1. "Tom had been offered the post of builder to the Exeter castellan, repairing and improving the city's fortifications. It would have been a lifetime job, barring accidents. But Tom had turned it down, for he wanted to build another cathedral" (p. 23). Do you think Tom should have taken the position? Have you ever passed up a sure thing in pursuit of your life's passion?

  2. After being released from building William Hamleigh's stone house, Tom demands payment for himself and his workers according to custom. William stops work because the Lady Aliena has refused to marry him, breaking tradition. What roles do custom and tradition play in the first part of the book? Which customs and traditions are upheld? Which ones are broken?

  3. Why do you think William Hamleigh is so afraid of hell?

  4. Tom leaves his newborn son to the elements after Agnes dies from childbirth. Do you think he did the right thing? What other options did he have?

  5. Once Tom discovers where his newborn son is, he considers trying to get him back. What would you have done? Do you think Tom would have succeeded?

  6. Tom proposes to Ellen very soon after the death of his first wife? Why do you think he did this? Can he truly love another woman so soon after the loss of his wife?

  7. Compare and contrast Agnes and Ellen. Is one woman stronger than the other? How did their different styles of motherhood affect their children? Which do you think is a better complement for Tom?

  8. When we meet Prior Philip, he reminds another monk of the importance of poverty, chastity and abstinence. How does Prior Philip invoke this general idea in other situations throughout Part One? Does it benefit his efforts, or harm them?

  9. Why does Prior Philip agree to take in the abandoned baby? Are his reasons altruistic, or selfish—given the fact that his own family was taken from him? How is the order like a family? What needs does it fulfill, and which ones are still lacking in the brotherhood?

  10. When discussing the crowning of a new king with his brother Francis, Philip thinks, "Stephen's relationship with the Church had been defined, right at the start of his reign, on the Church's terms. But perhaps even more important was the precedent. The Church had to crown kings but until now it had not had the right to lay down conditions. The time might come when no king could come to power without first striking a deal with the Church" (p. 105–106). What are Philip's motives? How could this benefit the church? How could it backfire? What relationship, if any, should church and state have?

  11. What are your first impressions of Waleran Bigod? Is he a devout man at heart, or does he have something up his sleeve? Is Philip his ally or his pawn?

  12. Aliena values happiness over honor and alliances. Did she make the right choice?

  13. What effect does killing a man have on William Hamleigh?

  14. William acts disrespectful toward women—berating Aliena and offering to buy Ellen. But after he successfully invades Earl Bartholomew's castle, he seeks the approval of his mother. "William's heart was warmed by her praise, and he grinned foolishly" (p. 208). Why does William respect his mother, but no other woman?

  15. What do you think is the real reason Ellen decides to leave Tom and Kingsbridge?

And if you're not ready to leave Kingsbridge yet, try World Without End, Ken Follett's sequel!

Part 1 plot points 

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More from the complete reading guide to The Pillars of the Earth.

Prologue: 1123
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

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More from the complete reading guide to The Pillars of the Earth.

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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Part 1 reading questions

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