This epic tale begins against a background of crisis caused by the disruption of the succession to the English crown. King Henry’s only legitimate son has died in the fiery sinking of the White Ship, leaving Henry’s daughter Maud, his nephew Stephen and his bastard son Gloucester to compete for the crown. Greedily jockeying for advancement in this treacherous atmosphere is the Hamleigh family, petty nobles trying to marry their brutal son William to Aliena, daughter of Earl Bartholomew of Shiring. Her refusal of William leaves him burning for revenge against Aliena, her father, and her brother Richard. Helped by his scheming mother Regan, William is instrumental in the Earl’s execution for treason, and brutalizing both Aliena and Richard, driving them orphaned and penniless out into the world.
His fury at Aliena also causes William to dismiss Tom Builder, master-mason of William’s bridal home. Tom dreams of building a new kind of cathedral, a building filled with light; but now he, his pregnant wife and their children must wander in search of work and food. Tom’s wife dies giving birth to a son who in a strange twist of fate is saved and brought to Kingsbridge Monastery, where idealistic Prior Philip inadvertently becomes involved in the struggle for the English throne. Philip has just learned a dangerous secret which could lead to the revelation of the true cause of the death of King Henry’s heir.
Advised by the mysterious and beautiful forest-living healer Ellen, who knows more about this secret than she can yet reveal, Tom Builder goes to Kingsbridge in hope of work repairing the church there. When that church burns down, the way becomes clear for Prior Philip to turn it into a cathedral... and this work goes ahead despite continual interference by the politically ambitious Bishop Waleran Bigod. As Tom’s work proceeds, Ellen’s son Jack -- who has accompanied Tom and his son and daughter to Kingsbridge -- reveals a great talent for carving and building. This work, however, is continually hampered by Waleran and his allies the Hamleighs. There have been accusations that Ellen, accused of witchcraft, caused the burning of the Kingsbridge church. But in reality Waleran wants her silenced because of what she knows about his part (along with two other men whom Ellen cursed) in the sinking of the White Ship and the death of England’s rightful heir. When Ellen escapes, Waleran and his allies are left in a state of dangerous uncertainty, while Prior Philip and everyone working on his cathedral become targets for the Hamleighs’ hatred.
As years swiftly pass, the power struggle among the various candidates for the rule of England continues. First King Stephen and then his half-sister the Empress Maud achieve temporary superiority as their battles rage across England. Prior Philip crosses both their paths as he counters challenges and setbacks in his determination to keep the Kingsbridge cathedral project alive. Those challenges are many and daunting, as both the Hamleighs and the dispossessed children of the Earl of Shiring strive to stay on the winning side of the civil war. Kingsbridge town and its cathedral become pawns on the political chessboard.
Aliena achieves enough financial success as a wool merchant to arm her brother as a knight serving King Stephen, and so brings recovery of the lost earldom of Shiring within his reach. Furious at her success, William Hamleigh attacks Kingsbridge and its fleece fair. He destroys Aliena’s wool stocks and financially ruins her, then kills Tom Builder; he also massacres workmen needed to quarry stone for the cathedral. Jack, in love with Aliena and thought dead in a battle outside Lincoln, is forced to flee to France. Despite heartbreak and exile, he continues to pursue his dream of being a cathedral builder. Aliena, trying to recoup her fortunes, enters a loveless marriage to Tom Builder’s son Alfred. Less skilled than his father, he adds a heavy roof to Kingsbridge Cathedral, then loses his livelihood when it collapses. He also loses his reputation when Aliena gives birth to Jack’s child. Outraged, Alfred throws her out, and with her newborn son in her arms, Aliena makes her way to France to seek out her true love Jack.
In England, Waleran and the Hamleighs continue to exploit the conflict between the struggling King Stephen and Empress Maud for their own purposes - for the Hamleighs, gaining the earldom of Shiring, and for Waleran becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. Caught between these ruthless power-plays, Prior Philip fights to keep his cathedral growing in the face of apparently insurmountable obstacles.
King Stephen makes William Hamleigh the Earl of Shiring; William finances his ambitions by marriage to the wealthy young countess Elizabeth, whom he brutalizes as viciously as he did Aliena. This sows the seeds of his own destruction, for Aliena and Jack have returned from France, and their reappearance in Kingsbridge becomes a catalyst for the revelation of long-hidden secrets. Aliena joins forces with her brother and with the cruelly abused Elizabeth to retake Shiring Castle with a minimum of force. Jack’s gift to the cathedral of a miraculous new relic helps finance the building project, and lift the town of Kingsbridge to prosperity once again.
As his opponents grow more successful, Waleran becomes desperate to eliminate Jack -- suspecting that the gifted young builder knows his mother Ellen’s secret about the sinking of the White Ship and the death of King Henry’s heir. Waleran engineers Alfred’s death so that blame falls on Jack, then officiates at his trial and planned execution. It backfires when Ellen comes forward to tell of what really happened to the White Ship - that it was deliberately sunk, that King Henry’s son and pregnant wife were murdered, and that Waleran, the former Prior James of Kingsbridge, and Percy Hamleigh were to blame.
Ellen cursed all three men for engineering the death of the only witness, her lover Jack Shareburg: and as proof, Tom Builder’s daughter Martha produces the dead prince’s silver Phoenix ring, found by Shareburg as he tried unsuccessfully to rescue King Henry’s heir. Two of the men she cursed are already dead, and now the curse’s full weight falls on William Hamleigh, who dies at the end of the noose Waleran intended for Jack. Waleran himself tries to escape retribution, but falls from the roof of the cathedral after losing his last-ditch grip on a gargoyle carved by Jack in the likeness of his murdered father.
At the tale’s end we see the fulfillment of dreams as Kingsbridge Cathedral is completed. Old and dignified, Prior Philip sees the light streaming in through the windows; Jack and Aliena and their descendants celebrate what they’ve struggled to achieve. And the light and the scene changes one last time to show the modern world, growing and changing around the single stable point in the story, a building filled with light...