A Column of Fire is the fourth volume in Ken Follett‘s sprawling series of historical novels illuminating the history of England. The Pillars of the Earth, published in 1989, relates the story of the Kingsbridge Cathedral and the talented men who began its construction in the twelfth century. This first novel was followed in 2007 by World Without End, which picks up the Kingsbridge saga two centuries later, in the years just before, during, and after the Black Death. A Column of Fire continues the story through the sixteenth century, spanning the years 1558 to 1606, when Queen Elizabeth I ruled England. (In 2020, Follett published a prequel, The Evening and the Morning.)
A Column of Fire (Kingsbridge #4) by Ken Follett (2017) 923 pages ★★★★☆
The first two volumes of the Kingsbridge saga have sold nearly eighty million copies worldwide. Together, these three books weigh in at a total of 2,965 pages. Each is peopled with a huge cast of characters, rich and poor, powerful and helpless, giving a richly nuanced picture of life in England over the centuries.
Again, as in the previous novels, Follett builds his tale in A Column of Fire around the defining events of the era: the bitter rivalry between Elizabeth and her half-sister, Mary Queen of Scots; the often-bloody struggle between Catholics and Protestants for primacy on the island; the ongoing war between England and France; the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of the Huguenots in France: the defeat of the Spanish Armada; the accession of James VI of Scotland, Mary’s son, as James I of England following Elizabeth’s death; and Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Follett skillfully interweaves the lives of his fictional characters with a long list of historical figures, including both Elizabeth and Mary, the several Kings of France who reigned during that period, and the powerful courtiers surrounding both Queen Elizabeth and the French Kings.
Two Kingsbridge families figure at the center of A Column of Fire: the rabidly Catholic Fitzgeralds, especially the brother and sister, Rollo and Margery; and the Willards, principally Ned and Barney and their mother, Anne, who are only nominally Catholic. Margery and Ned fall deeply in love as teenagers. However, Rollo and his father, Sir Reginald Fitzgerald, engineer Margery’s forced marriage to the earl who rules the county and the bankruptcy of Anne’s flourishing business, setting up the lifetime enmity between Rollo and Ned that is the central thread of the plot.
The overarching theme of A Column of Fire is the violent clash between Catholics and Protestants as Protestantism spread rapidly through Europe following the publication of Martin Luther‘s Ninety-Five Theses. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary I (1553-58), hundreds of Protestants were burned at the stake for heresy. Queen Mary came to be known as Bloody Mary. Despite an early commitment to religious tolerance, Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) ordered the murder of even more English men and women—although for treason, not doctrinal differences. Meanwhile, across the Channel, French Kings and nobles murdered hundreds of the Protestant Huguenots.
Reading the Kingsbridge saga may require a great deal of time and effort. I found the effort well worthwhile, and it was all enjoyable.
For further reading
I’ve also reviewed the prequel to the Kingsbridge Trilogy, The Evening and the Morning (Ken Follett sets up the Kingsbridge Trilogy in a prequel) and Follett’s later novel, Never (Is a new world war possible by accident?).
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