An epic novel set in 12th century England, ''The Pillars of the Earth'' is the chronicle of a man, his family, their enemies and the extraordinary dream that consumes them all. It is by far the [[BlackSheepHit most popular]] story Ken Follett, [[GenreAdultery mainly an author of thrillers and various spy novels]], has ever written. He followed it up with a sequel many years later: ''WorldWithoutEnd'', which takes place several generations later in the same village.

Tom Builder is a poor stonemason who dreams of building something that will be his legacy and which will sustain his family for the rest of their lives. Philip, the Prior of Kingsbridge, fights to build a cathedral there, against the wishes of his Bishop, his Lord and all manner of political enemies.

The Gothic Cathedral at Kingsbridge, it turns out, becomes more important than anyone imagines. Woven throughout this deeply personal drama are the civil wars between [[TheHouseOfNormandy King Stephen and Queen Maud]], and later the machinations of [[TheHouseOfPlantagenet King Henry II]] and the priest Thomas Becket.

Also adapted, along with ''WorldWithoutEnd'', into a popular EuroGame BoardGame.

[[Series/ThePillarsOfTheEarth A miniseries]] starring Ian [=McShane=], Rufus Sewell, Matthew Macfadyen, David Oakes, Eddie Redmayne as Jack and the lovely Hayley Atwell as Aliena ran on the Starz network in July and August 2010.

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!!The original novel contains examples of:
* AnnoyingYoungerSibling: Richard has the tendency to be a ball and chain to his big sis Aliena. He gets better as he gets older
* AristocratsAreEvil: More like the whole aristocracy is an evil system.
* ArrangedMarriage: William and Aliena would have become this (it ended very badly), but it was to be William and Elizabeth twenty years later.
* {{Asexuality}}: WordOfGod has it that Phillip was deliberately created to be a "cheerfully celibate" character, as Follett was sick of the [[SexIsEvilAndIAmHorny outwardly-chaste but inwardly-smouldering-with-lust monk trope]]. Philip mentions his time as a younger man wracked with burning lust. He's grateful that age has cooled his sexual cravings to almost nothing.
* TheAtoner: Brother Johnny, a former outlaw who became a monk after rescuing Jonathan when he was a baby. Later [[spoiler: Brother Remigius]]
* AuthorAvatar: In-universe example - Jack makes up an epic story to tell his love interest, Aliena. The story's protagonist is a young squire who is not strong in battle but is courageous and determined all the same, [[GuileHero using cunning or luck to barely escape from dangerous situations]], and is madly in love with the beautiful princess.
* AxCrazy: William!
* {{Backstory}}:
** Jack's parentage.
** Philip's story about how he became a monk.
* BeenThereShapedHistory: William was one of the assassins who killed [[TurbulentPriest Thomas Becket]], and it was Philip's idea to make a saint of him.
* BerserkButton
** Don't ''ever'' laugh at William. He'll murder you.
** Ellen does not take kindly to the Church.
** King Henry II does not like his underlings' cheap talk.
* BlackSheepHit: Not in Ken Follett's usual genre, but one of his most successful works.
* BlondGuysAreEvil: William is blonde and quite a bastard.
* BookEnds: The executions in the first scene and the last. The scenes even have the same opening sentence.
* BreakTheCutie:
** From a modern perspective, young Aliena is a feisty and fetching noblewoman who wisely rejects the advances of a creep. She suffers very, very horribly for it.
** Played straight with Elizabeth, quite literally on her wedding night, when William sates his violent lusts on her.
* BreakTheHaughty: From the [[DeliberateValuesDissonance perspective of contemporary medieval characters]], young Aliena is a spoiled brat who reacts rudely to William's awkward attempts at wooing her. She suffers very, very horribly for it.
* BringMyBrownPants: William wets himself [[spoiler:on the way to the gallows]].
* BuryYourGays: Matthew is killed by William quite early in the story.
* ButtMonkey:
** Deconstructed with William. In the beginning, he is just an idiot who is mocked by almost everyone. However, when he finally snaps, he becomes a nightmare: [[spoiler: raping the woman who despised him, burning Kingsbridge to ashes, generally raping and pillaging all over the place because it's ''fun'']].
** Also PlayedForDrama with Aliena.
* CelibateHero: Prior Philip is one of the few monks who's not sexually deviant in any way. In the novel he talks about his sexual lusts mercifully fading away over time.
* CharacterWitness: Remigius, whose gossiping gets Ellen banished from the village.
* TheChessmaster: Bishop Waleran Bigod.
* ChristianityIsCatholic: {{Justified|Trope}}, not surprisingly, as the Reformation was still centuries away.
* CivilWar: The Anarchy.
* CorruptChurch: The corruption of the church is occasionally shown, both in individual ministers like Waleran Bigod and in the overall system in which ministers like Waleran are raised to the top of the hierarchy.
* ChronicBackstabbingDisorder: Waleran, William Hamleigh, Bishop Henry
* ComeToGawk: Remigius asks this to Philip when he's wandering the streets as a beggar. Philip, being the pious man he is, offers to take him back as a novice instead. [[spoiler:This would save him a lot of problems later.]]
* TheCrusades: Richard is dispatched to the Holy Land.
* DamselOutOfDistress: Aliena is often in danger, but she's still quite intelligent and resourceful.
* DeadGuyJunior: [[spoiler:Tommy.]]
* DeathByChildbirth: Agnes, Tom's first wife.
* DecoyProtagonist: [[spoiler:Tom Builder, who dies about halfway through the book. Swapping protagonists in some fashion was probably unavoidable, since building churches was a generational undertaking, but Tom dies fairly young and suddenly.]]
* DeliberateValuesDissonance:
** Prior Philip, although a benevolent figure for his community, and more compassionate than most of his peers, still has the views of a 12th century monk on subjects like extra-marital sex or the respect due to his own authority.
** [[spoiler: Richard killing Alfred is considered murder, since Aliena is Alfred's wife in the eyes of the Church, making her consent a non-issue.]]
* DefrostingIceQueen: Aliena.
* DirtyCoward: Alfred Builder, who [[spoiler: torments Jack mercilessly since childhood, then comes crawling back for a job, only to use it to backstab Jack.]]
* TheDogBitesBack: When William's abused wife helps Richard and his army to infiltrate and take over his castle and depose him as earl. Lampshaded by Waleran in the miniseries, saying, "If you kick a dog, it may someday bite you."
* DomesticAbuse: Alfred beats Aliena because he is impotent. And William's brutal treatment of any female he's even mildly attracted to.
* DoorStopper: 973 pages.
* TheDragon:
** Walter to William. This is much more pronounced in the miniseries; in the novel, Walter is a PunchClockVillain.
** William to Waleran. Waleran is the evil mastermind, who uses William to carry out violent acts.
* DumbassHasAPoint: For such a clod-headed oaf, William is quite cunning on a number of occasions.
* DumbMuscle: Richard is a good soldier, but is not really good at anything else. It becomes especially obvious [[spoiler: when he becomes the Earl]].
* EvenBadMenLoveTheirMamas: William's one good act is to [[spoiler:build a church in his mother's memory, to rescue her soul from Hell, and he's even offended when Waleran takes advantage of it for his own plans. Granted, it's strongly indicated this is more over his fear for his own soul than love for his mother, given he had pretty much no love for her previously and had watched her die.]]
* EverythingsBetterWithPrincesses: both grand (Maud) and petty (Aliena).
* EvilMatriarch: Lady Regan Hamleigh.
* ExplicitContent: Per usual for Follett, the sex scenes are detailed, and lovingly so for the OfficialCouple.
* FallenPrincess: Aliena.
* FeudalOverlord: William embodies this trope, especially after becoming Earl of Shiring.
* GodSaveUsFromTheQueen: The main reason Maud does not succeed Henry I despite previously being named Henry's heir.
* GoodPeopleHaveGoodSex: Jack and Aliena. Tom and Ellen.
* GoodShepherd: Prior Philip and Archbishop Thomas Becket. When Henry II has William murder Becket, the entire country is outraged.
* HaveYouComeToGloat: Remigius asks this to Philip when he finds him begging. Instead of that, Philip invites him back to Kingsbridge.
* HeelFaceTurn: The monk [[spoiler:Remigius]].
* HenpeckedHusband: Lord Percy Hamleigh.
* HeroicBastard: Jack.
* HistoricalFiction / HistoricalDomainCharacter: Queen Maud, Kings Henry II and Stephen, and Thomas Becket play significant roles in the book. The [[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Lincoln_%281141%29 Battle of Lincoln]] is a key plot point. King Henry I appears in the television miniseries.
* HolierThanThou:
** Waleran Bigod.
** Peter of Wareham.
* HonorBeforeReason:
** Aliena's father in the novel, much to Aliena's dismay. In the book, she resents her father for making her swear to restore the family's lordship. Averted in the miniseries, where she's the one with the idea.
** Philip is this most of the time, even if he is considered a very practical man for a monk.
* HopeSpringsEternal: However the villains try to stop the construction of the cathedral, they fail. [[spoiler: Even burning the whole town down doesn't help.]] There is one point in the story when Philip gives up all hope, but it only lasts until Jack returns from France and decides to build the cathedral in Gothic style.
* HopelessSuitor: William. Aliena suffers awfully for this.
* TheHouseOfPlantagenet: Dynasty founder Geoffrey Plantagenet was Maud's husband; their son Henry II was the first Plantagenet king.
* HumiliationConga: Waleran Bigod is put through this at the end of the book. [[spoiler: He ends up a powerless monk]].
* ImpoverishedPatrician: Aliena and her brother Richard.
* IHaveYouNowMyPretty: William v. Aliena
* IneffectualSympatheticVillain: William appears to be one at first, but we soon learn otherwise.
* IWantMyBelovedToBeHappy: When Jack works in Toledo, his employer's daughter Aisa falls in love with him, and her father also wants to marry her to Jack. After he leaves, Aliena arrives, Aisa is the only one who is nice with her and tells her to go after him because she realized that Aliena loves him.
* {{Jerkass}}: Alfred, Tom's son.
* KickTheDog: William does everything except kicking an actual dog to remind you that yes, he is the villain.
* TheLadette: ''Ellen''.
* LoveAtFirstSight: Jack and Aliena, at least for Jack.
* MaybeMagicMaybeMundane: Every curse of Ellen's comes true. Scary, isn't it?
* MissionFromGod: Philip considers his work to raise a cathedral to be this.
* TheMole: [[spoiler: Remigius is a secret spy to Waleran.]]
* MosesInTheBullrushes: Tom's son, Jonathan.
* MurderersAreRapists: William.
* MySecretPregnancy: Aliena hides her pregnancy until the day of birth. Not surprising since she never had sex with her husband.
* NaughtyNuns: Ellen had shades of this when she was a novice, {{justified}} by the fact she was forced by her father and hadn't any religious vocation and after having met Jack's father she leaves the monastery.
* OffWithHisHead: [[spoiler:Robert]] gets his head taken off cleanly.
* ParentalAbandonment: Played heavily throughout the book. Tom abandoning his baby son so he could provide for his other two kids instead just shows how hard people had it during these times.
* ParentalFavoritism: Tom to Alfred.
* PluckyGirl: Aliena, who goes from spoiled noblewoman to resourceful wool merchant in order to avenge her family. Ellen also counts.
* PunchClockVillain: Walter. He's never shown to share William's sadism. He simply follows the orders of his lord without complaint.
* PutOnABus: After he joins the Crusade, we hear talking about Richard again only when he dies without heirs.
* RapeAsDrama: Happens to almost every woman in William's path.
* RapeIsASpecialKindOfEvil: William, [[spoiler: Alfred]]
* RedemptionEqualsDeath: Averted. [[spoiler: Both Regimus and Waleran end their time with the book as humble monks]] rather than die.
* RedheadedHero: Jack!
* RedRightHand: Lady Regan has boils covering her face.
* ReplacementGoldfish: Aliena is freaked out noticing how William's young wife Elizabeth looks like her.
* RomancingTheWidow: Ellen was doing this to Tom, although they had met when his wife still lived.
* RoyalsWhoActuallyDoSomething: Both King Stephen and Prince Henry (the future Henry II) lead men in battle. See also WarriorPrince.
* RoyalWe: Maud. "We are betrayed!"
* SacrificialLamb: In-universe example in the story Jack tells Aliena (see the Author Avatar entry above) - the story initially focuses on the traditional brave, strong, virtuous knight, but he is abruptly killed off very early in the story, revealing the squire as its actual protagonist.
* SadisticChoice: William gives Aliena a choice between [[spoiler:lying still as he rapes her and watching her brother's ear get cut off.]]
* SecondLove: Ellen and Tom are this to each other.
* SerialRapist: William, by far the vilest of the characters of the book, is sexually impotent with willing women, and can only get aroused through sexual brutality, either by beating up prostitutes first, or by raping people.
* ShownTheirWork: Ken Follett wants you to know all about cathedral architecture.
* ShoutOut: Rearrange the name Raschid Alharoun, and you should get a very famous character in another story.
* SinisterMinister: Waleran Bigod.
* SpiritedYoungLady: Aliena, and how!
* StalkerWithACrush: [[spoiler: After William Hamleigh seizes the Shiring Earldom]], he is aware that Aliena, Richard and their servant Matthew are still living in the castle. He stalks and watches over Aliena with freakish fascination, still obsessed with her even after she disgustedly rejected him twice. As soon as he gets the chance, [[spoiler: [[MoralEventHorizon he rapes her.]]]]
* StandardFemaleGrabArea: Used against Aliena [[spoiler: during Alfred's attempted rape. Also attempted by William when he raped Aliena, but it fails there; instead, William threatens her brother to force compliance.]]
* StormingTheCastle:
** {{Averted|Trope}} when Aliena wants to attack William in Shiring Castle, but Richard patiently explains that storming a castle never works.
** The Hamleighs seize Bartholemew's fortress home through a clever infiltration strategy.
* SuccessionCrisis: TruthInTelevision!
* SupernaturalGoldEyes: Ellen, who [[MaybeMagicMaybeMundane may or may not be]] a witch.
* SwitchingPOV: The story is told from the POV of 5 characters.
* TellMeAboutMyFather: One sideplot revolves around Jack wanting to know who his father was, who killed him and why.
* TimeSkip: Happens between every part.
* ThanatosGambit: [[spoiler: Thomas Becket doesn't run from his attackers, but lets himself killed (in a church no less) to become a martyr. This makes exactly the opposite effect than the antagonists expected.]]
* TookALevelInBadass: Richard. Goes from being little more than a puppet for Aliena to being a fairly kickass knight.
* TookALevelInDumbass: Don't expect Richard to be much more competent at anything that doesn't involve hitting someone with a sharpened stick.[[spoiler: He's better off dying in the Crusades than being Earl of Shiring.]]
* TurbulentPriest: Thomas Becket, the {{Trope Namer|s}} himself, of course.
* VillainousCrush: William has a ''very'' creepy obsession with Aliena.
* WeddingDeadline: Jack tries to stop the wedding between Aliena and Alfred, but for this, he needs to escape the monastery. He ultimately fails, and while his mother actually goes there and curses the marriage, she doesn't stop it.
* WhamEpisode: William and his gang of soldiers attack Kingsbridge, nearly burning it to the ground and killing hundreds, including [[spoiler:Tom Builder.]]
* WhyDidItHaveToBeSnakes: For all that he fails to act like it most of the time, the very mention of Hell is usually enough to make William shake with fear.
* WomanScorned: Ellen is an unusual example.
* TheWomanWearingTheQueenlyMask: Queen Matilda.
* WorthyOpponent: Minor example, but Richard and Robert of Gloucester have a degree of respect for each other.
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