Book Review: “The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream” by Charles Spencer

53604802._SY475_In the middle of the night on November 25, 1120, screams could be heard from the English Channel. A ship known as The White Ship hit a rock and began to sink. Those on board were the glamorous English elite, including the legitimate son of King Henry I, William Aetheling. In an era where people feared the sea and could not swim, those on board sank to their watery death on that cold winter night that began with such frivolity. No one knew that night that this one disaster at sea would cause a dynastic struggle that would lead to the founding of the infamous Plantagenet dynasty. In his latest book, “The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream”, Charles Spencer takes his readers on a journey to fully understand the impact that this tragedy had on the English royal family.

Charles Spencer has written many nonfiction books in the past, but they have all been out of the time periods that I enjoy reading about. I might go back and read them in my own time, but when I saw that this particular title was going to be published and how much praise it had received from prominent historians, I decided to give it a try.

Spencer’s tale into this tragedy begins with a vivid account of the night of November 25th and then it jumps to the first part of the tale. To understand why this event was so horrific for Henry I, we have to understand what it took for Henry I to become King of England. Henry, I was one of three sons of William the Conqueror. After his father died in 1087, the third son, William Rufus became King William II, much to the chagrin of the eldest son, Robert Curthose, who remained Duke of Normandy, but he continued to be a thorn at his brother’s side. When William II died after a hunting accident, Henry knew that it was his chance to beat Robert to the throne, which he did, becoming Henry I, who fought hard to restore order to England.

His two legitimate children, William Aetheling and Matilda, allowed Henry I to breathe a sigh of relief, although he had numerous illegitimate children. This is why this tragedy hit me so hard. With William’s death, it meant that anyone could take the throne after Henry I’s death, which is exactly what happened. The period we know as The Anarchy was a battle between Matilda, who was Henry’s heir, and her cousin Stephen of Blois for the throne of England.

Spencer has painted a dramatically dark portrait of the fall of the Norman dynasty. The Normans were notorious for their cruelty towards those who opposed them, even their own family. What I thoroughly enjoyed with this book was Spencer’s tone. It is as if you are having a casual conversation with Spencer about Henry I’s reign and his family’s drama for the throne. I was impressed with how well researched this book was and the new information that Spencer provided to present the bigger picture of this catastrophe.

I found this book to be a thrilling read full of information and vivid descriptions. This may be Charles Spencer’s first dive into the world of medieval nonfiction, but I hope it is not the last. If you want a brilliant read about the aftermath of the Conquest, the rise and fall of Henry I, and the Anarchy, I highly recommend you read, “The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream” by Charles Spencer.

Book Review: “Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy” by Matthew Lewis

47355586Civil wars between cousins have had many names in the past, notably in England, the Wars of the Roses. However, there was a civil war that pre-dates the colorful contest known as The Anarchy. Two cousins fighting against one another from the throne of England, but what makes this contest unique was the main protagonists caught in the middle. One was the only legitimate child of King Henry I, Empress Matilda. The other was Henry I’s favorite nephew, Stephen of Blois. This conflict stretched for decades and has fascinated historians for centuries. It is complex and at times, a bit confusing, but Matthew Lewis has chosen to shed some light on what happened during this period in history in his latest book, “Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy”.

I would like to thank Pen and Sword Books for sending me a copy of this book. I have enjoyed Matthew Lewis’ books in the past and I didn’t know much about The Anarchy, so this book seemed like a good place to start.

The story of The Anarchy started when Henry I’s only legitimate son died tragically in The White Ship disaster. Although Henry I did have numerous illegitimate children, the only legitimate child that he had left was his daughter Matilda. She was married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, thus she took her illustrious title Empress Matilda. However, when her husband died, she married Geoffrey, Count of Anjou.

When Henry I died in 1135, the throne was supposed to pass down to Empress Matilda, which would have been unprecedented as a woman never ruled England before. However, Empress Matilda’s cousin and Henry I’s nephew, Stephen of Blois got to England first and became King Stephen. To make matters a bit more confusing for those who study this time period, King Stephen married Matilda of Boulogne, who is known in this book as Queen Matilda. Although they shared the same name, these two women acted very differently when it came to how women in power demanded respect from the men around them.

As Lewis explains, The Anarchy which lasted from 1135 until 1154, was not this period of extreme chaos caused by King Stephen’s reign. There are some misconceptions about King Stephen and Empress Matilda that have been passed on through the centuries such as King Stephen was an ineffective leader and Empress Matilda was power-hungry and heavy-handed. Since Lewis decided to keep a very neutral approach, showing both sides of the conflict, which was such a strength in this book, the reader can understand what both Stephen and Matilda were fighting for and how they fought their war. Lewis also showed how the barons, clergy, and other European rulers played into this confusing conflict which led to Empress Matilda’s son Henry II becoming the first Plantagenet King of England.

This was a great introductory book to the conflict known as The Anarchy and the colorful characters of King Stephen and Empress Matilda. Lewis was able to combine well-researched information and an easy to understand writing style to bring this conflict to life. As someone who did not know a whole lot about The Anarchy before I read this book, I found it rather enlightening. The only qualm that I did have with this book was that I was getting confused about the barons and clergy who were helping either side and which side they were on. I do wish that Lewis included a table of names of the people involved to help clear the confusion. Overall, I did enjoy this book. If you want a great book that introduces you to the tumultuous time in English history known as The Anarchy, I recommend you read, “Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy” by Matthew Lewis.