After the death of Henry VIII and Edward VI, there was an explosion of religious intolerance, not just in England, but in Europe as a whole. Many believe that it was Mary I “Bloody Mary” who really started this trend, however, the fires of hatred between Protestants and Catholics extended further into the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I of England. We often focus on the monarchs and their inner circles during this time and how the religious persecutions affected the decisions that they made. That tells only part of the story, but how did this religious fighting between Protestants and Catholics affect the normal person? What were their lives like? Ken Follett explores this topic in his third book in his historical fiction series, the Kingsbridge Series, “A Column of Fire”.
Every historical fiction book needs a great opening to engage the reader and Ken Follett delivers with his prologue:
We hanged him in front of Kingsbridge Cathedral. It is the usual place for executions. After all, if you can’t kill a man in front of God’s face you probably shouldn’t kill him at all. The sheriff brought him up from the dungeon below the guildhall, hands tied behind his back. He walked upright, his pale face defiant, fearless. The crowd jeered at him and cursed him. He seemed not to see them. But he saw me. Our eyes met, and in that momentary exchange of looks, there was a lifetime. I was responsible for his death, and he knew it. I had been hunting him for decades. He was a bomber who would have killed half the rulers of our country, including most of the royal family, all in one act of bloodthirsty savagery- if I had not stopped him. I have spent my life tracking such would-be murderers, and a lot of them have been executed- not just hanged but drawn and quartered, the more terrible death reserved for the worst offenders. Yes, I have done this many times: watched a man die knowing that I, more than anyone else, had brought him to his just but dreadful punishment. I did it for my country, which is dear to me; for my sovereign, whom I serve; and for something else, a principle, the belief that a person has the right to make up his own mind about God. He was the last of many men I sent to hell, but he made me think of the first…”(Follett, prologue).
This story follows the lives of several different people and their families, but the main story focuses on a man named Ned Willard. After he can’t marry the girl he loves, Margery Fitzgerald, and his family is crushed by bad investments, he decides to work for a young Elizabeth Tudor, who would later become Elizabeth I. His works will lead him all over England and Europe to help thwart plots to kill Elizabeth and replace her with a Catholic ruler. One of his biggest opponents is the elusive Jean Langlais, a man who works in the shadows, yet he is closer than Ned thinks.
What Follett does so well is that he incorporates people from other countries into this story. Sylvie Palot from France, the young Protestant bookseller, who is not afraid to sell Bibles to those who wish to own a Bible. Pierre Aumande, the man who will do anything in order to gain power. Alison McKay, the fictitious best friend of Mary Queen of Scots, who would do anything for her queen. Ebrima Dabo, a slave who will do anything to be free. Barney Willard, Ned’s brother, who wants nothing in life, except to sail the high seas looking for adventure.
Follett’s cast of original characters adds a depth to an already tumultuous time in European history. Follett is able to blend the fictitious characters with real historical figures and actual events like the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the death of Mary Queen of Scots, and the Spanish Armada.
This is my first book by Ken Follett and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it. There were so many twists and turns in this story that I was not expecting that I really could not stop reading this book. I found it rather engaging and exciting. I found it interesting that Follett decided to end the book during the reign of James I and that he called King Philip II of Spain by his other less common Spanish name Felipe. These are more stylistic choices instead of historical choices.
Overall as a historical fiction book about the religious persecution in the Elizabethan era, I found this book dynamic and thrilling. Although this is the third book in a series, I believe it can stand on its own. After reading this book, I really want to go back and read the first two books of the series. If you want a great historical fiction book that you can easily get lost in, I enthusiastically recommend you read “A Column of Fire” by Ken Follett.