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  • Claire Vorster

The Pillars of The Earth: Where Stories Collide

On the night of 14 November 1940, the city of Coventry burned as Luftwaffe bombs and incendiary devices rained down. The next morning, Coventry Cathedral lay in smoking ruins. The decision to re-build the cathedral was taken immediately by the Provost Dick Howard, as a sign of hope for the city and for the future of a ravaged world.

While sifting through the rubble, Jock Forbes, the cathedral’s stonemason, found that two of the charred medieval roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross. He set them up in the ruins, much as a distinctive metal cross was set up at Ground Zero after the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11th 2001. This charred cross was later placed on an altar of the rubble of Coventry Cathedral with the moving words 'Father Forgive' inscribed on the sanctuary wall.

Cathedrals are places where stories collide. They are places where thousands of people - who would not normally meet - come together. Tourists or worshippers, professionals or rogues, lovers or haters. They all come. Within the walls of any cathedral you will find these stories, often ancient, often painful inscribed on the walls and floors. Memories of knights, soldiers, wives and children. Tombs of priests, saints and kings. Lives well lived and lives lost. At St Paul’s Cathedral in London alone, you will find memorials to a dazzling array of famous British figures including Sir Winston Churchill, Lord Horatio Nelson, The Duke of Wellington and Florence Nightingale. In recent years, an estimated 2.5 billion people watched the wedding of Prince Charles to the Lady Diana Spencer played out at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Beauty and Terror

Cathedrals hold our history in all its beauty and terror, preserved sometimes in the moment as wars raged. The most famous medieval cathedrals were built between about 1000 and 1600 AD in England, France, Italy, Spain and Germany. So why were they built and what of the people who built them? Best selling author Ken Follett, wrote the enduringly popular novel, The Pillars of the Earth, about the building of a cathedral. He sums up the paradox of these great buildings,

"The building of the medieval cathedrals is an astonishing European phenomenon. The builders had no power tools, they did not understand the mathematics of structural engineering, and they were poor: the richest of princes did not live as well as, say, a prisoner in a modern jail. Yet they put up the most beautiful buildings that have ever existed, and they built them so well that they are still here, hundreds of years later, for us to study and marvel at."

From as early as AD 604, cathedrals were a key part of the everyday practice of Christian life in Europe. Life was celebrated and mourned here, from baptism to communion, to marriage to death. People came to talk to their Priests and whilst Bishops, Lords and Kings came to speak to their people.

The cost of building a cathedral was vast, both in terms of money and human endeavour. This is why they are principally found in towns and cities where money congregated, such as Canterbury and York, Lincoln, Worcester and Chichester.

One Mission

Building might take hundreds of years and would employ the skills of a number of master craftsmen, women and labourers. To build a cathedral you would need a good architect plus quarry men, stone carvers, carpenters, a master mason, a master stone cutter, a stone dresser, a black smith, plumbers, a roofer, mortar makers, a glazier or glass maker, a stained glass craftsman, sculptors and other labourers. Families would hand their work on the project to their sons and daughters until the job was done. Through rain and snow, despite war, famine and plague, from sunrise to sunset they worked with one mission – to build on.

Everyday people were remembered in the building, names carved into walls and onto plaques or tablets of stone. Gargoyles were sometimes made in the image of a bishop or a worker. Stained glass windows, statues, and painting told Bible stories for those who couldn't read.

Person by person, inch by inch, brick by brick a cathedral emerges. So many stories under one roof, no wonder that one day these stories would be told. Ken Follett, the novelist who took up the challenge was already well established as a writer of thrillers like the best selling Eye of the Needle published in 1978. He describes what gave him the idea to write his Cathedral epic,

"The stones themselves reveal the construction history: stops and starts, damage and reconstruction, extensions in times of prosperity, and stained-glass tributes to the wealthy men who generally paid the bills. Another story is told by the way the church is sited in the town. Lincoln faces across the street to the castle, religious and military power nose to nose. Winchester has a neat grid of streets, laid out by a medieval bishop who fancied himself a town planner. Salisbury moved, in the thirteenth century, from a defensive hilltop site - where the ruins of the old cathedral are still visible - to an open meadow, showing that permanent peace had arrived."

Naturally his publishers were nervous. In a way, Follett’s journey to write the epic novel required as much dedication as that of the cathedral builders - The Pillars of the Earth was completed over the span of 13 years. Follett remembers his first attempt at the story; when he realised exactly what he had taken on,

"Looking back, I can see that at the age of twenty-seven I was not capable of writing such a novel. I was like an apprentice watercolour painter planning a vast canvas in oils. To do justice to its subject, the book would have to be very long, cover a period of several decades and bring alive the great sweep of medieval Europe. I was writing much less ambitious books, and even so I had not yet mastered the craft."

The Pillars of the Earth was eventually published in 1989 and has been a hit ever since. The novel has made numerous appearances on best seller lists around the world including 80 in Germany.

A Majestic Novel

The Pillars of the Earth is a majestic novel. Follett throws the reader instantly into the cold, damp, difficult lives of a central character, Tom Builder, as he tries to keep starvation from the door of his family. Although penniless, Tom harbours a life long dream to put his talent for building to work on the most ambitious project available to a man of his time; the building of a Cathedral in Kingsbridge, Follett’s fictional town set in a beautiful corner of South West England.

So has this book captured the imagination of people around the world that filming of an ambitious $40 million eight hour television adaptation The Pillars of the Earth is now complete. This compelling series was produced by a vast array of veteran executive producing talent including, three-time Oscar® nominee Ridley Scott (Robin Hood, Gladiator, American Gangster), Tony Scott (The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Top Gun, Spy Game) and David W. Zucker (The Good Wife). British actor Ian McShane, no strange to sinister roles, plays the villain of the piece.

The story has a wealth of intriguing, heroic and duplicitous characters for the cast to get their teeth into.

Coming to Channel 4

The mini series will premier in the United States in July and is slated to appear in the UK on Channel 4 this Autumn. Tim Highsted, Programme Acquisition Director of Channel 4 says, “We are delighted to premiere The Pillars of the Earth on Channel 4. Epic in scale and ambitious in its storytelling, this miniseries is sure to spellbind viewers and is the perfect addition to our acquired programmes.”

So for those of you who like to step outside of our hurried world for a while, why not visit one of Europe’s many historic local Churches, Abbeys or Cathedrals? Take some well-earned time out to explore the stories they keep and to remember the grit, determination and courage of those who built them.

When the days draw in and you are ready for a good story. The Pillars of the Earth may be just the thing to while away hours.

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Sidebar: Stories in the making

Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury, England took around 365 years to build. St. Thomas Becket was murdered in the north-east transept on Tuesday 29 December 1170 by knights of King Henry II.

Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany took 600 years to build. The cathedral suffered seventy hits by aerial bombs during World War II but did not collapse.

Notre Dame, Paris, France was built in 182 years. On 24 April 1558 Mary, Queen of Scots was married to the Dauphin François (later François II of France) in an elaborate ceremony at the cathedral.

St Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Italy was built between 1506 and 1626. The Basilica has the largest interior of any Christian church in the world, holding 60,000 people.

Work on the Washington National Cathedral, Washington, USA was started in 1907, finished in 1990. Popular TV series ‘The West Wing’ starring Martin Sheen filmed the second season finale ‘Two Cathedrals’ here.

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