Image credit: Starz
Today I’ll be reviewing the mini-series The Pillars of the Earth, a Starz mini-series that premiered in 2010 which is based on the historical fiction novel of the same name by Ken Follet. First I will be starting with a brief (and with no spoilers) overview of the plot and a few of the main characters. Then I will reflect on some of the historical aspects of the mini-series and then my own thoughts.
Starting in 1120, spanning the period leading up to and over the Anarchy – England’s first civil war –it recounts how Stephen and Matilida fought over the English throne. The pivotal moment that begins the series is the sinking of the White Ship, which carried England’s heir William Adelin and his wife. He was Henry I’s only legitimate son, leaving his only legitimate child his daughter Matilida. After Henry’s death, his nephew Stephen seized the throne and was backed by the church, despite swearing loyalty to Matilida. The mini-series not only portrays the feud between the two, but the ramifications on the Church, the nobility and the people. The show features a large cast of characters who all interweave with each other. The desire to build a cathedral in Knightsbridge continues across the eight episodes, with many of the characters directly involved.
Philip (Matthew McFadden) – A monk at Knightsbridge Priory, he dreams of a cathedral for the priory to raise its profile.
Waleran Bigod (Ian McShane) – A money and power-hungry cleric, who constantly manipulates events to his own ends, and those who support him.
Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell) – A builder who dreams of building a cathedral, accompanied by his family. He is drawn to Ellen.
Ellen (Natalie Wörner) – A former nun she was banished after an affair with a mysterious shipwreck survivor who was executed and as a result gave birth to Jack. She is considered a witch and is drawn to Tom.
Jack (Eddie Redmayne) – The son of Ellen, who has a keen artistic talent and is enamoured with Aliena.
Aliena (Hayley Atwell) – The daughter of Bartholmew, who vows to him to get back the title for her brother.
William Hamleigh (David Oakes)– the son of a minor lord, his parents have designs on the earldom of Shiring and he has an unhealthy obsession with Aliena.
Historical accuracy does occasionally let the show down. Elements of the actual history of the Anarchy are incorrect or not shown. William’s wife was not actually on board the White Ship when it sunk so her death is historically inaccurate. Maud/Matilida is never shown to flee London on her coronations, as her real counterpart did. The death of three of the characters is also incorrect, Henry I did not die immediately after the birth of his grandson, as shown within the series nor was Eustace killed by his cousin. Robert of Gloucester was also not killed in battle. Other inaccuracies are simpler and more to do with the realities of medieval life such as Aliena as a former noble would have not spoken the same language as those from the lower classes who she would later work with.
The mini-series takes advantage of the uncertainty of events due to a lack of historical record, or where contemporaries simply did not know. The sinking of the White Ship in 1120 which is the catalyst for the plot is somewhat of a mystery. A cause for the sinking was never exactly determined, which allows the show to fill in the gaps and present its own theory of the sinking for the means of making a story but of course within the realms of possibility. The vast majority of events in the series would have not been possible without this uncertainty.
The show portrays an awful lot of violence, be this on the battlefield or in the towns and villages. There has been debate on how violent the period that is considered the Middle Ages was. Marc Morris argued that especially under Norman rulers that England was a remarkably less violent place than it had been previously. However Morris only refers to the nobility, which would make some aspects of The Pillars of the Earth inaccurate but it does not mention the effects on the ordinary people. The lack of surviving literature from this period, and the overall low-level of literacy from those who would interact with ordinary people can make it somewhat difficult to exactly establish the effects on them. One author of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described the period: ‘I have neither the power or the ability to tell all the horrors nor all the torments they inflicted upon wretched people in this country; and that lasted the nineteen years while Stephen was king, and it was always going from bad to worse.’ While this is only one perspective it also worth remembering that with no monarch considered absolute and both Stephen and Matilda’s reliance on nobility for support that a blind eye was probably often used when violence was used against the people.
It is hard to explain how good this show is without spoiling major plot points as its strength is in its development of its characters and how the plot continues to develop, twisting and turning with each episode. The show is tight and I’d say there is no ‘filler’ in the series. It is constantly gripping. Many of the characters the viewer will inevitably find themselves rooting for, or rooting to come to a sticky end. However this does not mean that the characters verge into pantomime villainy, their motivations or how their heads tick is examined, while this may not make us any more sympathetic is does help us understand their characters better. The themes of the show are vast, creating something for everyone be this the romantic themes, themes on power and control, familial themes and truth. The mini-series’ interpretation of the Church is also incredibly interesting. It avoids the trap of the Church being a simplified evil or force for good. It shows the corrupt practices and members of the Church but it also shows those who strived to be holy. It examines their relationship with not just the crown and nobility but also the ordinary people. The almost business like aspect of the Church is also examined in several plot points relating to the likes of the importance of relics for the Church.
I would strongly recommend The Pillars of the Earth; I find it hard to believe most viewers would not find one aspect they enjoy, if not the majority of it. The acting is strong across the board, and visually it’s beautiful. Below I have included a trailer for the series. I hope if you do watch this you enjoy!