A Column of Fire

Ken Follett

A Column of Fire

Ken Follett

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A Column of Fire is a 2017 historical fiction novel by Ken Follett. It’s the third book in Follett’s Kingsbridge series and serves as a loose sequel to his other novels, The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. Like the other two novels in the series, A Column of Fire follows a pair of star-crossed lovers from the village of Kingsbridge through a period of significant historical events; in this case, through the religious strife between Catholics and Protestants before, during, and after Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Follett is a British author of bestselling spy thrillers and historical novels, including the Kingsbridge series and such works as Edge of Eternity and A Dangerous Fortune.

The novel begins in 1558, at the end of Mary I, or “Bloody Mary”’s reign. The Queen is a devout Catholic known for burning Protestants at the stake under charges of heresy. Ned Willard of Kingsbridge is the protagonist, recently returned from Calais and ready to marry the love of his life, Margery Fitzgerald. But he comes home to a series of ugly surprises. Margery’s father and her brother, Rollo, have promised her instead to Bart, son of the Earl of Shiring, a more prosperous—and Catholic—match. At first Margery protests, but eventually decides the match is God’s will, and agrees to marry Bart. Ned’s mother Anne also loses the family’s money to a bad deal made with the Fitzgeralds.

Ned experiences a pivotal moment when Rollo burns a Protestant villager at the stake. Horrified, he vows that he will spend his life working for religious tolerance. He never wants to witness the death of a fellow countryman over religious persecution again. Accordingly, he goes to Westminster to support young Princess Elizabeth, possible heir to Mary’s throne. He hopes Elizabeth, a Protestant, will prove a more tolerant ruler over both her Catholic and Protestant subjects.

Meanwhile, in France, a young student named Pierre Aumande is caught trying to use the royal Guise surname and brought to the Cardinal and the Duke of Guise for questioning. Pierre is technically a Guise, but he is illegitimate, and has no legal claim to that part of his heritage. Pierre, a clever boy, talks his way out of trouble and into a position as a spy to catch any Protestants living undercover in France. Pierre meets the Protestant Palot family, who run a printing business. They also print Protestant Bibles on the sly. He builds a relationship with young Sylvie Palot, going so far as to marry her so she will eventually reveal the members of the Protestant community to him. He keeps a list of names and delivers them to the Cardinal.

When Pierre has the name of every Protestant in Paris, the Duke of Guise instigates the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, a brutal slaughtering of Protestants. Sylvie is the only survivor. She becomes impoverished and considers turning to prostitution to survive.

After Elizabeth becomes Queen, she appoints the loyal Ned as the head of her secret services. He works as a spy to uncover plots against her life. England is now a Protestant nation, but still tolerant of Catholics. He arrives in Paris to investigate a suspicious man named Jean Langlais. What he doesn’t know is that this name is an alias: Jean Langlais is none other than Margery’s brother Rollo. He has been working to smuggle Catholic priests into England for years, often with Margery’s help—she is unaware of the sinister side of his plots, and thinks she is only helping men of faith. Pierre Aumande becomes one of Rollo’s accomplices, as well as an advisor to Henri of Guise.

Ned meets and falls in love with Sylvie. He marries her, but she is barren, so their marriage is childless. Margery is more fertile: Ned visits Kingsbridge and the two lose control, giving in to their passions. Later, Margery gives birth to a son who strongly resembles Ned.

When the Spanish Armada attempts to invade England and overthrow the queen, Ned’s brother Barney, a sailor and now a key player in the English Navy, witnesses the English counterattack. The Armada is defeated, and Pierre is assassinated.

The intrigues continue when Rollo throws his support behind the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth imprisons her, and Rollo smuggles her letters, again with Margery’s help. Margery discovers the truth about his intrigues and his treasonous plots to depose the queen and confronts him. She refuses to help him ever again. Mary is executed, in part due to Rollo’s actions.

Ned is still in pursuit of the mysterious Jean Langlais, still with no idea of his true identity. Sylvie, however, suspects the truth. She follows Rollo onto a rooftop and accuses him of treason. In response, Rollo throws her from the rooftop. She dies.

The plot skips forward several years: Ned is now married to the widowed Margery, and the two are finally happy. Elizabeth dies, to Ned’s sorrow, and is replaced by her heir, the Protestant James I. Rollo, still determined to see a Catholic England, embarks on one final mission: to depose James and install James’ Catholic daughter on the throne. He recruits Guy Fawkes to his cause and the two store gunpowder in hopes of blowing up the House of Lords while James is in attendance. Margery learns of the plan and reluctantly informs Ned. To do so, she must also admit that she has known for years that Jean Langlais was her own brother. Ned is furious that she has kept this from him. He foils the plot, and Rollo is killed. Afterwards, Ned forgives Margery and asks James to pardon her.

In an epilogue set in 1620, an aging Ned is alone. He has outlived Margery, but enjoys the company of his children and grandchildren. His grandson, James, announces that he will leave England for the New World on a ship called the Mayflower.

A Column of Fire was a bestseller, like its predecessors. A review in The Washington Post called the book “absorbing, painlessly educational, and a great deal of fun.” Some readers noted some jarring anachronisms in dialogue and lamented that the setting did not focus as tightly on Knightsbridge as Follett’s previous novels. The book was a Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Historical Fiction. The epilogue hints that there will be another novel in the series set in colonial America.
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