Published by Viking
Publication date: September 12th 2017
In the eyes of the church, the Bible was the most dangerous of all banned books…Priests said that ordinary people were unable to rightly interpret God’s word, and needed guidance. Protestants said the Bible opened men’s eyes to the errors of the priesthood.
A Column of Fire is the third book in Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series and he goes big in this final installment. It may seem to be about the battle between the monarchies of Europe from the 1550s to the 1600s, but the real power at the center of this sprawling novel is the pervasive and insidious war on two continents between Catholicism and Protestantism. Two British families, exist in wary détente until the Fitzgeralds ruin the Willards through a shady business deal. The Fitzgeralds are devout Catholics, flourishing during Queen Mary’s reign while the Willards follow the new faith established by Henry VIII. Like the previous novels, A Column of Fire is centered in Kingsbridge but from there Follett sends the members of these two families far and wide through Europe as they try and navigate the ever-changing religious power struggles of the times.
Things are even more complicated because 18-year-old Ned Willard is in love with Margery Fitzgerald and hopes to marry her, right up until her father insists she marries a nobleman’s son, to advance their family even further. With no job prospects or love interest left in Kingsbridge Ned leaves the city hoping to find work with Sir William Cecil, Princess Elizabeth’s advisor. His skill for memorization and his innate curiosity make him a valuable diplomat/spy. Soon enough, Mary’s death and Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne means the religious tides shift and it is Catholics who are sent into hiding. Ned’s work becomes more important as the Catholic families of Europe unite to bring Elizabeth down. One of these plotters is Margery’s brother, Rollo, a religious fanatic who was a staunch supporter of Queen Mary’s vicious and bloody intolerance.
Ned and Rollo are only two key players in A Column of Fire. They have counterparts in France, with Pierre, a bastard from the Guise family who has little interest in faith, but a great interest in advancing himself and the Guise family. The best way to do this is to depose the tolerant Catholic king and murder the French Protestant population. Back and forth it goes over several decades, with Follett highlighting the extremes of both religions in men who prefer brutality and submission to moderation. Along those lines, I appreciated that he chose to use two female characters as foils for both religions. Margery Fitzgerald is a passionate Catholic and works to bring priests into England and keep them safe while Sylvia is the Protestant daughter of a French printer who carries on his work of printing Bibles, after he is tortured and executed. Both women are fervent in their belief, but both stand just as strongly against persecution.
My love of all things British history is well-known, but I had not considered or read much in historical fiction about the toll Elizabeth’s stance on religion took on her. One tiny island against the might of Europe—and not just socially or economically. The Pope issued an official proclamation that Catholics obeying Elizabeth would be excommunicated, thereby encouraging treasonous rebellion. This is just one of the many ways Follett enlightens while entertaining. At 928 pages it is not a quick read, but even with a span of over forty years and a large cast of characters, the novel never bogs down. A Column of Fire is the perfect kind of book to settle into as the days grow shorter and colder.