Column of Fire by Ken Follett is the third book in the Kingsbridge Series and my least favorite of the three. It’s not that it was difficult or did not tell a story. It was not so terrible that it made me set it aside or stop reading. I liked the fictional characters placed among the actual historical figures enough to wonder what would happen to them but I did not feel strongly invested in them. I always realized they were fictional and there to involve the reader in the events occurring in the mid 1500’s and beyond in England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands.
Religion was the key issue of these times after the declarations of Martin Luther and the beginnings of a Protestant movement that was growing and alarming Catholics. Protestants thought they could talk directly to God without a priest as intermediary. They published Bibles in national languages, rather than Latin, so people could read the Bible by themselves or in church services. They did not feel any allegiance to the Pope in Rome. Catholics saw Protestants as heretics and felt it their religious duty to crush them and their interpretation of Christianity. As Column of Fire begins Protestants are hunted by Catholics, considered criminals by royals, and must practice their religion in secrecy. But this book also covers the pivotal moment when events, especially in England, turned this dynamic around. By the end of the story Catholics are on the defensive and, at least in England, Protestants can worship without fear.
Since England had recently lost Queen Mary Tudor, a strongly Catholic queen, there were two women who could possible take the throne, Elizabeth Tudor, tolerant of Protestantism, and Mary Queen of Scots, strongly Catholic. The story of how Elizabeth took the throne and how she held it against Catholic sympathizers who stood to lose both their brand of religion and lots of power and money has fascinated readers for centuries. Elizabeth held her throne with the help of talented spies and one of these spies was William Cecil.
Ned Willard becomes one of Cecil’s spies, moving in and out of France, with family in Spain for a while (Barney Willard), who later becomes a shipper and a ship’s captain adding more clout to Ned Willard’s information network. There is a villain, in fact there are two and they are just about as hateful as you would like them to be. Pierre Armande de Guise is an ambitious, soulless creature who uses information he steals through his first wife Sylvie Palot, a list of important Protestants in Paris, to ingratiate himself with the de Guise family and to realize his life time ambition of being a royal (however tangentially). Rollo Fitzgerald, brother of Ned’s first love Margery trains a group of sinister priests and hides them in English households for when Mary Queen of Scots takes the throne from Elizabeth, and an invasion plan is afoot.
Even with the historical drama of this critical time in Europe the book never really taps into that drama. Women are expendable and are damaged by the villains but few men are and there is just little tension and fright in most of the telling of this story. Fortunes do switch from the Catholic Fitzgeralds to the Protestant Willards but Ned is never in any real danger and seems more like a nice guy than a spy. So, what we get in Column of Fire by Ken Follett is a good story, but not a great story.