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A Column of Fire Summary & Study Guide Description
A Column of Fire Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:
A Column of Fire, written by Ken Follett, is a historical epic that details specific events during the reign of Queen Elizabeth Tudor and the fallout of the Catholic Church’s loss of power. It faithfully tells the story of three countries that includes England which faces civil war after Elizabeth attempts to enact her belief in tolerance; France where Mary Stuart (or Mary Queen of Scots) declares herself the true Queen of England, but loses her throne to the tolerant Queen Caterina after the death of Mary’s husband, King Francis; and Spain, a country ruled by ruthless Catholic royalty. All three of these countries and the smaller ones they interact with such as the Netherlands and Scotland face the beginning of a new era as Protestants fight for their freedom and Catholics feel threatened by the new concept of religious tolerance. The main conflict of the novel is Protestants versus Catholics, leading to war between England and the rest of the world. The real story of the novel lies in the various fictional characters that are seamlessly written into the historical context. Each character has a personal narrative, but all come together as the various countries begin to interact. Due to the complexities of the story, the summary is divided in five sections, representing the significant time skips in the novel itself.
Part One, set in 1558, introduces all of the characters and details the events leading to the ascension of Queen Elizabeth. In Kingsbridge, England, the reader meets Ned Willard, a son of a merchant who believes in tolerance above all and dreams of marrying the second main character, Margery Fitzgerald. However, as Ned’s main rival and Margery’s brother, Rollo is staunchly against this marriage. Rollo helps his parents convince Margery that it is God’s duty for her to marry a less intellectual and more violent man named Bart.
Rollo’s father, Sir Reginald, forces Ned’s mother Alice to give him a loan for a bad deal. Then, he and Rollo work with a corrupt priest named Bishop Julius to force Alice to forfeit the loan, as well as execute the man behind the business deal, a well known Protestant named Philbert Cobley. This convinces Ned to head to Hatfield and accept a job as one of Elizabeth’s advisers, working under William Cecil to ensure her succession following the death of her half sister, Mary Tudor, much to the anger of many Catholics, including Rollo.
Meanwhile, a Protestant girl named Sylvie in France works with her family to sell illegal Protestant materials in Paris. She meets and falls in love with Pierre Aumande, who is secretly a spy for the Catholic Guise family with plans to rule France through their cousin, Mary Stuart, and her best friend and closest servant Alison. After Mary marries Francis, the heir to the throne, she is in line to become the next Queen of France. Lastly, Carlos, Barney, and Ebrima, a slave who makes a living in metalwork for the King of Spain, face religious persecution after they are denounced by one of Carlos’ rivals and forced to join the Spanish army to escape with their lives.
Part Two is set between 1559 and 1563. Elizabeth has announced herself as a Protestant, and she has turned Catholicism into a heretical practice. However, her true wish is for tolerance, and she refuses to enforce any of the laws that would kill Catholics for their beliefs. This causes issues in Kingsbridge, as the Catholic Fitzgeralds begin fighting against the Protestant Cobleys who want revenge for Philbert’s death. Margery remains faithful to Bart, but she is raped by her father-in-law on numerous occasions. This leads her to push Ned to thwart violence between the Kingsbridge religious groups, while ensuring that her father-in-law dies. Ned succeeds in ruining the plans of both sides, while having Margery’s father-in-law executed for treason.
In France, King Henri dies of a jousting injury, placing a weak King Francis and his wife Mary Stuart on the throne. This effectively puts the Guise family in charge of the country. Pierre, in an attempt to solidify himself among the noble Guise family, pretends to marry Sylvie, before betraying her and her congregation to the Guises. This leads to the death of their pastor and Sylvie’s father. While Pierre is formally brought into the family by changing his last name, he is forced to marry a servant named Odette to cover up an affair by a member of the Guise family meant to become a priest. Although humiliated, Pierre is determined to remain valuable to the Guise family, using his extensive knowledge of politics to push them toward decisions that help fulfill his own ambitions. However, when Odette has her child, Pierre is prevented from leaving it at a nunnery and told that he will take care of both her and the child for the rest of his life. Even worse, King Francis dies, and Queen Caterina manipulates both the Guise family and their enemies to take control of the crown herself. This prompts the Guise family, led by Pierre, to massacre of group of Protestants leading to a civil war. The violence is stopped when the Duke of Guise is killed. However, Pierre ensures that his young son Henri, the new Duke of Guise, relies on Pierre while maintaining his hatred for the Protestant leader Gaspard de Coligny.
Lastly, Barney, Carlos, and Ebrima have stayed in the Spanish army for over two years with no money or way to leave. However, when their captain- a violent man named Ironhand – attacks Ebrima for winning too much money in their gambling game, Barney accidentally kills Ironhand and the three are forced to flee. They eventually arrive in Antwerp, where trade is more important that religion and secure a business deal with a relative of Barney’s named Jan. They recreate Carlos’ powerful furnace, and Carlos names Ebrima as one of his partners, ensuring Ebrima’s freedom and future wealth. Barney decides to leave Antwerp as he plans to return home. However, he is tricked into joining the crew of the Hawk under the command of Captain Bacon who works for Dan Cobley. They end up in Hispaniola where Bacon participates in the slave trade. Barney falls in love with a woman named Bella, but is forced to leave her when a Spanish warship attacks the Hawk. With Bacon’s expert maneuvering and Barney’s knowledge of cannons, they destroy the warship and head back to Kingsbridge.
Part Three takes place from 1566 to 1573 as the war between Protestants and Catholics begins to peek in all three major countries. In Spain, the High Inquisitor condemns a young girl to be executed by burning, and Ebrima is able to use the fervent crowd to riot and save the girl. However, this causes the young Protestants to storm the Cathedral and destroy numerous, priceless artifacts, trample priests, and tear apart a priceless painting that Carlos had commissioned for the church. In England, Ned reconnects with Margery after the death of his mother. The two enjoy an affair for three months until he he must return to London and journey to France with Elizabeth’s adviser Walsingham. Furthermore, the Pope excommunicates Elizabeth, causing the Protestants to turn on the Catholics as they are now seen as enemies of the state. This causes Rollo to lose his business after Dan Cobley uses Rollo’s faith against him. Rollo travels to France where he is trained to be a priest and takes on the fake alias Jean Langlais and, with the help of Margery, Rollo begins smuggling priests back into England. Meanwhile, in Scotland, Mary and Alison escape from prison and head to England with the intent of working with Elizabeth to take back the throne in Scotland for Mary. However, Elizabeth has Mary arrested instead, as she and her advisers worry about Mary’s supporters overthrowing Elizabeth.
Meanwhile, Ned and Walsingham are sent to France as ambassadors. Ned gathers valuable information and increases his spy network throughout France Protestants. He meets Sylvie and appreciates her bravery and eventually falls in love with her. However, a royal wedding is planned between the Protestant Prince Henri of Navarre and the Catholic Princess Margot to establish tolerance in France. While Margot does not want to marry the Prince, she is forced to and the Huguenots (French Protestants) celebrate. However, Pierre knows he is losing power in the Guise family and France that he decides to start a massacre. He manipulates many powerful Catholics, including the royal family themselves, leading to the death of the Protestant leader Coligny and the murder of thousands in Pairs and many cities throughout Paris. Ned and Sylvie warn as many people as they can and make it to the embassy safely at the cost of Sylvie’s mother. Ned and Sylvie marry soon after and return to London together. However, Sylvie continues to help sell illegal books in France through her friend Nath. In Kingsbridge, Sylvie meets Margery and Ned’s son Roger. However, Ned promises that he only wants Sylvie and the two enjoy their marriage.
Part Four takes place place between 1583 to 1589 as Ned struggles to keep Elizabeth alive, France faces a horrible civil war, and Spain declares war on England in the name of the Catholic Church. With Mary imprisoned for over twenty years, Ned and his boss Walsingham search for any evidence that Mary is working with a conspiracy to overthrow Queen Elizabeth. Rollo and Pierre work tirelessly to plan an attack on England with the Duke of Guise and use the Catholic priests within England to start an insurrection. However, their plans are constantly foiled by Ned, eventually leading to Mary’s execution after Ned reads a letter with her explicit permission to rescue her and promise to kill Queen Elizabeth. This eventually leads to the threat of a Spanish Invasion. Despite the odds heavily favoring the Spanish, the English navy is able to outmaneuver the Armada and defeat them, preventing the invasion. In Paris, Pierre is caught off guard as King Henri orders the Duke of Guise’s death. When Pierre tries to escape, his stepson Alain and his mistress Louise kill him out of revenge, saying that he is no longer needed. In Kingsbridge, Rollo returns to Margery who is furious at him for using her network of priests to push for violence. Rollo reminds her that she cannot betray him, as he will be able to betray her, leading to the death of both her and her sons. Meanwhile, the Wilards are celebrating Christmas when Sylvie spots Jean who she recognized from Paris. She chases him to the top of the Cathedral, unaware that Jean is actually Rollo. Their fight ends with Sylvie being thrown from the roof, breaking her neck in the fall and Rollo getting away with murder. Ned is crushed by her death, but eventually reconnects and marries Margery after feeling that Sylvie wants him to move on with his life.
Part Five is set in 1602 to 1606, and focuses on the final conflict left in the novel: Rollo versus Ned. Rollo, who feels like his entire life is a failure as England is as Protestant as ever, is sent to speak to Queen Anne and King James Stuart of Scotland who is going to take the English throne upon Elizabeth’s death. The Pope hopes that they will accept tolerance in England, as Queen Anne has recently converted to Catholicism. King James agrees, but goes against his word once he becomes the King, leading Rollo to plan to kill the King, his entire family, and everyone in Parliament in desperation. Meanwhile, Ned is angry that King James refused to uphold Elizabeth's tolerance, but is determined to protect him. After Margery learns that Rollo blames to detonate a bomb during a Parliament meeting, she decides to betray Rollo at the risk of her own life. While Ned is sad that she kept this information from him for so long, he asks King James to protect her and her sons, pretending that she was forced to smuggle priests into England under the pressure of her husband and brother. Thanks to Margery, Ned stops Rollo’s attack and finally has him executed for heresy.
In the Epilogue, set in 1620, an eighty year old Ned reflects on his life while his great-grandchildren ask him numerous questions about the world. His wife Margery has already passed away, and Ned knows he is close to his own end. Barney’s son, Alfo is the mayor of Kingsbridge and Ned’s son Roger is now a member of King Jame’s Privy Council. Ned himself knows he will never return to London. His grandson Jack, Roger’s son, tells Ned that he and a group of Puritan friends are going to the new world to try and escape King Jame’s intolerance. Ned is surprised, but promises to pray for Jack’s travel. As Jack leaves, Ned remembers the life he lived, and knows that his story will one day fade away before falling asleep.
This section contains 2,190 words
(approx. 6 pages at 400 words per page)