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The phenomenon that is The Pillars of the Earth was in my consciousness long before I knew what it was about. It is a book, a TV show, a game, another game, and more.

I had probably heard of the book because of the miniseries. I must have noticed somewhere a marketing push that mentioned it was dramatizing “Ken Follett’s best-selling novel.” I didn’t watch any of it and didn’t really pick up much about the content. It sounded kind of soap-opera-ish to me. I imagined the grand miniseries interpretations of novels from the 1970s and really had no desire to go there. I didn’t know who Ken Follett was besides his, apparently, being a best-selling author. I didn’t know what these pillars were, when the story took place, or really anything about the setting of the novel.

Move forward a half-a-decade and I found myself trying to find a good board game that dealt with medieval economies. The Pillars of the Earth popped up in my search. I was confused. First, because I think I was constantly mixing up The Pillars of the Earth with Pillars of Eternity. The latter is a fantasy RPG, itself based on a science fiction novel from the early 80s (predating, for what its worth, The Pillars of the Earth). To add to the confusion, the success of the Pillars of Eternity computer game spun off some board games based on that theme. None of that seemed particularly medieval or economic.

That got me to realize, no, this is not a D&D type thing, its that romantic mini-series from 2010, and that left me even more befuddled. How to you take a miniseries romance (remember, I’ve got The Thorn Birds or North and South in my mind’s eye) and turn it into a board game, much less one that simulates the medieval economy. Nevertheless, this is one of the better-rated games on Board Game Geek and stands out amongst some pretty good company, particularly within the strategy game subcategory. So I began to look at some pictures of the game in motion.

I was genuinely taken by surprise to see a game about building a cathedral. The players cooperate (while competing for points) in the construction of a grand church in 13th Century England. Game pieces represent workers, resources, and a miniature cathedral that is built up over the course of the game. Where is Richard Chamberlain? Where is Patrick Swayze? Not that it is the lack of romantic situations that deter me, but for whatever reason, even though the game looks really nice I’ve never felt the urge to give it a play.

Another couple of years pass, and now I have a copy of the novel available to me. I started with the forward and was again surprised to see that see that, in a very fundamental way, this really is a book about building a cathedral!

Author Follett had long taken an interest in cathedrals. As a young man, he had read a book called An Outline of European Architecture which talked about the invention of the pointed arch. This technical innovation allowed taller churches to be built but also created the beauty which we identify with the Gothic cathedrals. Shortly thereafter he had the opportunity to visit the cathedral at Peterborough and, from that point on, visiting, studying, and admiring cathedrals became a hobby for him.

Before he had even written his first best seller (Eye of the Needle), he had proposed a medieval novel along the lines of The Pillars of the Earth. His agent said the concept was not ready and, in retrospect, the author agrees that he, as a writer, was not mature enough to complete the project. It would be another decade before he again proposed the Pillars concept which, by now, was greeted with trepidation because he was well established as a “spy novel” writer. This time he persisted and the rest, you might say in more ways than one, is history.

So at its foundations (!), this novel is very different than what I’ve long expected. Of course, if you simply skip over the preface and dive into the story, perhaps without any preconceived notions about Ken Follett or the themes of the book, what you have is a fairly solid piece of historical fiction. Focus is on the characters and interpersonal drama. Like good historical fiction, the story illuminates life in the middle ages in a way that informs the reader. Reading the book, it doesn’t seem to be “about” the building of a cathedral, at least not in the straightforward way that its genesis might imply.

He does talk about the art, architecture, and engineering of cathedral building. He doesn’t delve into the technology to a level of detail that it drags on the story, but it is there. Also included are the concepts of how a medieval economy works, showing how the cathedral is financed and the ways in that the town prospers as a result. I have in my mind a particular section where the abundant availability of semi-skilled labor creates a shortage of non-skilled laborers – a problem that in the book a character overcomes by inventing an automated machine to perform the labor. It’s a bit of economics that is as least as relevant to the here and now as it was to medieval England.

But the book is also about the cast of characters whose lives come together around the project of building a cathedral. It shows details of working-class life, from food to culture to what makes up a productive life. It also describes some details of combat, in particular small-scale encounters between no more than a handful of combatants. In addition, though, the book describes the Battle of Lincoln as witnessed by several of the major characters, with one as an active participant.

I Have Taken the King

The anchoring historical fact of The Pillars of the Earth‘s historical fiction is the period of the English monarchy known as The Anarchy. This was a succession crisis that followed the untimely death of the heir to Henry I in 1120. While Henry would reign for another 15 years, he did not sire another legitimate son. Henry favored his daughter Maude (or Matilda*) as his heir, but after he was gone, many of his barons backed his nephew Stephen. Maude’s marriage to Geoffrey the Count of Anjou combined with the historical fact that a woman had never inherited the throne of England gave the nobles of England cause to choose Stephen over Henry’s daughter. Add to that, Stephen was a good-looking and likeable fellow who easily won support. Maude was difficult to like. Her campaign to claim the throne was supported by her half-brother (an illegitimate son of Henry) Robert of Gloucester and some assumed that he would be the real power behind Maude’s rule.

Following several years of civil war, during the winter of 1141, Stephen had moved his army to Lincoln to besiege the castle there and eject its occupiers who, themselves, were contesting Stephen’s award of the Earldom seated in that city. While undertaking the siege, Stephen received word of an approaching army commanded by Robert of Gloucester, an army that was a near-equal to his own.

Per The Pillars of the Earth, Stephen’s advisers suggested he simply abandon the siege (which was of trivial strategic value) and forgo fighting Maude’s army in open battle unless he had a clear advantage. Stephen’s sense of chivalry compelled him to engage in the evenly-matched fight that presented itself, even dismounting his own knights so as to face the dismounted entourage of Gloucester on a fair basis. Other accounts suggest that the odds were clearly against Stephen but that he fought anyway, against common sense and advise to the contrary.

I took the opportunity of the now-ubiquitous black Friday cybersales to buy the Field of Glory Battle Pack for a mere buck-and-a-quarter (U.S.). Among the 24 scenarios, spread across the range of Field of Glory‘s expansive coverage, is a representation of the Battle of Lincoln. It also includes (for what its worth) the Battle of the Standard, which had taken place three years earlier between Stephen and the Scots in a sort of adjunct to the succession civil war.

The Battle of Lincoln scenario is of interest to me for a couple of reasons. First off, of course, is that I play it at the same time I’m reading Follett’s description of the battle. But as a Field of Glory scenario, I am interested in the fact that this is an official release. That is, it is part of a package that costs real money. I will expect balanced scenarios that also play well with the AI and the scoring system as opposed to the best effort of a fan.

With this scenario, it does match the FoG template better than a lot of the user-made scenarios. It is on the smaller side (and maybe even seems more so because user-scenario-designers love to go big). The battle is fought on relatively clear terrain. I’m also relieved to see no odd quirks of terrain used to shoehorn some aspect of the battle into a non-cooperating game engine.


I spot the banner of Usurper King Stephen across the field of battle.

I take command Empress Maude’s army because that’s default setup. I was tempted to side with King Stephen because, knowing he actually lost the real battle, he would seem to be the underdog. It is also from the perspective of his side of the field that we view the battle in The Pillars of the Earth. However, he does have a larger army to start (in the book, it is due to the timely arrival of fictional antagonist William Hamleigh with a small force). I’ve also learned the hard way that the default designation of sides for Player and AI often is an indication of which side will be easier to play for the programmed opponent.


Both sides are close to breaking. Stephen bodyguard is also at the verge of collapse with Stephen himself having fallen.

I’ve not seen too much detail about the battle so I can’t comment too deeply on whether the game play had historical fidelity. Like the description in the book, the fight ultimately came down to the center as the two wings fell into chaos. One contrast to the book is it looks, in that last screenshot, that King Stephen himself may have fallen in battle. Or maybe he was just hit on the head with a rock. I’ve said it before that the Field of Glory engine only indicates the “loss” of a commander without specifically saying whether it is due to death, injury, or capture. The result, above, may just be a mirroring of the historical outcome where the battle came to an end with the capture of Stephen and the shout from William de Keynes (equally appropriate during a tense chess tournament), “Hither, all of you come hither! I have taken the king!”

*King Stephen’s wife was also Matilda (Matilda of Boulogne) and continued to fight Maude/Matilda after Stephen’s capture, ultimately securing his release in an exchange for Robert of Gloucester.