Inside Kingsbridge Cathedral in The Pillars of the Earth
Photos: Egon Endrenyi/Tandem Productions GmbH
One of Oprah's Book Club's most popular selections, Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth, has been adapted into a sweeping, eight-hour miniseries that premieres July 23 on STARZ. Author Ken Follett shares his knowledge on Medieval architecture, cathedrals and the clergy as portrayed by the characters of Philip, Waleran, Remigius and Cuthbert.
I became interested in cathedral architecture many years ago. I very quickly became curious, as most people do when they look at the great European cathedrals, about a fundamental question. And the question that comes to almost everybody is—Why is this here?

Why did these medieval people want this structure? It was very expensive for them to build. It was very difficult. They didn't have modern construction methods, they didn't have power tools, they didn't have the mathematics to calculate the strains and stresses, etc. So why did they go to all that trouble and expense?

From an abstract interest in the architecture, I was led quite quickly to a fascination with the Middle Ages and what drove Medieval people to their tremendous achievements. Building a cathedral represents aspiration in general and for everybody in Kingsbridge it represents a slightly different aspiration. For some people it is just about the glory of God, but for some people the cathedral is a business draw—it will be good for business, it will draw pilgrims to the cathedral, which means money coming into the town not just to the church, but all the businessmen in town will benefit from pilgrims.

Pilgrim is just a medieval word for tourist. So the cathedral would draw tourists to the town. And of course the building itself generated employment. So although medieval people did not think in economic terms as we do in 21st century, nevertheless they did understand that it was good for the whole town if a lot of people were going to be employed there—several hundred people employed building this church. So it is all about aspiration, but it is a different aspiration for every section of society.

Those builders knew they were likely to be working on the building of this church for most of their lives. And so it is going to be literally their life's work. And so they have this feeling, maybe partly religious, but not necessarily religious, that this is what their life is about. And whether they are building it for the glory of God or whether they just want to do something wonderful, there is a strong impulse in human beings to make something wonderful that will last forever. People talk about that, you know—creative artists always talk about that. Or even if they don't talk about that, it is still what they really want. They want to make something, a painting or a novel or a symphony that will be giving people pleasure for hundreds of years—that is their real measure of success in their creative work.

Prior Philip's role in Kingsbridge
The process of the design and build of the cathedral would have been directed and overseen by the clergy of that community.

In The Pillars of the Earth, Prior Philip's duty is to keep the priory running smoothly and if possible, at a profit, while balancing his spiritual commitment with his drive to see the village prosper. The market and fleece fair are part of his plan; the cathedral to attract pilgrims is another. The monks of Kingsbridge may have left the world, but they still have to interact with it, and that includes not paying more for food than necessary. Those duties also involve both church and real-world politics, knowing how to deal with powerful, dangerous people like Waleran, the Hamleighs and King Stephen. Even then, Philip gets a few nasty surprises: Waleran's attempt to have land transferred to his diocese and for his personal use, the Hamleigh's acquisition of the quarry, risk of the king's disapproval if work isn't proceeding fast enough.

Waleran Bigod is just as devout as Philip, but his devotion is to a political version of the Church rather than to the Divinity behind it. He's willing to use people like the Hamleighs for his own ends, he'll sanction murder, and even commit it himself, once he's convinced the act is justified. The old Bishop of Kingsbridge died from poison, just as Alfred Builder did and Jack Shareburg was meant to, and Waleran might even have been behind the convenient death of King Henry. He shows sincerity to his warped interpretation of God by harming himself, with whips and nails and spiked belts; but since man's body is supposed to be in God's image, it's a back-handed compliment at best. Waleran's question would not be "Why build a cathedral?" but "Why build one here?" Though Kingsbridge has grown in wealth and status, the logical place for a cathedral to his mind, and certainly to the Hamleighs, would be Shiring, where wealth and status already exist. If Kingsbridge cathedral became sufficiently imposing, Waleran might find himself trapped there, in a backwater away from the centre of power. For an ambitious high churchman, that would never do.

Philip's immediate subordinate is sub-prior, Brother Remigius, a sly monk with ulterior motives and who is under the strong thumb of Waleran Bigod. A sub-prior carries out the prior's duties in his absence or illness, and replaces him in the event of his death unless the monks elect someone else. Remigius becomes bitter and vengeful when he sees Philip elected Prior. His increasing difficulty balancing his work as a monk and his job as Waleran's eyes and ears drive him to desperate acts.

Brother Cuthbert's role in Kingsbridge
Brother Cuthbert is Kingsbridge Priory's cellarer. He holds an important position in the monastic hierarchy. He's in charge of the community's food and drink, storing, organising and obtaining it, whether from outside—in which case he's responsible for getting best value from every farthing—or produced by the monks themselves. Kingsbridge isn't very successful in this respect, and sub-prior Remigius has no interest in improving the situation. Cuthbert, trying to perform his duties, would have been all too aware of that. He is encouraged by Philip who has already turned one run-down monastery into a going concern and hopefully will do so again.

By the way, Brother Cuthbert is played wonderfully by John Pielmeier. John is not only a terrific actor; he wrote the television adaptation, all eight hours of it, from my novel!

Previous blog: The young, supporting cast and their character arcs

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