins.