The epic Pillars of the Earth chronicles the construction of a Gothic cathedral against the backdrop of political intrigue and ecclesiastical manipulation in 12th-century England. After a young man is hanged for theft, construction is stopped on the house of nobleman William Hamleigh. Master craftsman Tom Builder and his family begin an epic search for employment. On his journey, Tom's wife dies in childbirth and Tom is forced to make the painful decision to abandon his newborn.
He meets the renegade Ellen and her son, Jack, who are living in the woods. At first intimidated by her anti-clericalism, Tom eventually comes to love her and "adopts" Jack as his own. In the meantime, the abandoned newborn is found by a traveling clergyman who takes him to a monastery run by his brother, Philip.
Tom's newly expanded family settles in the village of Kingsbridge, where he meets Philip and makes a bid to renovate the grand cathedral. The deal is sealed when Jack burns down the existing structure.
Construction of the new cathedral requires the approval of the scheming Bishop Waleran Bigod, who promises Philip and his supporters, including Ellen, that it will never happen.
Tom has taught masonry to his natural son, the hot-headed Alfred, and soon discovers that the untrained Jack is, in fact, a prodigy. Nevertheless, the powerful Hamleighs resist the cathedral construction and begin a campaign of terror against the villagers that ultimately ends in Tom's death.
Tensions develop between the "brothers," particularly when each falls for the noblewoman Aliena, whose father was executed after running afoul of the Hamleighs and their noble allies. Jack is expelled from cathedral service after admitting to starting the fire.
Forced to near poverty after losing her family fortune, the enterprising Aliena -- with Philip's help -- becomes a successful wool merchant. Her revenue supports her brother Richard's effort to reclaim his earldom by serving as a knight for King Stephen in the civil war against his cousin Maud.
Aliena agrees to marry Alfred if he will support Richard's ambitions. But the couple is cursed by the mystical Ellen and remain childless. Jack retreats to France to meet his father's family and search for work on another cathedral.
Alfred's construction ideas fail miserably. He lapses into self-pity, and is stunned when Aliena gives birth to a red-headed boy who is the image of Jack. When Alfred is killed in a vengeful rape of Aliena, Jack and Aliena can marry.
As the civil war continues, Richard opts to join the Crusades to the Holy Land. The cathedral is completed despite Bigod's relentless interference. His last play is to implicate Philip as the father of the newborn left at the monastery. That fails when Ellen exposes his role in the framing of Jack's father for theft, and also the deaths of key members of the English royal house, including the heir to the throne, aboard the ill-fated White Ship.
Best part of story, including ending:
Corrupt churchmen wield unparalleled influence, and Follett deftly demonstrates how the ambitions of one of them, Bigod, can influence the course of medieval history.
Best scene in story:
The climactic scene adds a fictional touch to one of history's enduring mysteries -- why did the White Ship, the Queen Mary of its age, go down ... and who would stand to benefit. The mystery is revealed as an assassination attempt and Bigod's history with the mysterious Ellen comes to light.
Opinion about the main character:
Jack is a noble person, not in title, but in character. He recognizes Tom's legitimate love for his mother and forges a bond with him from the beginning. Yet for all his "nobility," he suffers from initial lapses in judgment that are potentially calamitous. His decision to burn the cathedral guaranteed Tom an income but could have devastated the monastery and killed dozens. As he matures, he develops a single-minded obsession with cathedral building that almost costs him his marriage but also makes him one of the great minds of his age.