WORLD WITHOUT END EPISODIC SYNOPSIS
In the aftermath of a civil war in 14th Century England, QUEEN ISABELLA defeats and
imprisons her husband, EDWARD II. Their young son EDWARD III is crowned king, but in name only. Isabella and her lover LORD MORTIMER hold power, and lawlessness rules the land.
A mysterious knight on horseback gallops pursued by two soldier, who overtake him near the town of Kingsbridge. The knight takes an arrow through his arm but kills them both, and is helped to shelter in the nearby Priory by teenage brothers MERTHIN and RALPH, sons of SIR GERALD, the Earl of Shiring. Soon afterwards rumors start to spread: the King has been murdered and his killer has disappeared.
In the Priory, MOTHER CECILIA summons healing-woman MATTIE to save Thomas from an inept physician. She is assisted by CARIS, daughter of the town’s leading merchant EDMUND WOOLER. Merthin quickly grows infatuated with Caris, while Thomas confides to PRIOR ANTHONY that he wants to become a monk. A mysterious grant from Queen Isabella allows him to stay.
Caris’s aunt PETRANILLA is determined that her son GODWYN will go to Oxford and become more than a mere monk. She sells her house to finance his studies – then poisons Caris’s mother to gain free living-space with her brother Edmund. A little later, under cover of night, Thomas hides a pouch in the Priory garden.
Caris’s once-sheltered life unravels still further with the arrival of ROLAND, an impoverished knight now advancing his career by ruthlessly enforcing the Queen’s commands. Kingsbridge sided with King Edward II in the recent war, and Roland has brought with him a list of traitors to be punished – the town’s principal citizens, among them Edmund and Sir Gerald.
Petranilla was once Roland’s lover, and uses this past attachment – coupled with a bribe – to save Edmund’s life. But she must then see Roland force Gerald’s sons to fight each other in the town market square before their father’s execution. The winner, Ralph, becomes Roland’s squire, while Merthin is made reluctant apprentice to surly ELFRIC BUILDER.
Youthful thieves GWENDA and HOLGER work the watching execution crowd. Their father JOBY, a former German mercenary, is a drunk who molests his daughter and forces his children to steal. Holger’s skill with the longbow has protected Gwenda in the past, but when he leaves to join the army, she has only a knife to keep her father at bay.
Though Gerald and the others are hanged, Roland keeps his word to Petranilla and spares Edmund’s life, but as punishment his legs are broken and his goods seized. Grief stricken, Merthin and Caris promise mutual friendship and support in the dark days ahead – yet both sense their attraction is already more than that.
Caris begins learning the healer’s art from Mattie, but Petranilla arranges her marriage to Elfric in order to save Edmund’s merchant business. By the time she discovers that Elfric is brutally abusive, Caris is trapped in a loveless marriage to him, with Merthin her sole ally.
Edward III discovers a connection between Mortimer and his father’s death, ignores the Queen’s protests, and has Mortimer executed. There is a connection between this evidence and the town of Kingsbridge, and the enraged Isabella swears vengeance.
Seven years have passed, and the annual Fleece Fair at Kingsbridge suffers increasingly poor attendance from merchants put off by its narrow and deteriorating bridge. Edmund insists that the bridge needs to be rebuilt, but Prior Anthony refuses to sanction such an expense even when Caris proposes Merthin as someone who can do the job both well and cheaply.
In the meantime, Thomas, now in charge of building projects, gives Merthin access to the Priory library and encourages him to pursue his dream of becoming a great architect.
When French ships blockade English harbors, Isabella urges Edward to declare war and so fulfill her own dream of reclaiming the French throne. Aware that England can’t afford a war, Edward refuses, sharply reminding Isabella that she is no longer a regent, but merely the King’s mother.
Despite this rebuke, Isabella orders Roland to collect increased taxes from Kingsbridge as funds for the war she still hopes will happen. With his sons WILLIAM and RICHARD, Bishop of Kingsbridge, Roland arrives to carry out the Queen’s command and to meet his fiancée MARGERY. Squire Ralph attempts a “courtly compliment” to William’s wife PHILLIPPA and gets it wrong; he’s so infatuated that her correction is a devastating putdown.
His cruder approach to saucy peasant girl ANNET is more favorably received, but ends in a fight with her betrothed, WULFRIC, that earns him a broken nose and sees Wulfric in the stocks. Ralf’s humiliation is made worse when he sees that Philippa has witnessed the brawl.
Blaming Caris for their lack of children, Elfric’s abuse of her grows worse. Though Merthin is a frequent witness, he has no grounds for any interference between man and wife until Elfric spitefully starts to destroy his work. Now Merthin has an excuse, and when Elfric tries to drag Caris away for another beating, Merthin knocks him down. Enraged, Elfric throws both of them out of his house; Merthin’s no longer his apprentice – but Caris is still his wife, shackled to him by law.
In the Priory, Thomas teaches novice monk BROTHER MATTHIAS calligraphy, while Godwyn watches in disapproval fuelled by the frustrating presence of beautiful SISTER MAIR. Finally he tells his mother Petranilla that he wants to ban women from the Priory, but her response is that he’ll have to become Prior before he can have his way.
Later Godwyn sneaks into Caris’s old room in Edmund’s house where she is now staying, and when she wakes in shock to find him groping her, he flees in angry shame. Merthin has freed her from the worst of Elfric’s abuse, but Caris is still married to him, and the law forces her and Merthin to conceal their feelings for one another.
Gwenda takes pity on Wulfric in the stocks and pays for his release, but then encounters her father Joby and learns she’s just been sold in marriage to SIM CHAPMAN. The brideprice is a cow, and the marriage is a sham; Sim is an outlaw, and she’s meant to be the communal whore for his gang. Gwenda manages to kill their leader, and escapes back to Kingsbridge with Sim in pursuit.
There, Mattie’s healing skills have finally led to her condemnation for witchcraft, and
Caris’s defense is to no avail. Mattie is hanged on the old bridge, which collapses under the weight of the crowd just as Gwenda arrives. As people struggle in the river, Sim, unable to swim, drowns when Wulfric pulls Gwenda free of him; Ralph rescues Roland, but during the chaos Petranilla succeeds in murdering Anthony, clearing the way for Godwyn to become Prior.
Caris takes charge of the casualties after the bridge collapse, bringing them to the cathedral. Many townsfolk have died, and though Wulfric weeps over his father’s body, Gwenda’s feelings for Joby are just as clear when she spits on his corpse.
As Caris tends Roland, Philippa thanks Ralph for saving him, but Godwyn claims the disaster is a sign that Kingsbridge must return to stricter ways. Caris counters that medical knowledge would be more immediately helpful and, remembering his hands on her sleeping body, suggests Godwyn takes his own advice about better behavior.
Elsewhere, while Edward sleeps, Queen Isabella slips unseen into his room and conceals a bladder of blood under his map of France. When Edward’s young daughter JOAN is asked to point out Paris, the hidden bladder bursts and blood flows dramatically across the map. Taking this as a sign of what he must do, Edward declares war at last.
Merthin encourages Caris to carry on without Mattie and tells her the town’s new bridge must be made of stone. Also needed, however, is a new prior. Learning that the younger monks favor Thomas, Godwyn uses the secret grant from Isabella as a blackmail lever against him and discredits his other opponent by making him look incompetent. Godwyn is duly appointed. When the matter of the bridge comes before the guild, Merthin wins by accepting payment in land – the long-abandoned Leper Island – instead of silver.
Wulfric waits for the appointment of a new lord of Wigleigh to confirm he can inherit his father’s property. Though he’s engaged to Annet, it’s Gwenda who helps him farm the land. Unfortunately for Wulfric, the newly-appointed lord is Ralph, who takes delight in refusing the inheritance. He also holds the Queen’s order to stop work on the bridge, and brutally sees that order carried out. Annet abandons Wulfric, but Gwenda comforts him and they make love. She then visits Ralph secretly to beg for the land. He swears tomake the grant it if she sleeps with him, but once she does so, refuses to honor an oath she can’t prove.
Edmund and Caris want to appeal in favor of the bridge. Thomas gives them complex legal advice that will prove successful, yet is strangely reluctant to act for them in person. Later, it becomes clear that the friendship between Thomas and Brother Matthias has become something more.
A year later, the Fleece Fair is even more sparsely attended. When Gwenda arrives with her newborn baby to sell her wares, there are fewer customers than ever. As Merthin supervises the construction of the bridge, Ralph arrives and seizes wool in lieu of tax to fund the ongoing war with France. When Merthin protests, Ralph beats him brutally, only stopping when Thomas intervenes.
Godwyn has plans for a palace on convent land, but Mother Cecilia promises Caris a hospital instead. Outraged, Godwyn issues a new law giving the Priory control over all town land, including the convent. It forces Mother Cecilia and Caris to make a trip to London carrying a document that proves the convent has its own rights.
With Petranilla’s ruthless encouragement, Godwyn murders the judge and destroys all evidence with an “accidental” fire to ensure the ruling goes in his favor – then fires Merthin from the bridge project and replaces him with Elfric. Finally, when Edmund plans to continue his fight for a borough charter granting freedom from the Priory, Godwyn reminds Petranilla of how he removed the judge, and Petranilla poisons Edmund as she did his wife so many years before.
When Ralph encounters Annet alone in the woods, he too remembers the events of years ago, and without Wulfric to interfere this time, he rapes her. When Wulfric and Gwenda later discover the battered and bruised Annet, Wulfric’s first impulse is to kill Ralph
himself. But instead he resorts to the law: Ralph is arrested and sentenced to death.
Merthin visits his brother in prison to say a final farewell, but instead of reconciliation
receives only hatred. Only the arrival of King Edward III saves Ralph. The King is
pardoning any criminal who joins his army, and possible death in war is better than
certain death on the gallows.
Suffering from an unhealed war wound, Edward III sends for a doctor. That doctor is
Caris, whose skill impresses the King but makes Godwyn and Petranilla nervous. Fearing she will use her new-found influence to ask Edward for the charter, Petranilla arranges for Caris to treat Roland’s son William, but plants poison in the medicine and frames her for murder.
Godwyn promptly arrests Caris and puts her on trial, but Mother Cecilia steps in to try to save her, telling Caris that her only chance of survival is in the convent. Caris has evaded many such suggestions before, but with no other choice she finally becomes a nun, while Godwyn makes a clean sweep by destroying Caris’s workshop and burning her books.
When Merthin tries to see her, Mother Cecilia forbids him. Heartbroken, he leaves for
Italy, while Caris sobs alone in her cell.
Almost a decade later in France, Edward III needs to find a way for his army to safely cross the River Somme. A forced march takes them to the ford at the estuary, only to find the French army there already. The English are trapped and under siege.
When Gwenda and Wulfric visit Kingsbridge with their two sons, SAM and DAVID, she
leaves Wulfric with the boys and goes to look for Sister Caris. As the women return, they find that the boys have slipped away from Wulfric’s too-casual supervision, and Sam has burned his arm. Caris tends him in the priory’s one-room clinic, a meager substitute for the hospital of her dreams. Mother Cecilia announces good news, a bequest that will finally let her fund the hospital.
Next morning Caris receives a letter from Merthin. He has become a successful builder in Italy, with a wife and child, but confesses that he still can’t forget her. When Godwyn inevitably gets his hands on the bequest, he keeps it, his excuse being that there is no document confirming it as convent property. Mother Cecilia decides that the only way to be free of Godwyn’s rule is for Caris to journey to France and petition the King.
Accompanied by Sister Mair, Caris travels through war-torn France, seeing fields strewn with dead men, women and even children. It’s an experience that makes Caris question what sort of God would allow such atrocities. They are captured by an English patrol and taken to the besieged camp, where Caris is able to meet Edward III again. Almost in despair at his army’s useless situation, his spirits are raised by Caris’s English virtues of courage and persistence. It inspires him to take the same approach in battle: the French expect him to surrender, so instead he will attack.
Ralph leads a night assault across the river to kill French sentries so that Edward’s longbow men can cross safely. The attack succeeds, and the unexpected arrow-storm throws the French into sufficient disorder for the rest of the English army to cross and win the day. Caris and Mair go home with the promised grant scribbled on the back of a map, with the King’s signature as a sign of intent.
As Caris and Mair disembark in England, no one notices the rats that scamper from the ship to the dock… At first Godwyn dismisses the grant, since it has no royal seal; but when Caris dares him to defy the King’s direct order, he backs down. Later Caris confides in Mother Cecilia that after witnessing so much pointless death and destruction, she no longer believes in God.
Merthin is finally reunited with Caris when he returns from Italy, his family having perished in the Plague now sweeping across Europe. But when he urges Caris to elope with him she refuses. He has been away too long, and she has changed. Everything she has worked for is in Kingsbridge: she wants to see the hospital through, and is writing a medical book so that what she’s learned can be passed to others. Despite her rejection, Merthin remains in Kingsbridge – and that night, plague-bearing rats finally cross the bridge into town.
Ralph’s welcome back to Shiring Castle is a cold one, and his clumsy proposal of marriage to Philippa is contemptuously rejected. Meanwhile Gwenda and Wulfric, with no land at all, work for Annet’s father though he can only pay in food. Gwenda protests, but when Wulfric doesn’t support her outspokenness, they have a huge fight and he leaves her. At the Winter Solstice feast Gwenda asks Ralph for Wulfric’s land as a gift for Sam; the boy is his son, not Wulfric’s. Ralph doesn’t believe her. In the meantime, one of the guests begins coughing and sneezing blood. The Plague has reached Kingsbridge.
In Westminster, Edward III concludes that since Isabella has been behind most of his troubles – perhaps displeasing God enough to send the Plague – it’s time to send her away. He orders her into exile.
The Great Mortality scythes through Kingsbridge, killing rich and poor alike in such numbers that Caris must turn the convent into a makeshift hospital, separating the sick and using linen masks to prevent the spread of disease. These steps don’t succeed in saving Mother Cecilia, but before she dies she tells Caris to take her place.
Horrified by the painful way plague victims die, Elfric hangs himself. When Petranilla falls ill, Godwyn is so terrified that he abandons his loyal mother, sneaking out of the priory at night and taking most of the monks and treasure with him. Convinced she is dying, Petranilla seeks out Roland, but he turns her away.
Godwyn’s monks reach an isolated monastery in the woods led by PRIOR SAUL, who tries to quarantine them; but Godwyn murders him and takes charge. Having survived the plague, the scarred and vengeful Petranilla sends Roland a rose infected with her diseased blood; while at the monastery, surrounded by corpses, Godwyn kneels before an open grave.
As Wulfric and Sam watch miserably, Gwenda’s youngest son David is buried with scores of other townsfolk in a mass grave, and Wulfric and Gwenda, united by their shared grief, are reconciled once more. Caris sees how much farmland lies untilled because so many have died. With Prior Godwyn missing and Mother Cecilia dead, Caris is confirmed as not just Prioress but Prior, so she offers high wages to anyone who will work the Priory lands.
Edward III bids farewell to his teenage daughter Joan as she leaves to Spain to marry the Prince of Castile, an ally against France. Meanwhile, Caris, Merthin, Thomas and Matthias set out to find Godwyn. Prior Saul’s little monastery is full of rotting bodies, but Godwyn is still alive and seemingly disease-free, though clearly insane. He refuses to reveal the location of the priory’s treasure, but when the new arrivals start digging up the grave and find it, he attacks them and bites Matthias’s neck. In the scuffle, Godwyn’s robe is ripped open to reveal suppurating black plague-blisters. He is infected after all.
In Wigleigh Gwenda and Wulfric marry at last and accept Caris’s offer to work on priory land for a wage of coins and not just food, but leaving Ralph’s feudal domain without permission is illegal and Wulfric is dragged back to Wigleigh. Alhough Sam escapes, Ralph swears that if he doesn’t return, Wulfric will hang.
Noble or peasant, no one is safe from the Plague: Princess Joan dies while traveling,
Petranilla’s rose infects Roland even within the safety of his castle, and Matthias dies in Thomas’s arms. Thomas finally reveals one of his many secrets to Caris – the tale of how Isabella ordered Edward II’s death, and how he killed Thomas Langley, the knight charged with the job, and assumed his identity. The former King survived and, according to rumor, is hiding in Italy.
At Roland’s funeral, Petranilla hints to Ralph that he should have been Earl of Shiring, and later explains that she is his mother, the father was Roland, and when Gerald’s wife gave birth to a stillborn child, Gerald took Petranilla’s infant and raised it as his own. Ralph refuses to believe her until he hears the same story from Merthin by way of their mother’s deathbed confession. With any blood ties severed, he promises that he will kill Merthin next time he has cause.
In Wigleigh, Wulfric is about to be hanged by Ralph when Gwenda convinces the townsfolk to rise up and free him, but Ralph escapes. This is no longer a victory over injustice: it’s a rebellion against a Crown-appointed lord.
Advised by Petranilla, Ralph uses this revolt against his own tyranny to convince Queen Isabella, back at court since Joan’s death, that peasants are rebelling against the crown. She appoints him Earl of Shiring with authority to restore order. That authority allows him to choose his wife, and he forces Philippa to accept him at last by threatening to take her under-age daughter instead. To protect her child Philippa agrees to marry him, but sends the little girl to safety and then escapes Ralph forever by slitting her wrists.
Though Godwyn has survived the plague and seems mad, he is mostly playing the part – except that he really is obsessed with Caris. At first he is gagged and locked in a cell, but Petranilla succeeds in having him appointed Bishop of Kingsbridge. He immediately throws Caris out of the convent, and for making love to Merthin under its roof, punishes both with a public branding.
Infuriated by Godwyn’s constant abuse of power, Thomas finally reveals to Caris and Merthin that he is Edward II, and retrieves the mysterious pouch which contains his royal seal. With this he prepares a charter freeing Kingsbridge from the priory’s control once and for all. But Godwyn, using the “dead King’s seal” as proof of witchcraft, resurrects his old charge and arrests Caris, sentencing her to be burned as a witch.
Convinced that Thomas’s charter is a fake, Ralph and Petranilla bring it to Isabella, who on seeing it realizes that Edward II is still alive. Claiming he intends to start another civil war, kill them both and set himself back on the throne, Isabella persuades Edward III that Wigleigh and Kingsbridge are hotbeds of rebellion. Edward’s army descends on Wigleigh but finds the village empty: Gwenda has summoned its people to save Caris.
Caris is bound to a stake and is mere minutes from execution when Gwenda’s peasants manage to rescue her, but the King’s army is already on its way and surrounds the town. Petranilla tells Godwyn they’ll be safe, his brother Ralph won’t hurt them; but he flies into a mad rage that she slept with anyone but his father and promises to hang her as a whore, then rushes out.
Thomas rallies the townspeople to Kingsbridge’s defense not like a one-armed monk but like a king, and they fight valiantly to save their town from destruction. Ralph and Merthin cross swords as they did at the beginning, now with steel instead of wood and no longer for fun. Merthin is unwilling to finish off the brute he still thinks of as his brother, but young Sam does it for him. Edward III meets the father he thought was dead and, knowing two kings mean no peace, Thomas lets himself be killed.
With all her plans crumbling, Petranilla takes the poison she has given to so many others and, hating Caris for daring to forgive her, she dies. Cheated of his formal execution and murderously insane, Godwyn tries to kill Caris. She defends herself with a heavy metal crucifix and manages to brain Godwyn with the symbol whose authority he has abused for so long.
With the reason for battle gone, Edward leads his soldiers away – and within a generation, the resistance to tyranny shown at Kingsbridge inspires the Great Peasant Revolt that will eventually bring England into the modern world.