Pillars of the Earth, how I have missed thee. I read this book several years ago, but it’s always stood out in my mind, for a few reasons. First, it was one of the first really “adult” books I ever read (and by “adult”, I mean book for adults, not that this is porn. Although at times, it practically is). I was 13 when I picked this novel up, at the suggestion of my mother. I can only assume that she forgot the rather graphic rape scene that figures prominently in the story. And the many less graphic but still mind-warping and paranoia-creating rape scenes that follow. That’s the other reason I remember this book quite well. I don’t think I’ll recommend it to any 13-year-old girls I know. However, once you get past that part (or skip it, as I’ve done on subsequent readings), it’s a really good book, which I’ve enjoyed numerous times over the years and yearned to see on screen somewhere. So when I heard that it was finally being turned into a 10-part miniseries starring some of my favorite British Isles actors, I raced to add Starz to our cable package for the duration of the series. I figured seeing Al-freaking-Swearengen as Bishop Waleran (AWESOME casting) and Matthew McFayden as Prior Philip alone was worth the $10 a month I’ll be shelling out for the next eight weeks or so. Plus, as an added bonus, they threw Rufus Sewell in as Tom Builder, upping my excited squealing to deafening levels. Nice to see Rufus finally playing a good guy. If they’d cast James Frain, I think my brain would have just melted.

On with the show!

We open underwater, where the peace is rather rudely punctuated by the odd sight of a helmet on the Channel floor, then a sword slicing down, followed by a few bodies, some jewelry, and assorted pieces of human flotsam and jetsam. Yes, folks, it’s 1120, and the royal booze cruise has officially begun to suck.

We break the surface to the sound of screams and wails and see a large, impressive ship spectacularly flaming out. Not good. On an unrelated note, I’m pretty sure this exact “people screaming” soundtrack was used on a Titanic video game I used to play a lot. Way to recycle, PotE!

Now we get some info—apparently this ship was carrying the only legitimate heir to the English throne. Bummer. Oh, and in case we’re slow, we’re told that it caught fire and sank off the coast of England. This would be the famous White Ship Disaster, for all of you dying to run to Wikipedia and look it up. This led to a long and crappy period of British history known as the Anarchy.

Welcome to Winchester! Home of Jane Austen’s grave, the longest cathedral in Europe, and King Henry I’s court. (Not Yet Bishop) Waleran moseys into the throne room, where he takes up a position beside a woman with a birthmark on her face and a baby in her arms. They exchange a look. A bishop in bright purple is breaking the bad news about the ship to the King, who’s sitting on a dais with a little blonde girl playing at his feet. The bishop speculates about the cause of the accident—hidden rock? Storm? Who knows? Although—a storm that sets a ship on fire? Well, I guess if it was struck by lightening… Whatever, I think the general historical consensus is hidden rock. Apparently you can still see it. No survivors, according to the Bishop.

“Not even my son?” Henry asks incredulously. Dude, it’s not like he had a force field around him to protect him from disasters at sea. Bishop apologizes. At this point, the little girl pipes up, volunteering to marry Henry (who is, by the way, her father) and have his baby boy. Creepy! And also, not a scene in the book, so the writers, for whatever reason, just stuck that in there for no apparent reason other than to make viewers’ flesh crawl. Doubly creepy is her father’s answer—that’s nice, sweetie, but he wouldn’t have time to grow up before I die. Not: ‘um, no, fathers and daughters really shouldn’t be hooking up, honeypie, why don’t you go play with your dolls or something and dream of a future non-relative husband?’

Oh, I feel I should point out (not that it’ll be any surprise) that as with most historical dramas, they’re playing fast and loose with some of the details here. The daughter—Maude or Matilda, depending on who you ask, but Maude for our purposes—was actually Henry’s elder child, and she was around 18 years old and married to the Holy Roman Emperor when the White Ship Disaster took place.

Anyway—Henry starts to fret about who will rule when he dies, and two men amongst the assorted courtiers immediately size each other up. Conflict established! And only about five minutes in, we’re moving right along.

One of the men trails the Bishop into a study, and is, in his turn, trailed by Waleran, who lurks at the edges and listens. The man (Stephen, not like they explain that in any hurry), exposits helpfully that the other man, Gloucester, will be a problem, but the Bishop waves that off by pointing out that Gloucester is an illegitimate son of the king, and therefore not eligible for the throne. Maude is also quickly tossed aside for the twin sins of being a child, and female.

“So, then, I suppose, there’s me,” says Stephen, like that wasn’t his point all along. He’s the king’s nephew (son of the king’s sister), and grandson of William the Conqueror, as the Bishop happily points out, waving Stephen forward to take his hand. The wheeling and dealing begins—the Bishop reminds Stephen that he’s a big fan of the church, which has been good to Stephen, so the almighty medieval church is happy to throw its weight behind his claims to the throne. Bishop does, however, show some hesitation when he recalls that the shipwreck is mighty convenient indeed, but Waleran speaks up to smooth things over, claiming that the shipwreck was the work of the almighty, who was punishing the less pious king with the death of his son, to smooth the path of church-loving Stephen to the throne. In his eyes, God’s kind of a hardass.

Jump forward 18 years to Kingsbridge Priory, a ramshackle looking place with a half crumbled church, muddy courtyard, the works. Prior Philip rides in on a humble donkey and takes it all in. He hands the donkey off to a brother and seeks out his friend, Cuthbert, who greets him warmly and seems surprised Philip’s showed up. They chat a bit about priory business—the church started to collapse the previous winter, and a Brother Remigius claims there’s no money to repair it. Somewhat surprisingly, news doesn’t travel all that fast between neighboring religious orders, because Philip didn’t have a clue that Remigius is now acting prior, as the actual prior, James, isn’t expected to last out the week.

It’s James Philip’s come to see, and he bends over the dying man’s bed, smiling benevolently, and gently wakes him. James is white as paper and clearly frail, but also delighted to see Philip and says he begged for him to be sent for, since he has something to confess. Apparently, that message never made it through PrioryNet either, because Philip is as aware of the summons as he was about Remigius’s promotion. James steamrolls right over his confusion and tells him a man survived the shipwreck, and was innocent, but he saw what happened to the ship. It makes as much sense in the actual show as it does here, so no wonder Philip’s Confusionmeter cranks up to about 150.

Enter Remigius, and I really have to hand it to the people in charge of casting here—if ever a man looked like the weasley type who’d steal a wheelchair from an old lady just so he didn’t have to walk, it’s this guy. He slithers in, greets Philip, and when asked about the dying prior’s summons, says he was about to send for Philip (seriously, I was juuuuust about to get around to that), and then explains that the prior’s not quite in his right mind, as he inserts a painful-looking tool into one of the prior’s veins and begins bloodletting. Well, it’s not officially a historical drama until there’s been a bloodletting, so I guess it’s on now!

Cut to Shiring Castle. Unlike the priory, which got ponderous soundtrack music and mournful tolling bells when it was introduced, Shiring Castle features some merry pipe music. Guess this is the party palace, then. Earl Bartholomew, played by Donald Sutherland, is strolling through the courtyard with the birthmark woman from the Winchester scene and her husband. These are the charming Hamleighs. You’ll get to know and loathe them fairly well as the series progresses. Here, they’re all smiles, even as Bartholomew tries to manage their expectations by explaining that some children out there are just born willful, and that his daughter’s already gone through quite a few suitors. Regan favors the tough-love approach and urges him to be more forceful with her, but Bartholomew’s the laid-back type of dad, plus, he promised his late wife he wouldn’t force their daughter to marry anyone she didn’t like. The Hamleighs laugh this off and exposit that this would be a good match for both families—their son William would gain a title (although how I don’t know, since Bartholomew has a legitimate son who would, presumably, inherit the earldom) and Aliena would get some awesome farmland. I’m sure she’ll be thrilled. Regan promises her “sweet William” will charm the girl and win the day.

“Sweet” William is, at this moment, sitting uncomfortably next to Aliena, staring at her while she looks bored and desperate to escape. Classic blind date scenario. He figures the way to woo her is to stick his tongue down her throat, which she objects to. Strongly. William storms out with a few fresh scratches and bruises on his face and ribs while Bartholomew’s followers roar with laughter. Aliena urges him to find a dog to marry—one with no teeth, for his safety, which brings fresh laughter. Aliena preens a bit, as teenagers will when they’ve gotten the attention of their elders. For anyone interested, in the book, she’s about 16 years old at this point.

William flounces past the earl and his parents, with his attendant, Walter, just behind. The earl seems amused, but Regan and Percy Hamleigh are, most assuredly, not. William gallops off, pissed.

Far from the fancy interiors of Shiring Castle, muscled workers are laboring away on a large house under the direction of a bearded, sturdy-looking man with a quiet but commanding way about him. He orders one worker—Alfred—to attend to something, and Alfred jumps to it. The man’s next stop is with his wife, Agnes, who’s mixing cement and rubbing a heavily pregnant belly. He tenderly inquires as to her health, and she answers that the baby hates hard work, which means it must be a boy. Heh. Nearby, a little girl shows her father’s building tools to a boy her age and explains that the house is for William Hamleigh and his future wife, Aliena. Oh dear.

The girl’s reverie about pilaster strips and load-bearing walls is interrupted by the noisy and dangerous entrance of William and Walter, who come galloping up the street, scattering workers who just barely manage to avoid getting trampled. Not so concerned about getting trampled is the girl’s pig, which is wandering around in the middle of the street. Apparently she’s about as smart as the animal, because she goes charging out after it, narrowly avoiding becoming a spot in the middle of the road. We finally get her name (Martha) as her father runs over to make sure she’s all right. The father, by the way, is Tom Builder.

“Teach the little bitch to watch where she’s stepping,” William snaps, thoroughly in a foul mood. He goes on to say that the house won’t be needed after all, so they can all go ahead and hit the road, even though he’d hired them for the year. Tom’s not having this nonsense, so he grabs William’s horse’s bridle and demands money to pay the workers and himself. William tries to resist, pulling rank on a man he views as waaaay beneath him, and Walter pulls his sword, but Tom’s wife reminds him that God sees all and William will gain a one-way ticket to a very warm spot if he doesn’t pay up. This gets William’s attention, because as it turns out, the only thing that scares him more than his fierce mommy is hell. So, he grabs a moneybag off his belt and throws it to the ground at Tom’s feet, then makes sure to bump him with the horse as he gallops off. Can’t imagine why Aliena wasn’t swept off her feet.

Off to the next building site for the Builder and his family. As they wander through the woods, Martha whines about being hungry, and her mother urges her to sing to forget her hunger. The family wanders past a woman and her teenage son, out foraging for mushrooms. The woodsy pair ducks into the brush to hide and observe the interlopers.

Apparently, nagging helps with hunger pains too, because that’s what Tom’s wife decides to indulge in now she’s run out of songs. She reminds him he could have had a good job back in a previous town, but Tom thought it was too boring. Oh, Tom, you poor thing. Sorry, but I’m on her side here—you’ve got a family to feed. I know you have a dream to build this fabulous cathedral somewhere, but is it really worth it if it comes at the expense of your wife and children? Suck it up, settle down, be bored if it means an actual roof over your head, food on the table, and your pregnant wife and two kids not having to shuffle off to wherever in the dead of winter.

Tom manages to appease everyone, and they start to engage in some familial playfulness, observed by the woods-woman and her son, rather wistfully. As Martha runs off to play, though, the happy family moment is ruined by a man running out of the woods, clobbering Martha on the side of the head, and making off with the pig she was walking with. Woods Woman and her son (Jack) try to help, and Tom and his son, Alfred, run after the thieves, but the man with the pig gets away. They return to Martha, who’s being attended to by her mother and the Woods Woman, who invites the family to bunk with her and her son for the night, to avoid an apparently incoming storm. With no other options, they agree. Jack tries to carry Tom’s tools, but Alfred’s having none of that, and grabs them roughly and rudely, to Jack’s confusion. He looks to his mother, who subtly shakes her head. Yeah, I know, honey, I think he’s an asshole too. Just go with it.

The Woods Woman’s name is Ellen, and she’s apparently carved out quite the cozy…cavern out there in the woods. Seriously, that space looks pretty massive. Alfred huddles with his mother and sister, and eyes a large silver ring on Jack’s hand. Once the wife and kids are asleep, Tom has a heart-to-heart with Ellen, and compliments her on the gargoyle décor. Very medieval chic. Jack’s work, she tells him. Oh, and both she and Jack can read, which astonishes Tom, as it should, since it wasn’t exactly a common skill in those days. See, Ellen was taught by her dad, a knight, who placed her in a convent to improve her education. One day, while out collecting seaweed or something on the beach, she stumbled across Jack’s father, washed up on the shore and definitely looking the worse for wear. He was a Frenchman, she says, who survived a fire at sea. (Ah ha!) She nursed him back to health, and the rest is history. Once she stared to show, she got herself kicked out of the convent. Tom asks why Jack doesn’t speak, assuming he’s mute, but he’s not, just shy. Like any kid raised in a cave out in the woods probably would be.

A clap of thunder wakes Alfred, who only just now notices a table sporting bones and what appears to be a sketch of human anatomy that would do Leonardo proud. He panics and wakes his mother, and the next thing we know the Builder family is clearing out toute de suite, with mom spitting that they don’t hang with witches. Ellen argues she’s not a witch, that what Alfred saw was medicine that she used to help cure Martha. Mom retorts that medicine is sin (??) so Ellen gives up and just tells Tom that there’s probably work at the Bishop’s palace that should see them through winter. Jack sadly watches them all go.

Back in Winchester, Henry’s standing in front of his court with his now older, heavily pregnant daughter, asking his courtiers to swear allegiance to Maude and her unborn child. Regan, out in the audience, whispers to William that Maude would be ruled by her half-brother, Gloucester, but nobody else seems to have a problem with that idea. At least, not in front of the king. As Maude suddenly gasps in pain, Stephen makes a big show of throwing himself at the king’s feet and pledging his allegiance.

Gloucester is not happy about that, and calls Stephen out in the next room for stepping in front of him. Boys, boys, you’ll both get your turn to grovel! Stephen calmly says that a grandson of William the Conqueror gets precedence over an illegitimate son while the omnipresent Bishop looks on. Gloucester brings up the ship again, and how convenient the sinking was, and Stephen draws his sword. A minute later, they’re fighting right there in the corridor, and it takes about ten seconds for Stephen’s sword to get knocked aside. Quite the warrior king, this one.

Back in the woods, Alfred is the first to notice that mom is bleeding. Tom hurries over to her and she collapses in pain. Alfred runs around like an idiot, wondering what to do, and Tom takes charge. Meanwhile, because there’s no such thing as a section of these woods that doesn’t have random people spying from hidden copses and the like, Mom’s wails wake a man in a nearby makeshift shelter, who checks out the scene. The first time I saw this, I thought it was the same guys who stole the pig earlier, but on second viewing, I’m pretty sure it’s someone else. He looks rightly horrified at the obstetrical nightmare unfolding before his very eyes.

In Winchester, Maude is also in labor as the court watches, mildly interested in the evening’s entertainment. Ew.

Things aren’t looking so good in the woods—anytime you see blood in a childbirth scene, you know mom’s gonna die. In Winchester, it’s hard, but successful. Maude births a son, the court applauds, and the king beams. Agnes’s child is a boy too, and she lives just long enough to tell Tom to follow his dreams, as if he needed encouragement. And then off she goes, to the land no evil medicines can touch. In Ellen’s cavern, Jack wakes up, and Ellen urges him to go find the Builder family, apparently sensing that all is not well.

It’s partytime in Winchester! The court (including Bartholomew and Aliena) files into the banquet room with the king, who toasts his new grandson, the future Henry II. Stephen tries not to look too disappointed. The king grabs his favorite dish and takes a couple of bites, I think we can all see where this is going.

In the woods of despair, Tom and Alfred have somehow managed to carve a grave out of the frozen ground. Martha wonders how they’re going to feed the baby, and Tom realizes they can’t. He tells Alfred to take Martha away while he leaves the baby on the grave to freeze to death. Nice. Although, I guess it was either that or let it starve. Weeping and no doubt traumatized for life, the two kids head off. Tom gently places the baby on the grave and then follows the older children, his steps much heavier than they were earlier. The shepherd watching this whole thing, meanwhile, has a look on his face like, “dude, what the fuck is this?”

Apparently, lamb no longer agrees with his majesty. King Henry begins choking as Stephen oh-so-subtly slips out and Gloucester tends to his father. Party’s over. Stephen meets with the Bishop, who is, apparently, actually the Archbishop of Canterbury, and reminds him he alone has the power to crown the next king. Canterbury makes Stephen promise to favor the church, and Stephen promises him whatever he wants.

In the woods, the shepherd gingerly approaches the newborn, picks it up, and cradles it. Not far down the road, Tom comes to his senses, drops his tools, and hightails it back to the grave to collect the baby. Of course, he finds nothing there, and drops to his knees in horror. Yeah, sorry, Tom, but that’s what happens when you leave a baby out in the woods in the middle of winter. Something’s going to pick it up—that’s a tender morsel to most carnivores.

King Henry officially expires, and the Archbishop blesses Stephen—Long live the king.

In short order, we’re at the coronation, along with Bartholomew and Aliena, Waleran, and the Hamleighs, who are grousing that Waleran has done nothing to help them get the title they so covet. Well, Percy’s grousing, Regan’s telling him to just sit tight and be patient—their time will come. Percy responds that he’s starting to lose faith. Back at the palace (presumably) Maude paces miserably.

Conference time! Maude cradles her son with Aliena while Gloucester muses that Stephen has the backing of the church and anyone who’s not so keen on being ruled by a woman. Which, at the time, was pretty much everyone. Everyone with a voice, anyway. Gloucester reminds her that Stephen swore to support her claim to the throne, but she just says that oaths tend to die with the king they were made to—except, she hopes, in the case of Bartholomew, who’s sitting there as well. Bartholomew pledges his support to Maude and Gloucester, and Maude appreciates it, saying she’ll be collecting an army now to grab England back for her son. A priest in the room hears all while pretending to read a book.

That same priest, Francis, is paying a visit to Philip, who is, coincidentally, his brother. Small world. Francis spills the beans about Bartholomew’s pledge to Philip and begs him to take the info to the Bishop, since Maude’s ascension would be bad for the church. Philip’s not too keen on getting involved in politics, but Francis is a persuasive fellow, so off Philip goes to…

The bishop’s palace! Where Tom Builder and his slightly diminished family are also arriving, and being met by Ellen and Jack. Ellen’s greeted happily by Martha, not so happily by Alfred, who looks at the pair suspiciously.

Inside, Philip’s being introduced to Waleran, who ensures Philip’s reputation as the prior who whipped a crappy tiny priory into shape has preceded him. Philip tries to see the actual bishop, but it’s a no go—it’s Waleran or nothing. So, Philip tells him what he knows. Waleran is…interested, to say the least. He urges Philip not to tell anyone what he knows, and switches the conversation to Kingsbridge Priory, which apparently Philip is planning to visit again. The reason for his attachment to Prior James? James raised Philip and Francis when they were orphaned as children. As they chat, Waleran strolls over to the open doorway—Tom, Ellen, and the kids are standing just outside, talking to a steward or other household official. Waleran catches sight of Ellen—and she him—and their faces register mutual horror. Waleran quickly turns back to Philip and promises to pass along Philip’s message to the bishop. Philip heads out, clearly sensing something’s up, and Waleran tells a servant to send Tom and his entourage packing.

Tom bitches about the whole situation as he and Ellen huddle with the children around a meager fire near a bridge. Tom asks her why she’s even with them, and Ellen answers that Jack needs someone to apprentice with if he’s going to put his talents to some use.

“The boy’s practically mute,” Tom says in disgust to the kid’s own mother, and right in front of Jack, to boot. Geez, if I were Ellen, that would have earned you a quick kick to the nether regions and an invitation for you to make your own damn food, I’m heading back to the woods, thank you very much. It was really peaceful there before you people showed up with your songs and tragic deaths. But instead, Ellen just calmly responds that Jack’s not stupid, and that they won’t be a burden. Tom reminds her they’re not married, and people will talk, but Ellen says their hearts are pure (like that matters to anyone else). Alfred and Martha look like they’re not so sure about this situation.

Waleran is self-flagellating and begging God to protect him from “her”.

In Kingsbridge, Philip says hi to James, and then notices a monk in the courtyard cuddling a baby. When he asks his buddy Cuthbert about it, Cuthbert explains that the monk is Johnny Eightpence, and the baby’s a foundling he stumbled across in the woods and brought to the priory. Johnny adorably cuddles and kisses the baby. Awwww.

Philip quizzes Cuthbert about the priory’s finances—it doesn’t make sense for it to be in debt when it has more land than ever, but apparently the political situation and some really poor management has made it so. And it won’t get any better if Remigius becomes prior, which he will, if nobody else stands for election. Oh, but who could possibly stand against him? Philip actually, rather dimwittedly, asks this, and Cuthbert essentially says:

“Uh, you?” Philip seems to consider it.

The monks gather around the mummy-like body of Prior James, chanting, so now we know he’s dead. Elsewhere in the priory, Waleran sits down to break bread with Philip, who is all about telling tales these days, and talks about the strange confession James made to him. Waleran once again steers the conversation, this time in the direction of Philip’s possible election as prior of Kingsbridge which, despite its debt, is a pretty important place. Far more important that Philip’s current priory. Bottom line: Waleran tells Philip he can swing the election any way he wants, so if Philip wants Kingsbridge, all he has to do is say so. Philip says yes, and then Waleran lays out his terms: The monks of Kingsbridge will elect a new bishop, when the current one dies. So if he makes Philip prior, then Philip needs to make Waleran bishop. Philip makes his deal with the devil.

Election time! Philip clearly wins, and Waleran looks satisfied.  Not satisfied? Remigius, who chases Waleran out of the church and accuses him of letting him down. Waleran tells him he thought Philip was the best man for the job, and reminds Remigius that he knows some pretty unpleasant facts about him, facts that could get him excommunicated if Waleran ever felt talky. So, Remigius is blackmailed into being Waleran’s eyes and ears at Kingsbridge priory.

Much of the main cast gathers for mass, where Waleran announces Philip’s election as prior, as well as the sudden (very sudden!) death of the bishop, through poison, apparently, not that Waleran says as much. Time to vote again! Philip looks horrified, like he didn’t think this was going to happen.

In the church entryway, Waleran catches up with the Hamleighs, and fills them in on the Maude/Bartholomew situation. Percy gets all excited about arresting the earl and taking Shiring by force, but Regan reminds him that proof is pretty important in cases like this, unless he fancies being hanged himself. She dispatches William to get it, and he happily goes. Because if there’s anything William likes more than raping, it’s torturing people for information. Or just for the hell of it.

Tom and family roll up to Shiring Castle, where war preparations are in full (and very obvious) swing. Way to be sutble, folks. The steward tries to rebuff Tom, but he sticks a verbal foot in the door with a loud:

“I hope you’re not planning on doing battle soon!” That gets Bartholomew’s attention, and when he asks Tom what he means, Tom points out that the mortar in the keep is crumbling and should really be fixed soon. He’s hired. Bartholomew then turns to dispatch a messenger to Maude.

The messenger gallops out of the castle and through the woods, where he’s intercepted by William and Walter. We next see the poor guy dangling over some toasty looking coals as Percy announces to his followers that the man confessed to all of Bartholomew’s dealings, and they have to go defend the king. He gets them whipped into quite the frenzy, and Regan calls up a horse and escort to go to the king.

Back at Shiring Castle, Tom’s attempting to explain the concept of arches to a bunch of slack-jawed workers who couldn’t possibly care less, so he gives up. The only one paying attention was, apparently, Jack, who hands Tom a sketch of a perfect arch. Ellen smiles proudly. Alfred looks pissed.

Some time later, as Jack works, Martha admires a sketch of her that (I’m guessing) Jack did. She looks up and sees Aliena approaching and calls out to her. Both Alfred and Jack look up and the slo-mo ‘lovestruck cam’ comes into play.

You know, I have to say, I think this might have been the one misstep the casting people made. I’m just not feeling Hayley Atwell as Aliena at all. I’m not a huge fan of hers to begin with, for some reason, so that might have something to do with it (I don’t know why, I just can’t really get into her as an actress). I remember being really disappointed when I heard she’d been cast. Aliena’s supposed to be astonishingly beautiful, and this actress, while lovely, isn’t the type that would make you stop and turn on the street to look at her. When I first read the book, I always imagined her looking like Kate Winslet. Oh well, maybe she’ll grow on me.

Martha introduces Alfred as her brother, and Aliena asks to meet Jack, whom she assumes is Martha’s other brother. Martha shows off the drawing Jack did of her (ah ha!) and says that Jack’s not her brother, he’s a bastard. Alfred giggles, and Aliena rather snottily says that he’s a gifted bastard, then. What a darling.

Trouble’s a-coming: William and Walter are heading into the castle, followed by a disguised soldier with a cart, and they make short work of the guards at the gate before signaling to Percy and his large band of not-so-merry-men. Oblivious to the slaughter that’s about to rain down, the castle’s occupants gather in the courtyard for lunch. Only Ellen and Jack remain in the main part of the castle, all the better to spot the attackers and try to warn everyone. Not that it does much good. Men gallop into the courtyard, slashing indiscriminately and causing all sorts of chaos and mayhem. Meanwhile, presumably far, far away, Stephen shows off his lame sword skills to a bunch of giddy ladies-in-waiting, only to be interrupted by Regan, who tells him she has urgent news.

At his castle, Bartholomew is taking his time getting to the scene of the chaos. Dude—run! This is no time to be all dignified. He finally gets to the courtyard, looking confused, and fights off a couple of attackers. William and Walter have managed to penetrate the main part of the castle, and William spots Aliena fleeing up the stairs with her brother and the steward. He runs after them, kicking down giant wooden doors like they were made of balsa wood. I guess, in hindsight, those breakaway locks were a really bad investment. He gets to the innermost rooms, but Aliena and her brother are gone. He roars her name impotently.

In the courtyard, the chaos continues. Men’s throats are cut, women are dragged off screaming, and in the middle of it all, Bartholomew calls for Percy to face him. Elsewhere, Tom manages to fight off an attacker, but Alfred fails to intervene in time when he’s attacked again, and Tom is clobbered and thrown off an upper floor.

Below, Bartholomew is finally face-to-face with Percy, but he realizes that this is a hopeless battle, so he offers to give himself up if Percy spares the people in the castle. Percy agrees.

King Stephen is finally all caught up, and also has info that Maude’s about to flee to France with her son. He orders his men to bring her in.

At the coast, Maude and Gloucester are getting nervous. The ship’s ready to depart, and it looks like Bartholomew’s a no-show. Off they go.

Bartholomew is carted off to prison, accompanied by the Hamleighs, who are practically salivating over their triumph. As he rolls through the castle gates, Tom reappears, bloodied but alive, and is reunited with his family. He decides to head to Kingsbridge, since new priors tend to have new work. Ellen’s interestingly delighted to hear the Kingsbridge prior is dead. Jack mournfully gazes around for a moment before following the others.

Kingsbridge priory is, if possible, looking even crappier than before, although closer inspection reveals that some of the monks have been put to work making repairs. Tom appraises everything with a builder’s eye as he wanders around and nearly crosses paths with Johnny and the baby, who spots them first and hurries off in the opposite direction.

In the church, Alfred and Tom wait for Philip to finish his prayers. Alfred spots the church’s relics and loudly asks what they are. Philip quietly informs him that they’re the bones of St. Adolphus, to whom the church is dedicated. Tom introduces himself and Alfred and tells Philip he wants to fix his church. Philip regretfully informs them that, as much as he’d like to fix the church, they just don’t have the money for it.

Outside, Martha helps herself to an apple and starts to explore—only to come face to face with Johnny, sans baby. She screams bloody murder—so I guess this was the guy who clobbered her and stole the pig—and Tom comes running out and tries to attack as well. Poor Johnny looks terrified, and Jack launches himself into the fray, holding Tom back and speaking at last—“No!”—when Tom tells him to let him go. That opens the floodgates; Jack’s got lots of words now. He tells Tom that Johnny took the baby, who starts to cry right then. Johnny goes to pick the baby up and cradles him in his cute way, still looking terrified of Tom. Tom melts, sits down next to Johnny, and holds out his hands for the baby, promising not to hurt him, as Martha and Alfred gape in the background. Not how this whole thing went in the book, but it’s still sweet. It does, however, make me wonder how they’re going to handle a fairly important incident later on… Eh, we’ll get to that.

So hold on here–Johnny went from pig thief to monk in the space of, what, a week? Maybe two? What brought about that career change? Plus, it’s kind of nonsense–you didn’t just show up at a monastery, say you wanted to be a monk, and get handed a robe, there was a whole apprenticeship period. For those of you who’ve seen Cadfael–remember Brother Oswyn? The eternal novice? That’s where Johnny would have started. In the book Johnny Eightpence was already a monk when the story started. He was actually a member of Philip’s prior order, and I think it was Philip’s brother Francis who stumbled across the baby and brought it in, and then Philip brought Johnny and the baby to Kingsbridge with him when he became prior there. Another odd change. But I digress.

That night, Tom and Ellen chat—Tom, naturally, doesn’t want to go back on the road, and he really can’t believe his crappy luck. Jack the all-hearing…hears all.

Some time later, the monks are at their late prayers (matins? Prime? Lauds? I’ll have to check, it’s been a while since I saw Cadfael) while Jack watches from behind a pillar. Prayers over, the monks depart, Remigius locks up, and Jack grabs a candle and eyes the church’s exposed rafters. He manages to get up to the half-crumbled belfry with a lit candle, hesitates for just a moment, and then sets some conveniently placed baskets on fire.

He clatters down the stairs, douses the candle, and glances up into the belfry, which is now a lovely inferno. Work here done, he heads for the door…which is locked. Yikes. Panic very clearly registers on his face as he races around, trying doors, all of which are locked. The belfry is well and truly ablaze, and the church begins to groan as the whole ceiling starts to collapse. Jack looks around desperately for some escape.

Prior Philip, praying alone in his room, suddenly realizes it’s lighter in there than it should be. He turns and sees his church is one big barbeque.

Everyone else has noticed too, and the monks come running out of the dormitories, followed by Tom and company. Remigius unlocks the door (thanks!) so they can run in and get the saint’s relics. Well, Philip gets the relics, Remigius grabs the chalice and other pricy items. For maximum dramatic impact, Philip trips, drops the saint’s skull, and is able to see it smashed by a falling beam. Dude, that sucks. Jack watches all this and manages to escape without anyone noticing.

Outside, Philip watches his church burn and tells the other monks this is the devil’s work. Ellen’s a little smarter and asks Jack what the hell happened. Jack answers that they can stay now, as Remigius eyes them both. The stonework finally gives, and the whole church comes crashing down in a cloud of mortar dust. Tom tries not to do a gleeful happy dance.

The next day, Jack and Tom survey the damage. Tom apparently isn’t an idiot either, and obliquely asks Jack what happened to the church. Jack answers that it was lightening (these people and their magical storms!) Tom groans that the priory still can’t afford to pay him anything, so Jack points out that it’ll suit their purposes just as well if they just get food and lodging in return for the work.

Off in Cuthbert’s kitchen, Philip bemoans the loss of the skull. Valid—relics were the lifeblood of churches back then. They brought in the tourists, who gave money to the church and spent money in the town and helped both grow and sustain each other. Without the relic, Philip moans, they have nothing. Cuthbert’s a little more practical and tells Philip that pretty much any skull will do, it’s not like this one was that special. Philip, of course, is horrified at the idea of just using another skull and lying, my god, lying! Cuthbert counters that it’s more like a bent truth, and Philip goes thoughtful. We next catch up with him in the church’s crypt, skull shopping. He’s startled by Tom, who proffers the will-work-for-for-food deal. Apparently, Philip takes it, because we cut to Tom, his family, and the monks starting to pick through the rubble to find usable pieces.

Philip sits himself down to write a letter catching Waleran up on all the goings on, and I find myself extremely jealous of his handwriting. Ellen’s happy as a clam, carting giant rocks, and Jack helps himself to a hammer and chisel and starts having his way with a stone. Alfred—say it with me—looks pissed. In voiceover, Philip continues his letter, begging Waleran for money, or at least an intro to the king so he can beg him for money. Waleran sets the letter aside to review the plans for his new bishop’s palace.

At the priory, Jack examines his silver ring, which he’s apparently scratched. Martha tells him he should keep it somewhere safe, and Alfred offers to hold it (yeah, right) before Tom intervenes to take Jack off to the building site, where he’s got a giant block of stone and a commission: carve a statue of St. Adolphus. Jack strokes the stone and considers the project.

At night in the barn where they’re apparently staying, Tom and Ellen chat about her oddness—the others on the building site don’t know what to make of her. She asks him if he’s jealous, and he says no, and then starts to make out with her. It’s not long before that escalates to a literal roll in the hay, and I have to say, considering how graphic the book is and the fact that this is the same channel that brought us that Spartacus show, it’s pretty tame. Later, the swelling music of Something Important Happening Now accompanies Tom as he starts to draw out plans for his grand cathedral.

The next day, he takes his plans to Philip, who’s astonished at what he’s seeing. This was an important point in architectural history—builders were moving away from square shapes and building higher and lighter. This was the age that brought us Salisbury and Wells Cathedrals (which I highly recommend visiting. Wells especially, those scissor arches are amazing), not to mention some of the most famous churches in France. Philip marvels at the pointed arches, which Tom explains will let in much more light, making it seem almost celestial, as opposed to the darker Norman style of church, which Philip would have been used to. One problem—how long is this going to take? Philip asks. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 years, Tom answers, depending on how many people you employ. Apparently that works for Philip, since he gives Tom the go-ahead.

Remigius brings Philip a letter from Waleran, who’s asking Philip to meet him at Shiring Castle. Philip—unwisely, if you ask me—leaves Remigius in charge while he’s gone. Meanwhile, Jack comes barreling out of the barn and jumps Alfred. His ring’s disappeared, and he’s sure Alfred took it. Tom takes Alfred’s side, suggesting the ring fell off during the night, but Jack won’t have it. He tells Ellen Alfred took it, and she asks Alfred where the hell it is. He accuses her of being a witch and killing his mother before running off, and Remigius takes it all in.

No happy pipe music at Shiring Castle these days. No people either, it would seem, which is a bit odd. Philip wanders around and is quickly accosted by the steward, who has a knife and isn’t afraid to use it. So, the castle’s not entirely abandoned, apparently. Philip explains who he is, and Aliena and Richard emerge from a nearby room and tell the steward (Matthew) to let him go.

Now that everyone’s been introduced, they sit down for a nice chat, and Aliena asks about her father. Sadly, there’s not much news. A horse’s neigh indicates the approach of Waleran, but before Philip goes, Aliena asks Philip to ask the king for their castle back. He’s not one to mince words, and tells her that’s pretty unlikely.

Waleran saunters up to the castle, and Philip immediately begins the hard sell on the church, which Waleran seems to approve of. He suggests Philip ask the king for Shiring land and the local stone quarry rather than money, since timber and stone are pretty much what you need to build a church. Stephen, Waleran reminds Philip, owes him one, since Philip passed along the info on Bartholomew. The whole time, William creepily observes them from the edge of the woods.

We next cut to Percy and Regan, in what is possibly the least sexy consensual sex scene in the history of cinema. As he rolls over onto her and Regan tries not to roll her eyes too much, they talk politics. Percy expects to be named Earl of Shiring within the month. That’s all we learn. Fairly pointless scene, if you ask me.

The monks have gathered for a fun little tribunal. Alfred sits in the midst of them, denouncing Ellen as a witch and claiming she boils frogs and had sex with Tom on his dead wife’s grave (which, to be fair, I think he actually did in the book. Or, at least, they had sex not far from it. I’m not surprised they left that part out of the miniseries). The monks are appropriately shocked, and Remigius piles on, claiming she was once known as a witch in Kingsbridge and had a sentence of death put on her head. Time for a burning!

Philip and Waleran have arrived at court, where they walk casually past Bartholomew, standing in a cage (only Philip looks back at him), and notice the Hamleighs have descended. In his audience with the king, Philip tactfully mentions the need of money, and Stephen douchily claims there is none, since they’re all paupers there. He says this, by the way, while dressed in a fairly outlandish crushed velvet affair. Nice.

Waleran steps forwards with his solution: give Kingsbridge diocese the earldom of Shiring, and all its attendant natural resources. Stephen likes the idea, but he’s already given Shiring to Percy Hamleigh. However, since Stephen bends to the wind, he’s willing to reconsider, if Waleran and Philip offer a better argument. Waleran just invokes a couple of saints, like the saint who oversees sailors lost at sea, and Stephen blanches and tells them all to come back the next day.

Back in Kingsbridge, Ellen brings Tom some water, and everyone nearby stops and stares as he takes a drink, like they think he’s suddenly going to burst into flame or turn into a frog or something. Tom wonders what the hell is going on, Ellen teases him about being jealous and lays one on him. As she moves away, Cuthbert warns Tom about the witchcraft charge and subtly points out Alfred as the chief witness against her. Tom does not look pleased.

Tom and Waleran cool their heels at court, and Waleran spots the Archbishop headed his way. He intercepts and tells him a little bird informed him the Archbishop was looking for an emissary to Rome, and he’d be happy to volunteer. Archbishop fobs him off, telling him he needs more experience. Waleran urges him to visit his lovely palace, in an effort to change his mind, but the Archbishop just chuckles, calls the Bishop’s palace a wreck, and heads off.

Regan has decided the best way to get what she wants is through diplomacy this time, so she sits herself down next to Philip and tells him Waleran is using him to get the earldom for himself. When Philip argues against the possibility, she points out that Waleran is asking for the earldom to be given to the diocese of Kingsbridge, not the priory, which means Waleran would control the goods, not Philip. Philip tries to believe the best of Waleran, but Regan knows better. Waleran wants the earldom’s resources for the grand new palace he’s building—he’s got plans drawn up and everything. Regan offers to make a generous contribution to the cathedral if he sides with them, but Philip’s not the pushover she thinks. He cuts a deal: what the Hamleighs really want is arable land. Fine, they can have that, as long as he gets the timber from the forests and the stone quarry. Regan’s impressed. Philip then pushes his luck by asking for protection for Aliena and Richard, which Regan agrees to, over William’s objections.

Word of Alfred’s accusation has reached Waleran, who immediately fills out an arrest warrant. Tom confronts Alfred, who’s clammed up, but Ellen’s talking. She expands on the story of Jack’s father, who, once he recovered from his unexpected swim, had asked first to see the king (something she couldn’t arrange), and then asked for pen, ink, and paper. Ellen, meanwhile, had gone to her priest to ask for help for the man. The next day, the man was found, arrested, accused of stealing a pricy chalice from Kingsbridge Priory, and tortured. The prior gave evidence, a local lord presided, and the priest passed judgment. Guilty all around. I’ll give you three guesses as to whom those three men were. Jack’s father was burned, but not before singing to Ellen and her infant child from the pyre. Ellen responded by cursing the three men who brought about the man’s death. She never learned the man’s secret, but she found his ring, and gave it to Jack. Ellen volunteers to leave in the morning, since she’s a wanted woman.

Stephen is making his decision—it’s essentially the deal Philip and Regan worked out, except the Hamleighs get the quarry and Philip just gets permission to take stone from it. Regan gloats as Philip sputters and Waleran looks silently murderous. Outside, Waleran calmly tells Philip he’ll seriously regret crossing him, but Philip stands his ground.

Waleran’s goons have finally reached Kingsbridge, just as Tom is saying a touching farewell to Ellen. She’s dragged off as Jack and Martha wail, and shackled in a jail cell somewhere.

At Shiring Castle, Aliena and Richard are playing Blind Man’s Bluff, under the watchful eye of the steward, unaware that William and Walter are there to bring hell. Walter makes quick work of Matthew, and when Aliena and Richard try to flee, they too are subdued…

Sorry, this is the part I actually can’t watch. Use your imagination, if you must. You know what happens here. I’ve gone to my happy place (there’s a quartet!) La la la la la…

Ok, later, William and Walter are passed out. Aliena manages to wrench the sword out of poor Matthew’s body, collects Richard, and sneaks out. William and Walter have left a servant by the horses, and Aliena stabs him, but not fatally. She then hands Richard the sword, as the man lies on the ground screaming, and tells Richard to finish him off. Richard’s snuffling like a baby and doesn’t know what to do, but he finally manages to dispatch the man. Time to grow up, kid.

At the priory, Remigius meets with Waleran, who tells him to prepare for Ellen’s trial. Seems there’s a snag, though—Alfred won’t testify. Waleran offers to testify himself  and wants this all done quickly.

Aliena and Richard have made their way to their father’s prison, where they’re allowed in to see him. Before they enter, she soberly tells Richard not to tell their father, or anyone, what happened. Bartholomew happily greets the children, and tells them he’s hidden 50 gold pieces and only told a priest where it was. Well, that should go well, priests in this story are totally trustworthy, right?

Philip arrives home and gets filled in quickly on the goings on. He immediately goes to ask Tom if he has, in fact, been harboring a witch. Tom tells him no, but also admits that they’ve been living in sin, which Philip isn’t so ok with. He tells Tom that if he manages to bust Ellen out somehow, Tom has to marry her and bring her back to the church. Tom, of course, agrees.

Johnny gets sent in to see Ellen with the baby, “so she can hold him one last time”. He uses the opportunity to pass her a small knife, apparently at Philip’s behest.

Ellen stands trial before the monks, managing to cut the ropes binding her hands with the knife, which the monks decry as witchcraft. She gets up, climbs onto one of the tables, strolls on up to Waleran, squats…and pees. On a bishop. Everyone is horrified. I’m horrified. Not that he didn’t have it coming, but she peed on the table these guys eat on. Come on, Ellen, they’re not all bad! I hope she at least warned Johnny to sit at the other table for a while.

“Piss on you,” she says before strolling out, kissing Tom, and taking off. Talk about an exit. In the book, she peed on the priory’s bible, which was even more horrifying, especially considering how much work went into those bibles back then.

Time for more creepy Hamleigh time! Regan’s giving her grown son a bath and asking for details of his…encounter…with Aliena. And it looks like she’s getting pretty turned on by it too.

“Showed her what a fine young man you are down there, didn’t you?” she asks, glancing downward at her son’s nether regions. Eeeeeeeeek!

In less disturbing family relationships, Aliena’s still with her father, and pledging to spend her life fighting to win back Shiring for the family. She’s really going to come to regret that (spoiler!).

Argh! We’re back with William and Regan, and she is now going the full Jocasta by telling him to love her first and foremost as her hand slowly creeps down his chest…. I’m sorry, I just vomited all over my keyboard. I’ll be back in a few minutes to finish this after I’ve bathed my eyes with acid. By the way—this? Not in the book, and I can’t believe the author was ok with it being included here.

Ok, I’m back, and so is Maude, getting suited up for battle with a nifty helmet crown that all the warrior queens are wearing these days. In Kingsbridge, Tom and Philip are waiting for the sun to rise so they can start measuring off the areas of the cathedral. I think. Sorry, this is not really my area of expertise, and if anyone can explain exactly what they were doing, I’d be much obliged.

And so, as Tom says, we’ve begun!

Next post The Tudors Season 1 Episode 1 Recap: I Want My Agincort!

16 thoughts on “Pillars of the Earth: Anarchy, Master Builder

  1. You asked what Tom was doing with the iron poles at sunrise at the end of your synopsis. In the book, Follet says they’re setting the axis of the cathdral so it points east-west. You take two poles with loops at the top and put them in the ground. When the runs rises over the eastern horizon, you line the poles up so the sun can be seen through the two loops, given an exact east-west axis.

    BTW, your writing style is really excellent – I find myself wishing you’d written the screenplay instead of whoever did the butchering job that we’ve seen over the past few weeks.

    1. Piping up years later to say Henry I died after eating lampreys, not lamb. The “mmm, lampreys” line had me cracking up, sorry you missed it, you should go back and check it out, it’s hilarious.

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