Faith and Ambition: The Clergy in The Pillars of the Earth



“A proud monk is a bad monk.” Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth is set in the medieval period amidst dynastic wars and social upheaval, when religion played a crucial role in everyday life and society. As seen in both the book and miniseries, the Christian faith and the Church hierarchy were not always used in good ways; some of its members used it for material or political gain while others served their communities with all their hearts. The characters of Prior Philip and Bishop Waleran espouse the different ways religion and the Church were used, either for personal gain or for the good of the community.

At the start of the miniseries, the young monk Philip is elected prior (or leader of the group) by his fellow brothers, working with lay persons and the nobility to rebuild their community and cathedral after disaster strikes. Philip is a devout man who tries to live as truthfully as he can to the teachings of the Bible and in service of God and others. He is also deeply honest; he never considers taking a skull from the crypt to replace the saint’s bones that were lost in the fire that destroyed the first cathedral until someone suggests that it is the only way to ensure that a new cathedral can be commissioned by the bishop. Over time, he learns more about the way politics works amongst those in power but continues to operate on his own moral code, standing up for what he believes in and refusing to go along with the scheming of others.

Bishop Waleran, on the other hand, is introduced at the start of the story already in a position of authority within the Church. He manoeuvres through the Royal court with ease, his alliances constantly shifting based on whoever has the most power at that moment or whoever he can benefit the most from. He doesn’t hesitate to lie in order to promote his own goals at the expense of other people, as he does with Philip concerning the prior’s dispute with the Hamleighs over access to the market and the stone quarry. The stone quarry became a particular source of contention because the priory needed the stones in order to construct the new cathedral. The Hamleighs did not support the construction of a new cathedral while Waleran merely wanted the stones for his own castle. Bishop Waleran also actively conspired to secure Stephen’s claim to the English Throne, covering up his actions by abusing his role as Ellen’s confessor to silence the remaining survivor of the ship carrying the previous king’s heir.

For Prior Philip, faith in God is a source of strength and guidance and is central in everything he does, ahead of his obedience to the Church’s hierarchy. He relies on it when facing many of his challenges: from confronting William Hamleigh about the stone quarry, to struggling to make the Kingsbridge market a reality, and going undercover with King Stephen to rival Empress Maude’s camp. Even when he believes that he failed the cathedral project, he accepts his failure and subsequent humiliation under Waleran and Brother Remigius. He doesn’t turn his back on his faith but rather goes deep into prayer, reflecting on his actions and searching for understanding and direction. When he emerges from his contemplation, he is stronger and surer of himself and the reasons behind his decisions.

While Bishop Waleran also has faith in God, he uses it and his position in the Church as a shield to protect himself from the violent side of court politics, as he reveals to Lady Regan Hamleigh when they are stranded on Maude’s side of the conflict. When Prior Philip directly goes against his plans and defies his authority, he takes it as a sign of disobedience and pride; he uses the Church and a choice interpretation of their values to support his authority, going as far as to proclaim, “I swear by all that is holy, you will not build your church!” He also uses this interpretation to place the blame on Philip when one of the vaulted ceilings of the cathedral collapses, ousting Philip as leader of the priory in the process. While he recites his prayers, kneels before miracles and relics, and conducts an extreme form of self-flagellation, his actions towards other people shows that he does not care about their welfare or the projects aimed for the betterment of the community.

Additionally, Bishop Waleran uses the faith of others to carry out his plans, either unbeknownst to them or against their will. He uses Brother Remigius to spy on Prior Philip and his activities, using the monk’s previous indiscretions as leverage to keep him in line. He also manipulates the weaknesses and frustrations of others, such as King Stephen, to direct their anger towards his enemies. Others also use the bishop’s utilitarian approach of his office for their own ends, such as Lady Regan Hamleigh and her son William, who are able to garner an absolution from him before William set out to forcibly close the quarry.

Prior Philip and Bishop Waleran represent the different ways the Christian faith was upheld and ignored during the Middle Ages. While Prior Philip uses his position to lead the construction of the new cathedral, Bishop Waleran’s exploitation of his office ultimately leads to the exposure of his crimes. While both men struggle with their weaknesses and the obstacles standing in the way of achieving their goals, Waleran’s use of the church is ultimately to raise himself up while Philip’s faith brings the community together in praise of God.  ♥



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