Read A Column of Fire Online

Authors: Ken Follett

A Column of Fire

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To Emanuele:

49 years of sunshine

By day the LORD went ahead of them in a column of smoke to lead them on their way. By night he went ahead of them in a column of fire to give them light so that they could travel by day or by night.

Exodus
13:21, God’s Word Translation

Contents

Cast of Characters

Prologue

Part One:
1558

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

Part Two:
1559 to 1563

9

10

11

12

13

Part Three:
1566 to 1573

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

21

Part Four:
1583 to 1589

22

23

24

25

26

27

Part Five:
1602 to 1606

28

29

30

Epilogue

Acknowledgements

Who is Real?

Cast of Characters

I hope you won’t need this. Any time I think you might have forgotten a character, I’ve put in a gentle reminder. But I know that sometimes readers put a book down and don’t get another moment to read for a week or more – it happens to me – and then sometimes you forget. So here’s a list of the people who pop up more than once, just in case . . .

ENGLAND

Willard household

Ned Willard

Barney, his brother

Alice, their mother

Malcolm Fife, groom

Janet Fife, housekeeper

Eileen Fife, daughter of Malcolm and Janet

Fitzgerald household

Margery Fitzgerald

Rollo, her brother

Sir Reginald, their father

Lady Jane, their mother

Naomi, maid

Sister Joan, Margery’s great-aunt

Shiring household

Bart, Viscount Shiring

Swithin, his father, earl of Shiring

Sal Brendon, housekeeper

The Puritans

Philbert Cobley, ship owner

Dan Cobley, his son

Ruth Cobley, Philbert’s daughter

Donal Gloster, clerk

Father Jeremiah, parson of St John’s in Loversfield

Widow Pollard

Others

Friar Murdo, an itinerant preacher

Susannah, Countess of Brecknock, friend of Margery & Ned

Jonas Bacon, captain of the
Hawk

Jonathan Greenland, first mate aboard the
Hawk

Stephen Lincoln, a priest

Rodney Tilbury, justice

Real historical people

Mary Tudor, queen of England

Elizabeth Tudor, her half-sister, later queen

Sir William Cecil, advisor to Elizabeth

Robert Cecil, William’s son

William Allen, leader of the exiled English Catholics

Sir Francis Walsingham, spymaster

FRANCE

Palot family

Sylvie Palot

Isabelle Palot, her mother

Giles Palot, her father

Others

Pierre Aumande

Viscount Villeneuve, fellow student of Pierre’s

Father Moineau, Pierre’s tutor

Nath, Pierre’s maid

Guillaume of Geneva, itinerant pastor

Louise, marchioness of Nîmes

Luc Mauriac, cargo broker

Aphrodite Beaulieu, daughter of the count of Beaulieu

René Duboeuf, tailor

Françoise Duboeuf, his young wife

Marquis de Lagny, a Protestant aristocrat

Bernard Housse, a young courtier

Alison McKay, lady-in-waiting to Mary Queen of Scots

Fictional members of the Guise household

Gaston Le Pin, head of the household guard of the Guise family

Brocard and Rasteau, two of Gaston’s thugs

Véronique

Odette, maid to Véronique

Georges Biron, a spy

Real historical people: the Guise household

François, duke of Guise

Henri, son of François

Charles, cardinal Lorraine, brother of François

Real historical people: the Bourbons & their allies

Antoine, king of Navarre

Henri, son of Antoine

Louis, prince of Condé

Gaspard de Coligny, admiral of France

Real historical people: others

Henri II, king of France

Caterina de’ Medici, queen of France

Children of Henri and Caterina:

Francis II, king of France

Charles IX, king of France

Henri III, king of France

Margot, queen of Navarre

Mary Stuart, queen of Scots

Charles de Louviers, assassin

SCOTLAND

Real historical people

James Stuart, illegitimate half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots

James Stuart, son of Mary Queen of Scots, later

King James VI of Scotland and King James I of England

SPAIN

Cruz family

Carlos Cruz

Aunt Betsy

Ruiz family

Jerónima

Pedro, her father

Others

Archdeacon Romero

Father Alonso, inquisitor

Captain ‘Ironhand’ Gómez

NETHERLANDS

Wolman family

Jan Wolman, cousin of Edmund Willard

Imke, his daughter

Willemsen family

Albert

Betje, Albert’s wife

Drike, their daughter

Evi, Albert’s widowed sister

Matthus, Evi’s son

OTHER NATIONS

Ebrima Dabo, Mandinkan slave

Bella, rum maker in Hispaniola

Prologue

We hanged him in front of Kingsbridge Cathedral. It is the usual place for executions. After all, if you can’t kill a man in front of God’s face you probably shouldn’t kill him at all.

The sheriff brought him up from the dungeon below the Guild Hall, hands tied behind his back. He walked upright, his pale face defiant, fearless.

The crowd jeered at him and cursed him. He seemed not to see them. But he saw me. Our eyes met, and in that momentary exchange of looks there was a lifetime.

I was responsible for his death, and he knew it.

I had been hunting him for decades. He was a bomber who would have killed half the rulers of our country, including most of the royal family, all in one act of bloodthirsty savagery – if I had not stopped him.

I have spent my life tracking such would-be murderers, and a lot of them have been executed – not just hanged but drawn and quartered, the more terrible death reserved for the worst offenders.

Yes, I have done this many times: watched a man die knowing that I, more than anyone else, had brought him to his just but dreadful punishment. I did it for my country, which is dear to me; for my sovereign, whom I serve; and for something else, a principle, the belief that a person has the right to make up his own mind about God.

He was the last of many men I sent to hell, but he made me think of the first . . .

Part One

1558

1

Ned Willard came home to Kingsbridge in a snowstorm.

He sailed upstream from Combe Harbour in the cabin of a slow barge loaded with cloth from Antwerp and wine from Bordeaux. When he reckoned the boat was at last nearing Kingsbridge, he wrapped his French cloak more tightly around his shoulders, pulled the hood over his ears, stepped out onto the open deck, and looked ahead.

At first he was disappointed: all he could see was falling snow. But his longing for a sight of the city was like an ache, and he stared into the flurries, hoping. After a while his wish was granted, and the storm began to lift. A surprise patch of blue sky appeared. Gazing over the tops of the surrounding trees, he saw the tower of the cathedral – four hundred and five feet high, as every Kingsbridge Grammar School pupil knew. The stone angel that watched over the city from the top of the spire had snow edging her wings today, turning the tips of her feathers from dove-grey to bright white. As he looked, a momentary sunbeam struck the statue and gleamed off the snow, like a benison; then the storm closed in again and she was lost from view.

He saw nothing except trees for a while, but his imagination was full. He was about to be reunited with his mother after an absence of a year. He would not tell her how much he had missed her, for a man should be independent and self-sufficient at the age of eighteen.

But most of all he had missed Margery. He had fallen for her, with catastrophic timing, a few weeks before leaving Kingsbridge to spend a year in Calais, the English-ruled port on the north coast of France. Since childhood he had known and liked the mischievous, intelligent daughter of Sir Reginald Fitzgerald. When she grew up, her impishness had taken on a new allure, so that he found himself staring at her in church, his mouth dry and his breath shallow. He had hesitated to do more than stare, for she was three years younger than he, but she knew no such inhibitions. They had kissed in the Kingsbridge graveyard, behind the concealing bulk of the tomb of Prior Philip, the monk who had commissioned the cathedral four centuries ago. There had been nothing childish about their long, passionate kiss: then she had laughed and run away.

But she kissed him again the next day. And on the evening before he left for France they admitted that they loved one another.

For the first few weeks they exchanged love letters. They had not told their parents of their feelings – it seemed too soon – so they could not write openly, but Ned confided in his older brother, Barney, who became their intermediary. Then Barney left Kingsbridge and went to Seville. Margery, too, had an older brother, Rollo; but she did not trust him the way Ned trusted Barney. And so the correspondence ended.

The lack of communication made little difference to Ned’s feelings. He knew what people said about young love, and he examined himself constantly, waiting for his emotions to change; but they did not. After a few weeks in Calais, his cousin Thérèse made it clear that she adored him and was willing to do pretty much anything he liked to prove it, but Ned was hardly tempted. He reflected on this with some surprise, for he had never before passed up the chance of kissing a pretty girl with nice breasts.

However, something else was bothering him now. After rejecting Thérèse, he had felt confident that his feelings for Margery would not alter while he was away; but now he asked himself what would happen when he saw her. Would Margery in the flesh be as enchanting as she seemed in his memory? Would his love survive the reunion?

And what about her? A year was a long time for a girl of fourteen – fifteen now, of course, but still. Perhaps her feelings had faded after the letters stopped. She might have kissed someone else behind the tomb of Prior Philip. Ned would be horribly disappointed if she had become indifferent to him. And even if she still loved him, would the real Ned live up to her golden remembrance?

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