Skip to content

World Without End (The Kingsbridge Novels Book 2) by Ken Follett

December 4, 2018

World Without End takes place in the same town of Kingsbridge, two centuries after the townspeople finished building the exquisite Gothic cathedral that was at the heart of The Pillars of the Earth. The cathedral and the priory are again at the center of a web of love and hate, greed and pride, ambition and revenge, but this sequel stands on its own. This time the men and women of an extraordinary cast of characters find themselves at a crossroads of new ideas—about medicine, commerce, architecture, and justice. In a world where proponents of the old ways fiercely battle those with progressive minds, the intrigue and tension quickly reach a boiling point against the devastating backdrop of the greatest natural disaster ever to strike the human race—the Black Death.

At the heart of this tale is a secret document, which we do have revealed to us near the end, but those who know their history (and the rumours of the period) will already know what this regards with the death of Edward II, so to those this will be no revelation. Therefore this novel is set in the reign of Edward III, and some of the characters here do actually go to France, and thus we read of the likes of Crécy, and are reminded why British forces were so powerful with their formidable use of the longbow. Also of course we do travel to Shiring and the monks’ outpost in the forest, as well as even Florence.

The novel begins in the fictional city of Kingsbridge, England in the year 1327. Four children – Merthin, Caris, Gwenda, and Merthin’s brother Ralph – head into the woods on All Hallows Day. Together the children witness two men-at-arms killed in self-defence by Sir Thomas Langley, aided by Ralph. The children then flee, with the exception of Merthin, who helps the wounded Sir Thomas bury a letter with instructions to dig up and deliver it if and when Sir Thomas should die. After this Sir Thomas flees to Kingsbridge and seeks refuge in the monastery and becomes a Benedictine monk, while the four children swear never to speak of what they saw.

Ten years later Caris and Merthin are in love. When a section of the vault of the Kingsbridge Cathedral collapses Merthin, now an apprentice carpenter, shows his genius by developing a cheaper means of repair than his master.

Ralph, now a squire to Earl Roland of Shiring, provokes a fight and has his nose broken by a handsome peasant from Gwenda’s village named Wulfric, for whom Gwenda has a hopeless infatuation. Gwenda is sold for a cow by her father to be prostituted at an outlaws’ camp. She kills one of the outlaws while he is raping her, and escapes. She is followed by her buyer, but is able to drown him when the Kingsbridge bridge collapses, a tragedy that kills many, including all of Wulfric’s immediate family and Prior Anthony of Kingsbridge. In the midst of the disaster Ralph saves Earl Roland’s life and is rewarded with the lordship of Gwenda’s village of Wigleigh.

Gwenda and Wulfric return to Wigleigh and attempt to gain Wulfric the inheritance of his father’s land. The inheritance is eventually denied by Ralph because of the grudge he bears against Wulfric. Due to his poor prospects, Wulfric’s beautiful wife-to-be, Annet, leaves him allowing Gwenda to marry him instead. Gwenda then tries to win Wulfric back his lands by having sex with Ralph, but Ralph does not uphold his end of the deal. Gwenda’s first son, Sam, is conceived through this liaison.

Meanwhile, the monastery’s Sacrist, Godwyn, a nephew of Prior Anthony, outwits his opponents and wins the priory election in an overwhelming victory. Godwyn claims to be a reformer, but turns out to be even more conservative and quickly begins to clash with the townsmen on a number of issues, including the funding and building of a fabulous new bridge designed by Merthin and allowing the townspeople to full wool for a growing fabric industry. Caris, who becomes the de facto alderman, is a particular problem. Despite being her cousin, Godwyn charges Caris with witchcraft hoping to have her executed to get her out of the way. To escape execution, Caris agrees to join the Kingsbridge nunnery. With his impending marriage to Caris made impossible, Merthin leaves Kingsbridge for Florence, Italy to pursue his building career.

Eight years later, when Godwyn steals money from the substantially more profitable nuns, Caris travels to France to petition the bishop, who is fighting with King Edward III in France. Along the way she witnesses the ravages of the war and acts as a field nurse during the Battle of Crecy, during which Ralph, having fled charges of rape and murder in England, saves the life of the Prince of Wales and is rewarded with his lifelong dream of knighthood. Caris’s errand is fruitless, however, as the bishop of Kingsbridge as well as Earl Roland have been killed in the battle.

In Florence, the city is ravaged by the Black Death, having arrived in Messina in 1347. After recovering from the plague, a newly widowed Merthin experiences an epiphany of his love for Caris and returns to Kingsbridge with his daughter Laura (Lolla). There he finds Caris unwilling to renounce her vows and the two go through a sporadic liaison. At the same time, Merthin re-establishes himself in the community by solving flaws left in the new bridge during its completion after his departure.

Thousands of residents of Kingsbridge die in the outbreak of plague, and the city quickly descends into anarchy. Godwyn loses his nerve and flees with the monks to an isolated chapel where he and all the monks die except for Gwenda’s brother Philemon, who fled, and Thomas Langley. After the prioress of the nunnery dies Caris is elected Prioress and promoted acting Prior in the absence of Godwin, and she institutes the use of masks and cleanliness which help to protect the nuns from the plague.

After William, the new Earl of Shiring, dies from the plague along with all his male heirs, Ralph sees a chance to become Earl. After murdering his young wife Matilda (Tilly) he arranges his marriage to William’s widow Lady Phillipa, whom he has long desired, and makes himself Earl. However Philippa spurns him and leaves for the Kingsbridge nunnery, where she has a rendezvous with Merthin and conceives his child. Afraid of Ralph’s wrath, Philippa seduces Ralph to make him believe the child is his. As a result, Merthin and Philippa cannot continue their liaison.

After two years, the plague dissipates and Caris renounces her vows, after finally being able to run her own independent hospital, and marries Merthin. After ten years of hardship, the people of Kingsbridge are granted a borough charter, freeing them from the lordship of the priory, and Merthin becomes alderman. Merthin also solves the long troublesome problem of why the vault of the cathedral collapsed by dismantling and rebuilding one of the towers which he redesigns to be the tallest building in England.

Labour shortages resulting from the plague allow Wulfric to regain his father’s land. When Sam, the secret son of Ralph, kills the local bailiff’s son, Gwenda reveals his true parentage to Ralph to gain Sam’s release. Armed with this knowledge, Ralph blackmails Gwenda into having sex with him again. When Sam walks in on this, there is struggle in which Sam and Gwenda kill Ralph. Davey, Gwenda’s second son, negotiates a free tenancy and marries Amabel, the daughter of Wulfric’s former wife-to-be, proving to Gwenda that her life has had some worth.

Gwenda’s conniving brother Philemon becomes Prior of Kingsbridge and even tries to become Bishop, but his ambition is ruined after Sir Thomas Langley dies of old age. Merthin keeps his promise and digs up the letter which reveals that the deposed King Edward II had secretly survived and had taken the identity of one of his attackers. Merthin trades the letter to a member of the king’s court in exchange for Philemon’s departure from Kingsbridge forever.

As the plague comes back, Caris’s intelligence, practical sense and determination allow the townspeople to subdue this second outbreak, making her the most popular and revered figure in Kingsbridge. Merthin completes his spire and succeeds in making Kingsbridge cathedral the tallest building in England.

With so many incidents going on here, we are also reminded of the devastation caused by the plague, and how little was known with regards to not only medicine, but also disease control. With issues arising such as what power women could hold, and lots of political manoeuvring, so the period is really brought to life.

Major characters

Merthin: A red-haired descendant of Jack Builder and Lady Aliena, the chief protagonists of The Pillars of the Earth. Variously known as Merthin Fitzgerald, Merthin Builder, and Merthin Bridger, Merthin is the eldest son of the disgraced knight Sir Gerald and Lady Maud. A clever young carpenter, builder, and architect, he uses his intellect to his advantage and has a lifelong love for Caris. He designs a radical new bridge before being forced to renounce Caris. Leaving for Italy, he becomes successful in Florence, where he marries. Several years later, after his wife and her family are wiped out by the plague in Florence, he returns to Kingsbridge with his only daughter, Lolla, and establishes his authority as a master builder. He becomes Alderman of the town’s guild, and eventually marries Caris. He builds a new hospital for Caris to run and a tower for Kingsbridge Cathedral, making it the tallest structure in England of that time.

Caris: The feisty daughter of Edmund Wooler – the Alderman of the parish guild, and a direct descendant of Tom Builder – Caris is one of the two main characters in the novel with Merthin, whom she loves truly and exclusively throughout her whole life. Since childhood she wants to be a doctor, though only men may be physicians. A determined and bright woman, she refuses to marry to keep her independence, although she and Merthin love each other deeply. Her rising influence in the town and her bid to free the merchants from the control of the priory brings her into conflict with the church, resulting in her being tried for witchcraft. She escapes the death sentence by entering the priory as a nun, thanks to the Prioress, Mother Cecilia. In charge of the hospital, she uses common sense and observation, and opposes the formerly undisputed authority of the monk – physicians. During the outbreaks of plague, Caris enforces hygiene practices to inhibit its spread and writes a catalogue of cures and good practices to avoid the spreading of contagious illnesses, which becomes coveted by pharmacists throughout England. She’s elected Prioress of Kingsbridge after the death of Mother Cecilia and is promoted acting Prior when all the monks flee Kingsbridge for fear of the plague. She then renounces her vows, manages to run independently a new hospital and marries Merthin, who’s by then the Alderman of the guild. After she successfully fights the plague a second time, she becomes revered in the whole town

Godwyn: An older cousin of Caris and monk at the Kingsbridge Priory, Godwyn gives the impression of a reformer as he maneuvers his election as Prior – with the help of his scheming mother, Petranilla. Unable to imaginatively solve the Priory’s financial problems, Godwyn, with continued advice from his mother, and with Philemon’s loyal assistance, resorts to more conservative tactics to protect his position and advance himself politically, usually at the expense of the town and of the associated nunnery. Dies of the plague as he attempts to isolate himself and the monastery’s cell – St. John in the Forest. Ends his life having achieved very few of his aspirations despite his cruel efforts.

Gwenda: The daughter of landless labourers in the village of Wigleigh and sister to Philemon, as a small child she is taught by her father, Joby, to steal to save her family from starvation. She steals Sir Gerald’s purse and therefore is partly responsible for his disgraced status and for the destiny of his two sons, Merthin and Ralph. She becomes estranged from her family when her father sells her to vagabonds for a cow. Though she never escapes poverty and tragedy, she uses her wits to better her situation and escape danger. Though not pretty and is described as “rat-like”, Gwenda is sensual in her appearance and is both desired and despised by Ralph. Gwenda loves Wulfric, despite the fact that he is engaged to Annet and is a lifelong friend to Caris, despite the great difference in their social class. She is raped by Ralph and marries Wulfric once he cannot marry Annet. Gwenda rams her dagger into the dying Ralph’s mouth to protect the secret that her son Sam, is Ralph’s and not Wulfric’s.

Ralph: Merthin’s younger brother and complete opposite, he is a rapist and a murderer. A natural-born warrior, Ralph is selfish, ruthless, and will stop at nothing to become an Earl and redeem his family’s disgrace. He holds his brother in great esteem and maintains a wish for his approval, although he rarely curtails his behavior in order to achieve it. Ralph has as a lifelong obsession with Lady Philippa, who becomes his second wife. He hates Wulfric. Ralph is forced into exile after a trial for rape and becomes a feared outlaw, who is scheduled to hang. Ralph escapes death by going to war in France and saves Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales. Returns from war a knight, fulfilling lifelong goal of repairing family name; is eventually made Earl of Shiring. Realizing that Sam is his son, he blackmails Gwenda into having sex with him. He is killed by Gwenda, when Sam finds them together after protectively following his mother. In the TV adaptation, he is played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen.

Minor characters

Thomas Langley: a Knight who arrives in Kingsbridge at the beginning of the book. Together with Ralph, he kills two of the Queen’s men after they attack him. He is injured in the fight and eventually loses his left arm at the elbow. Together with Merthin, he buries a message at the base of the tree. Becomes a monk to avoid retribution and tells Merthin that if he hears of Thomas’ death, to bring the letter to a priest. He is a friend to Merthin and Caris and a foil to many of Godwyn’s actions. He captures Ralph and brings him to justice for his many crimes, although Ralph is later pardoned by the king. Thomas Langley dies in 1361 as an old monk, suffering symptoms of senility. Merthin completes his promise to dig up the letter and learns that King Edward II was not assassinated, but escaped and is hiding in exile. Philemon also learned the secret, but Merthin outwits him and sells the letter to the King in exchange for the promotion of Canon Claude to Bishop and sending Philemon to Avignon to be ambassador to the Pope.

Lady Philippa: Noblewoman and wife of Lord William of Caster, later Earl William of Shiring. She loathes Ralph from the moment he becomes a squire but after William and both of their sons die in the plague is forced by King Edward III to marry him. Soon after Ralph becomes earl, their mutual distaste for each other results in Philippa moving into the nunnery and a love affair with Merthin, in which she conceives a child. She seduces Ralph to convince him that the son Roley is his and avoid being killed for adultery.

Wulfric: Attractive and hard-working; son of landed peasants of Wigleigh; hated by Ralph Fitzgerald because he does not let Ralph intimidate him; loses his birthright when family dies during the collapse of Kingsbridge bridge; town politics (and Ralph) keep him from earning back his family’s land; becomes impoverished but happily married to Gwenda and has two sons (although, unbeknownst to him, one of them is not his). He is eventually, much to Ralph’s disgust, given back his family’s land as the Plague has killed all others capable of farming the land.

Philemon (Holger Wigleigh): Ambitious monk, son of Joby and brother of Gwenda. For years he is Godwyn’s loyal assistant. When the monks start to be wiped out by the Plague, he escapes and disappears for a long time. Eventually he succeeds Godwyn as Prior after he returns, when the Plague has run its course. Dishonest and shamelessly self-promoting, Philemon has a penchant for stealing trinkets and keeps them in a secret hiding place. He aspires to become Bishop of Shiring, but is rejected after Merthin bargains with the King’s man with his letter from Thomas Langley. In the end, he becomes the royal emissary to the Pope and leaves Kingsbridge.

Elfric: Bitter and vindictive Master Carpenter, Builder. Son of old, and more talented master, Joachim. He sees Merthin as a challenge to his status and livelihood and does everything possible to make his life difficult. While alive resists attempts to admit Merthin to the Guilds as he never finished his apprenticeship. Dies in the first outbreak of the Plague.

Annet: Pretty and flirtatious, but dull; uses her feminine charms to sell her family’s eggs at Kingsbridge market and attract Wulfric; attracts unwanted attention from Ralph Fitzgerald and is later raped by him. Broke off her engagement to Wulfric when he is disinherited. Is never happy with life and eventually realizes the great mistake she made. Throughout life Gwenda views her as an adversary as she keeps flirting with Wulfric. Eventually at the wedding of their children the two are reconciled as Gwenda realizes that she has won.

Mattie Wise: Kingsbridge’s herbalist and midwife; leaves town abruptly when another citizen is accused of witchcraft; teaches young Caris healing arts and herbology; saves Gwenda’s life when educated doctors and nuns fail to help her safely through delivering her first child; always instructs patients to pray to God, to avoid any claims of witchcraft or devil-conjuring.

Joby Wigleigh: lowest in Wigleigh social hierarchy; landless laborer; missing one hand from when caught stealing; lies, cheats, and steals to feed his family; sells his daughter Gwenda to outlaws for a cow.

Madge Webber: Only surviving member of the Webber family; honest but poor at the outset, Caris changes the family fortunes by contracting them to weave and make dyed cloth. Husband Mark was the first Kingsbridge resident to die of the plague, her sons also died. Later she remarries and has a daughter

Alice: Caris’ sister; resents Caris; married to Elfric, who takes Merthin as an apprentice; tries to trap Merthin into marrying her stepdaughter, Griselda.

Griselda: Elfric’s daughter from a previous marriage, seduces Merthin after her boyfriend Thurstan leaves town when he finds that she is pregnant. Attempts to make Merthin marry her to be a father to her child. Is frustrated by Caris as she finds that Griselda is several months along in her pregnancy and Merthin’s liaison was only recent. Names her child Merthin out of spite, though all of the town realize that he is not Merthin’s child.

Buonaventura Caroli; Italian wool merchant who trades in Kingsbridge; friend to Edmund, and later to Merthin when he lives in Florence; assists Caris in developing “Kingsbridge scarlet” quality bright red wool fabric; brings Caris news of Merthin after he has settled in Florence.

Lolla (Laura): Merthin’s daughter by his Florentine wife; never contracts plague in Italy as a toddler and is so believed to be immune; brought to Kingsbridge by her father after whole family dies of plague. Is a cause of consternation to Merthin for her rebelliousness in her teens and eventually decides to follow in Caris’ steps as a healer, apprenticing herself to Caris in her hospital.

Bessie Bell: Tavern keeper’s daughter; cares for Lolla and seduces Merthin when they return from Italy, before Merthin builds his own home. Dies in the first outbreak of the Plague and leaves the tavern to Merthin.

Mair: A young nun with a beautiful angel face, brief lover of Caris, with whom she travels to France, dies in first outbreak of the plague.

Prior Anthony,: Uncle of Godwyn and Caris and Prior of Kingsbridge at the beginning of the book. Is killed in the collapse of the first bridge.

Prior Saul Whitehead: Nephew of the Earl of Shiring, Prior of Saint-John-in-the-Forest, is initially chosen by the Earl to be the new Prior of Kingsbridge, but convinced not to run through Godwyn’s manipulation.

Bishop Richard: younger son of Earl Roland, when still a young man he becomes bishop of Kingsbridge; he is practical, but not devout. His lust gives Godwyn a weapon to use against him. Dies at the Battle of Crécy.

Tilly: (Matilda of Tench): young aristocrat; educated by Kingsbridge nuns; married to Ralph in her early teens, gives Ralph one son (Gerald) before she is murdered by Ralph.

Henri of Mons, bishop of Kingsbridge: A good, intelligent and practical man, he is an unlikely ally of Caris’ from her days as Prioress of Kingsbridge. Although the two have differences of opinion, he realizes that Caris is bright and successful. He has a relationship with his subordinate, Canon Claude, which Caris is aware of, but never divulges. He fights against Philemon when possible. He favours Caris and quickly becomes the key to the balance of powers in Kingsbridge.

Petranilla: Mother of Godwyn and sister of Edmund Wooler and Prior Anthony. She is very cunning. Her first husband dies before the events of the book take place. Closely advises Godwyn, sometimes against his will, and her plan leads to him winning the Prior election. Strongly dislikes her niece Caris. Dies in the first outbreak of plague.

Edmund Wooler: Alderman of the Parish Guild and father of Caris and Alice. Brother of Petranilla and Prior Anthony. Carries on the family wool business after his father dies and his brother joins the Church. Often at odds with the Priors of Kingsbridge due to the fact that they don’t often side with the interests of the townspeople.

Odila of Shiring, countess of Monmouth: Noblewoman, the only surviving child of Earl William of Shiring after the plague killed her brothers. She was then married to David of Caerleon, the young, new earl of Monmouth. As stepsister of Ralph’s sons, her household will receive the young Gerald of Shiring as squire.

Mother Cecilia: Prioress for much of the book. Tough and strict, she is also very caring and well regarded. She saves Caris from being executed for witchcraft by suggesting she join the nunnery. She had a soft spot for Godwyn when he was younger, but grows to dislike him and distrust him when he rules that the monks and nuns must be physically separate (causing the nuns to lose significant access to the priory’s facilities). Later, she learns further how untrustworthy he is when he steals a large bequest from the nuns’ funds to pay for the building of a new Prior’s palace. She dies in the first plague outbreak.

Elizabeth Clerk; Foil to Caris, bright and educated, beautiful; wants to marry Merthin and nearly seduces him, but is frustrated by Merthin’s unrequited obsession with Caris; enters nunnery when Merthin refuses her; politically opposed to Caris in nunnery politics, based on prior grudge.

Friar Murdo: A meddlesome, psychotic charlatan who uses zealous piety to satisfy his desire to see women burned as witches. Provides crucial evidence that seems to assure Caris’s guilt at her trial for witchcraft.

Earl Roland: the earl of Shiring; he and his sons acted as the Queen’s henchmen in the assassination attempt of Edward II.

Sir Gerald and Lady Maude. Parents of Merthin and Ralph. Formerly of gentry, owning some villages, they settle to live as pensioners of the monastery.

Bisexuality is taken for granted.

Like the title, the book seems almost without end. Much as I loved it, it is too long.

And I don’t think Vespers was called Evensong until the Reformation.

I learned that the Latin podex = ‘arsehole’ the anal region : rump


GWENDA WAS EIGHT YEARS OLD, but she was not afraid of the dark.

When she opened her eyes she could see nothing, but that was not what scared her. She knew where she was. She was at Kingsbridge Priory, in the long stone building they called the hospital, lying on the floor in a bed of straw. Her mother lay next to her, and Gwenda could tell, by the warm milky smell, that Ma was feeding the new baby, who did not yet have a name. Beside Ma was Pa, and next to him Gwenda’s older brother, Philemon, who was twelve.

The hospital was crowded, and though she could not see the other families lying along the floor, squashed together like sheep in a pen, she could smell the rank odour of their warm bodies. When dawn broke it would be All Hallows, a Sunday this year and therefore an especially holy day. By the same token the night before was All Hallows’ Eve, a dangerous time when evil spirits roamed freely. Hundreds of people had come to Kingsbridge from the surrounding villages, as Gwenda’s family had, to spend Halloween in the sanctified precincts of the priory, and to attend the All Hallows service at daybreak.

Gwenda was wary of evil spirits, like every sensible person; but she was more scared of what she had to do during the service.

She stared into the gloom, trying not to think about what frightened her. She knew that the wall opposite her had an arched window. There was no glass – only the most important buildings had glass windows – but a linen blind kept out the cold autumn air. However, she could not see even a faint patch of grey where the window should be. She was glad. She did not want the morning to come.

She could see nothing, but there was plenty to listen to. The straw that covered the floor whispered constantly as people stirred and shifted in their sleep. A child cried out, as if woken by a dream, and was quickly silenced by a murmured endearment. Now and again someone spoke, uttering the half-formed words of sleep talk. Somewhere there was the sound of two people doing the thing parents did but never spoke of, the thing Gwenda called Grunting because she had no other word for it.

Too soon, there was a light. At the eastern end of the long room, behind the altar, a monk came through the door carrying a single candle. He put the candle down on the altar, lit a taper from it, and went around touching the flame to the wall lamps, his long shadow reaching up the wall each time like a reflection, his taper meeting the shadow taper at the wick of the lamp.

The strengthening light illuminated rows of humped figures on the floor, wrapped in their drab cloaks or huddled up to their neighbours for warmth. Sick people occupied the cots near the altar, where they could get the maximum benefit from the holiness of the place. At the opposite end, a staircase led to the upper floor where there were rooms for aristocratic visitors: the earl of Shiring was there now with some of his family.

The monk leaned over Gwenda to light the lamp above her head. He caught her eye and smiled. She studied his face in the shifting light of the flame and recognized him as Brother Godwyn. He was young and handsome, and last night he had spoken kindly to Philemon.

Beside Gwenda was another family from her village: Samuel, a prosperous peasant with a large landholding, and his wife and two sons, the younger of whom, Wulfric, was an annoying six-year-old who thought that throwing acorns at girls then running away was the funniest thing in the world.

Gwenda’s family was not prosperous. Her father had no land at all, and hired himself out as a labourer to anyone who would pay him. There was always work in the summer but, after the harvest was gathered in and the weather began to turn cold, the family often went hungry.

That was why Gwenda had to steal.

She imagined being caught: a strong hand grabbing her arm, holding her in an unbreakable grip while she wriggled helplessly; a deep, cruel voice saying, ‘Well, well, a little thief’; the pain and humiliation of a whipping; and then, worst of all, the agony and loss as her hand was chopped off.

Her father had suffered this punishment. At the end of his left arm was a hideous wrinkled stump. He managed well with one hand – he could use a shovel, saddle a horse and even make a net to catch birds – but all the same he was always the last labourer to be hired in the spring, and the first to be laid off in the autumn. He could never leave the village and seek work elsewhere, because the amputation marked him as a thief, so that people would refuse to hire him. When travelling, he tied a stuffed glove to the stump, to avoid being shunned by every stranger he met; but that did not fool people for long.

Gwenda had not witnessed Pa’s punishment – it had happened before she was born – but she had often imagined it, and now she could not help thinking about the same thing happening to her. In her mind she saw the blade of the axe coming down on her wrist, slicing through her skin and her bones, and severing her hand from her arm, so that it could never be reattached; and she had to clamp her teeth together to keep from screaming out loud.

People were standing up, stretching and yawning and rubbing their faces. Gwenda got up and shook out her clothes. All her garments had previously belonged to her older brother. She wore a woollen shift that came down to her knees and a tunic over it, gathered at the waist with a belt made of hemp cord. Her shoes had once been laced, but the eyelets were torn and the laces gone, and she tied them to her feet with plaited straw. When she had tucked her hair into a cap made of squirrel tails, she had finished dressing.

She caught her father’s eye, and he pointed surreptitiously to a family across the way, a couple in middle age with two sons a little older than Gwenda. The man was short and slight, with a curly red beard. He was buckling on a sword, which meant he was a man-at-arms or a knight: ordinary people were not allowed to wear swords. His wife was a thin woman with a brisk manner and a grumpy face. As Gwenda scrutinized them, Brother Godwyn nodded respectfully and said: ‘Good morning, Sir Gerald, Lady Maud.’

Gwenda saw what had attracted her father’s notice. Sir Gerald had a purse attached to his belt by a leather thong. The purse bulged. It looked as if it contained several hundred of the small, thin silver pennies, halfpennies and farthings that were the English currency – as much money as Pa could earn in a year if he had been able to find employment. It would be more than enough to feed the family until the spring ploughing. The purse might even contain a few foreign gold coins, florins from Florence or ducats from Venice.

Gwenda had a small knife in a wooden sheath hanging from a cord around her neck. The sharp blade would quickly cut the thong and cause the fat purse to fall into her small hand – unless Sir Gerald felt something strange and grabbed her before she could do the deed . . .

Godwyn raised his voice over the rumble of talk. ‘For the love of Christ, who teaches us charity, breakfast will be provided after the All Hallows service,’ he said. ‘Meanwhile, there is pure drinking water in the courtyard fountain. Please remember to use the latrines outside – no pissing indoors!’

The monks and nuns were strict about cleanliness. Last night, Godwyn had caught a six-year-old boy peeing in a corner, and had expelled the whole family. Unless they had a penny for a tavern, they would have had to spend the cold October night shivering on the stone floor of the cathedral’s north porch. There was also a ban on animals. Gwenda’s three-legged dog, Hop, had been banished. She wondered where he had spent the night.

When all the lamps were lit, Godwyn opened the big wooden door to the outside. The night air bit sharply at Gwenda’s ears and the tip of her nose. The overnight guests pulled their coats around them and began to shuffle out. When Sir Gerald and his family moved off, Pa and Ma fell into line behind them, and Gwenda and Philemon followed suit.

Philemon had done the stealing until now, but yesterday he had almost been caught, at Kingsbridge Market. He had palmed a small jar of expensive oil from the booth of an Italian merchant, then he had dropped the jar, so that everyone saw it. Mercifully, it had not broken when it hit the ground. He had been forced to pretend that he had accidentally knocked it off the stall.

Until recently Philemon had been small and unobtrusive, like Gwenda, but in the last year he had grown several inches, developed a deep voice, and become awkward and clumsy, as if he could not get used to his new, larger body. Last night, after the incident with the jar of oil, Pa had announced that Philemon was now too big for serious thieving, and henceforth it was Gwenda’s job.

That was why she had lain awake for so much of the night.

Philemon’s name was really Holger. When he was ten years old, he had decided he was going to be a monk, so he told everyone he had changed his name to Philemon, which sounded more religious. Surprisingly, most people had gone along with his wish, though Ma and Pa still called him Holger.

They passed through the door and saw two lines of shivering nuns holding burning torches to light the pathway from the hospital to the great west door of Kingsbridge Cathedral. Shadows flickered at the edges of the torchlight, as if the imps and hobgoblins of the night were cavorting just out of sight, kept at a distance only by the sanctity of the nuns.

Gwenda half expected to see Hop waiting outside, but he was not there. Perhaps he had found somewhere warm to sleep. As they walked to the church, Pa made sure they stayed close to Sir Gerald. From behind, someone tugged painfully at Gwenda’s hair. She squealed, thinking it was a goblin; but when she turned she saw Wulfric, her six-year-old neighbour. He darted out of her reach, laughing. Then his father growled ‘Behave!’ and smacked his head, and the little boy began to cry.

The vast church was a shapeless mass towering above the huddled crowd. Only the lowest parts were distinct, arches and mullions picked out in orange and red by the uncertain torchlight. The procession slowed as it approached the cathedral entrance, and Gwenda could see a group of townspeople coming from the opposite direction. There were hundreds of them, Gwenda thought, maybe thousands, although she was not sure how many people made a thousand, for she could not count that high.

The crowd inched through the vestibule. The restless light of the torches fell on the sculpted figures around the walls, making them dance madly. At the lowest level were demons and monsters. Gwenda stared uneasily at dragons and griffins, a bear with a man’s head, a dog with two bodies and one muzzle. Some of the demons struggled with humans: a devil put a noose around a man’s neck, a fox-like monster dragged a woman by her hair, an eagle with hands speared a naked man. Above these scenes the saints stood in a row under sheltering canopies; over them the apostles sat on thrones; then, in the arch over the main door, St Peter with his key and St Paul with a scroll looked adoringly upwards at Jesus Christ.

Gwenda knew that Jesus was telling her not to sin, or she would be tortured by demons; but humans frightened her more than demons. If she failed to steal Sir Gerald’s purse, she would be whipped by her father. Worse, there would be nothing for the family to eat but soup made with acorns. She and Philemon would be hungry for weeks on end. Ma’s breasts would dry up, and the new baby would die, as the last two had. Pa would disappear for days, and come back with nothing for the pot but a scrawny heron or a couple of squirrels. Being hungry was worse than being whipped – it hurt longer.

She had been taught to pilfer at a young age: an apple from a stall, a new-laid egg from under a neighbour’s hen, a knife dropped carelessly on a tavern table by a drunk. But stealing money was different. If she were caught robbing Sir Gerald it would be no use bursting into tears and hoping to be treated as a naughty child, as she had once after thieving a pair of dainty leather shoes from a soft-hearted nun. Cutting the strings of a knight’s purse was no childish peccadillo, it was a real grown-up crime, and she would be treated accordingly.

She tried not to think about it. She was small and nimble and quick, and she would take the purse stealthily, like a ghost – provided she could keep from trembling.

The wide church was already thronged with people. In the side aisles, hooded monks held torches that cast a restless red glow. The marching pillars of the nave reached up into darkness. Gwenda stayed close to Sir Gerald as the crowd pushed forward towards the altar. The red-bearded knight and his thin wife did not notice her. Their two boys paid no more attention to her than to the stone walls of the cathedral. Gwenda’s family fell back and she lost sight of them.

The nave filled up quickly. Gwenda had never seen so many people in one place: it was busier than the cathedral green on market day. People greeted one another cheerfully, feeling safe from evil spirits in this holy place, and the sound of all their conversations mounted to a roar.

Then the bell tolled, and they fell silent.

Sir Gerald was standing by a family from the town. They all wore cloaks of fine cloth, so they were probably rich wool dealers. Next to the knight stood a girl about ten years old. Gwenda stood behind Sir Gerald and the girl. She tried to make herself inconspicuous but, to her dismay, the girl looked at her and smiled reassuringly, as if to tell her not to be frightened.

Around the edges of the crowd the monks extinguished their torches, one by one, until the great church was in utter darkness.

Gwenda wondered if the rich girl would remember her later. She had not merely glanced at Gwenda then ignored her, as most people did. She had noticed her, had thought about her, had anticipated that she might be scared, and had given her a friendly smile. But there were hundreds of children in the cathedral. She could not have got a very clear impression of Gwenda’s features in the dim light . . . could she? Gwenda tried to put the worry out of her mind.

Invisible in the darkness, she stepped forward and slipped noiselessly between the two figures, feeling the soft wool of the girl’s cloak on one side and the stiffer fabric of the knight’s old surcoat on the other. Now she was in a position to get at the purse.

She reached into her neckline and took the little knife from its sheath.

The silence was broken by a terrible scream. Gwenda had been expecting it – Ma had explained what was going to happen during the service – but, all the same, she was shocked. It sounded like someone being tortured.

Then there was a harsh drumming sound, as of someone beating on a metal plate. More noises followed: wailing, mad laughter, a hunting horn, a rattle, animal noises, a cracked bell. In the congregation, a child started to cry, and others joined in. Some of the adults laughed nervously. They knew the noises were made by the monks, but all the same it was a hellish cacophony.

This was not the moment to take the purse, Gwenda thought fearfully. Everyone was tense, alert. The knight would be sensitive to any touch.

The devilish noise grew louder, then a new sound intervened: music. At first it was so soft that Gwenda was not sure she had really heard it, then gradually it grew louder. The nuns were singing. Gwenda felt her body flood with tension. The moment was approaching. Moving like a spirit, imperceptible as the air, she turned so that she was facing Sir Gerald.

She knew exactly what he was wearing. He had on a heavy wool robe gathered at the waist by a broad studded belt. His purse was tied to the belt with a leather thong. Over the robe he wore an embroidered surcoat, costly but worn, with yellowing bone buttons down the front. He had done up some of the buttons, but not all, probably out of sleepy laziness, or because the walk from the hospital to the church was so short.

With a touch as light as possible, Gwenda put one small hand on his coat. She imagined her hand was a spider, so weightless that he could not possibly feel it. She ran her spider hand across the front of his coat and found the opening. She slipped her hand under the edge of the coat and along his heavy belt until she came to the purse.

The pandemonium faded as the music grew louder. From the front of the congregation came a murmur of awe. Gwenda could see nothing, but she knew that a lamp had been lit on the altar, illuminating a reliquary, an elaborately carved ivory-and-gold box holding the bones of St Adolphus, that had not been there when the lights went out. The crowd surged forward, everyone trying to get closer to the holy remains. As Gwenda felt herself squashed between Sir Gerald and the man in front of him, she brought up her right hand and put the edge of the knife to the thong of his purse.

The leather was tough, and her first stroke did not cut it. She sawed frantically with the knife, hoping desperately that Sir Gerald was too interested in the scene at the altar to notice what was happening under his nose. She glanced upwards and realized she could just about see the outlines of people around her: the monks and nuns were lighting candles. The light would get brighter every moment. She had no time left.

She gave a fierce yank on the knife, and felt the thong give. Sir Gerald grunted quietly: had he felt something, or was he reacting to the spectacle at the altar? The purse dropped, and landed in her hand; but it was too big for her to grasp easily, and it slipped. For a terrifying moment she thought she was going to drop it and lose it on the floor among the heedless feet of the crowd; then she got a grip on it and held it.

She felt a moment of joyous relief: she had the purse.

But she was still in terrible danger. Her heart was beating so loudly she felt as if everyone must be able to hear it. She turned quickly so that her back was to the knight. In the same movement, she stuffed the heavy purse down the front of her tunic. She could feel that it made a bulge that would be conspicuous, hanging over her belt like an old man’s belly. She shifted it around to her side, where it was partly covered by her arm. It would still be visible when the lights brightened, but she had nowhere else to put it.

She sheathed the knife. Now she had to get away quickly, before Sir Gerald noticed his loss – but the crush of worshippers, which had helped her take the purse unnoticed, now hindered her escape. She tried to step backwards, hoping to force a gap in the bodies behind her, but everyone was still pressing forward to look at the bones of the saint. She was trapped, unable to move, right in front of the man she had robbed.

A voice in her ear said: ‘Are you all right?’

It was the rich girl. Gwenda fought down panic. She needed to be invisible. A helpful older child was the last thing she wanted. She said nothing.

‘Be careful,’ the girl said to the people around. ‘You’re squashing this little girl.’

Gwenda could have screamed. The rich girl’s thoughtfulness would get Gwenda’s hand chopped off.

Desperate to get away, she put her hands on the man in front and shoved, pushing herself backwards. She succeeded only in getting the attention of Sir Gerald. ‘You can’t see anything down there, can you?’ said her victim in a kindly voice; and, to her horror, he grasped her under the arms and lifted her up.

She was helpless. His big hand in her armpit was only an inch from the purse. She faced forward, so that he could see only the back of her head, and looked over the crowd to the altar, where the monks and nuns were lighting more candles and singing to the long-dead saint. Beyond them, a faint light showed through the big rose window at the east end of the building: dawn was breaking, chasing the evil spirits away. The clangour had stopped, now, and the singing swelled. A tall, good-looking monk stepped up to the altar, and Gwenda recognized him as Anthony, the prior of Kingsbridge. Raising his hands in a blessing, he said loudly: ‘And so, once again, by the grace of Christ Jesus, the evil and darkness of this world are banished by the harmony and light of God’s holy church.’

The congregation gave a triumphant roar, then began to relax. The climax of the ceremony had passed. Gwenda wriggled, and Sir Gerald got the message and put her down. Keeping her face turned away from him, she pushed past him, heading towards the back of the crowd. People were no longer so eager to see the altar, and she was now able to force her way between the bodies. The farther back she went, the easier it became, until at last she found herself by the great west door, and saw her family.

Pa looked expectantly at her, ready to be angry if she had failed. She pulled the purse out of her shirt and thrust it at him, glad to get rid of it. He grabbed it, turned slightly, and furtively looked inside. She saw him grin with delight. Then he passed the purse to Ma, who quickly shoved it into the folds of the blanket that wrapped the baby.

The ordeal was over, but the risk had not yet passed. ‘A rich girl noticed me,’ Gwenda said, and she could hear the shrill fear in her own voice.

Pa’s small, dark eyes flashed anger. ‘Did she see what you did?’

‘No, but she told the others not to squash me, then the knight picked me up so I could see better.’

Ma gave a low groan.

Pa said: ‘He saw your face, then.’

‘I tried to keep it turned away.’

‘Still, better if he doesn’t come across you again,’ Pa said. ‘We won’t return to the monks’ hospital. We’ll go to a tavern for our breakfast.’

Ma said: ‘We can’t hide away all day.’

‘No, but we can melt into the crowd.’

Gwenda started to feel better. Pa seemed to think there was no real danger. Anyway, she was reassured just by his being in charge again, and taking the responsibility from her.

‘Besides,’ he went on, ‘I fancy bread and meat, instead of the monks’ watery porridge. I can afford it now!’

They went out of the church. The sky was pearly grey with dawn light. Gwenda wanted to hold Ma’s hand, but the baby started to cry, and Ma was distracted. Then she saw a small three-legged dog, white with a black face, come running into the cathedral close with a familiar lopsided stride. ‘Hop!’ she cried, and picked him up and hugged him.

“you should first follow the plow if you want to dance the harvest jig.”

“We’re all good when it suits us, he used to say: that doesn’t count. It’s when you want so badly to do something wrong—when you’re about to make a fortune from a dishonest deal, or kiss the lovely lips of your neighbour’s wife, or tell a lie to get yourself out of terrible trouble—that’s when you need the rules. Your integrity is like a sword, he would say: you shouldn’t wave it until you’re about to put it to the test.”

“It was an odd relationship, but then she was an extraordinary woman: a prioress who doubted much of what the church taught; an acclaimed healer who rejected medicine as practised by physicians; and a nun who made enthusiastic love to her man whenever she could get away with it. If I wanted a normal relationship, Merthin told himself, I should have picked a normal girl.”

“You see, all that I ever held dear has been taken from me,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. “And when you’ve lost everything-” Her facade began to crumble, and her voice broke, but she made herself carry on. “When you’ve lost everything, you’ve got nothing to lose.”

“Everybody takes what they life from the teachings of the church, and ignores the parts that don’t suit them.”

“When you’ve lost everything, you’ve got nothing to lose.”

“What news? There’s nothing to tell. I’m a nun.”

“Your integrity is like a sword, he would say: you shouldn’t wave it until you’re about to put it to the test.”

“When I’m brave and strong, and care for children and the sick and the poor, I become a better person. And when I’m cruel, cowardly, or tell lies, or get drunk, I turn into someone less worthy, and I can’t respect myself. That’s the divine retribution I believe in”

“It was said that pilgrims should not spend too much time planning their journey, for they might learn of so many hazards that they would decide not to go.”

“Don’t worry. We who are born poor have to use cunning to get what we want. Scruples are for the privileged.


“When you were trying to enforce law and order, it was difficult to explain that the rules did not actually apply to you personally.”

“Any man who needs to surround himself with loyal acolytes doesn’t really believe in himself,” he would say. “And if he doesn’t believe in himself, why should I?”

“You didn’t ask for a priest.” “Whether I’ve been good or bad, I don’t think God will be fooled by a last-minute change of heart.”

“In the Arab world, every work of art has a tiny flaw, so that it doesn’t sacrilegiously compete with the perfection of God.”

“The worst negotiator in the world is a man who believes he’s clever.”

“The sight of them all made Caris marvel: each individual had a different life, every one of them rich and complex, with dramas in the past and challenges in the future, happy memories and secret sorrows, and a crowd of friends and enemies and loved ones.”

“Benedict, but they say he doesn’t set himself up on a pedestal.”

“Never call a meeting until the outcome is a foregone conclusion.”

“With the fascination of a condemned man watching the carpenter build the gallows.”

“He slipped his hand inside her coat and touched her through the soft linen of her dress. Her body was warm. He held her breast in his palm, small and round. He loved the way her flesh yielded to the press of his fingertips. He had never seen her naked, but he knew her breasts intimately. In his dreams they went farther.”

“Gwenda sighed. She did not know how to say what she felt. It was not just love. She thought about him all the time, and she did not know how she could live without him. She daydreamed about kidnapping him and locking him up in a hut deep in the forest so that he could never escape from her.”

“Her dog, Skip, followed them, but Sim threw stones at him, and after one hit him full on the nose, he retreated with his tail between his legs.”

“Mankind is fallible, so we should not rely on our own reasoning. We cannot hope to understand the world – all we can do is stand amazed at God’s creation. True knowledge comes only from revelation. We should not question received wisdom.”

“Merthin stood and watched with tears pouring down his face.”

“Mankind is fallible, so we should not rely on our own reasoning. We cannot hope to understand the world – all we can do is stand amazed at God’s creation. True knowledge only comes from revelation. We should not question received wisdom.”

“You made the bow, did you, little one?” the earl said, and his face showed disdain. “In that case, you shall be apprenticed to a carpenter.”

“It was ten years since Gwenda had picked Skip out of a litter of mongrel puppies, on the floor of Caris’s bedroom in the wool merchant’s big house, the day Caris’s mother died.”

“Caris said: “One never knows what the future may hold.”

“He had realized that she was all the joy in his world. If the weather was fine, he wanted to walk in the sunshine with her; if he saw something beautiful, he wanted to show it to her; if he heard something funny, his first thought was to tell her, and see her smile. His work gave him pleasure, especially when he came up with clever solutions to intractable problems; but it was a cold, cerebral satisfaction, and he knew that his life would be a long winter without Caris.”

“Earl Roland had prospered in the last ten years—under Queen Isabella and, later, her son Edward III—and he wanted the world to know it, as rich and powerful men generally did. In”

“Petranilla turned to the girls. “Our father was descended from Tom Builder, the stepfather and mentor of Jack Builder, architect of Kingsbridge Cathedral,” she said.”

“But Wulfric’s engaged to that Annet—who is much prettier.” “Good looks aren’t everything in a romance.” “For which I thank God every day.”

“I’ve never told anyone about that letter,” he said quietly. “I know,” Thomas replied. “If you had, you’d be dead.”

“She pressed her body to his. “Kissing you has made me go all hot and slippery inside.”

“Besides, he realized, he could not leave the house without a coat, not because of the rain—he did not mind getting wet—but because of the bulge in front of his clothing that would not subside. He”

“Ralph’s nostrils filled with a smell he loved: a mixture of sweating horses, wet dogs, leather, and blood. Ralph”

“Now he stood up, uninvited, and began to pray in a loud voice. “Our Father, bless this food to our foul, corrupt bodies, as full of sin as a dead dog is full of maggots….” Murdo”

“My father hated people who preached about morality. We’re all good when it suits us, he used to say: that doesn’t count. It’s when you want so badly to do something wrong – when you’re about to make a fortune from a dishonest deal, or kiss the lovely lips of your neighbor’s wife, or tell a lie to get yourself out of terrible trouble – that’s when you need the rules.”

“They who live by the sword shall die by the sword. Jesus said, although that verse was not often quoted by the priests of King Edward III’s reign.

Fiat voluntas tua : They will be done [Latin]”

“Your aunt Rose is dying,” Petranilla said as soon as he was close. “May God bless her soul. Mother Cecilia told me.” “You look shocked—but you know how ill she is.” “It’s not Aunt Rose. I’ve had other bad news.” He swallowed. “I can’t go to Oxford.”

“He asked himself what was so striking about her, and realized immediately that everything was in harmony, like the parts of a beautiful church. Her mouth, her chin, her cheekbones, and her forehead were just as he would have drawn them if he had been God creating a woman.”

“Men and women have different dreams.’
She lifted her head, looked at him and touched his face.
‘And when you put them together, you have a life.’ she kissed his mouth”

Return to the home page


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: