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: “Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey” by Sharon Bennett Connolly

Pen & Sword Book Cover / Jacket artwork

To survive during the reigns of the Norman and Plantagenet Kings of England, one must understand where their loyalty and trust lied. Did they follow the crown or did they take a risk and follow those who opposed the person who wore the crown? For one family, there was no question who they were loyal to, which was the crown. The Warenne Earls of Surrey served the Kings of England from William the Conqueror to Edward III, gaining titles, prestige, and marriages that would cement their names in history books. They survived some of the most turbulent times in English history even if they did have a few scandals in their illustrious history. In Sharon Bennett Connolly’s latest non-fiction adventure, “Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey ”, she explores this family’s history that spanned over three centuries.

I would like to thank Pen and Sword Books and NetGalley for sending me a copy of this book. I have been a fan of Sharon Bennett Connolly’s books for a while now, so when I heard about this title, I knew I wanted to read it. I was going in a bit blind since I have never heard of the Warenne Earls of Surrey, but that is part of the fun of studying a new aspect of history.

The first Earl of Surrey, William de Warenne began this family’s tradition of royal loyalty as he joined William the Conqueror on his journey to England and fought alongside him to establish Norman rule at the Battle of Hastings. William’s descendants would be involved in some of the most important events of the time, from the crusades to the 1st and 2nd Baron’s Wars and the sealing of the Magna Carta. At some points, the earls would briefly switch sides if they thought the king was not in the best interest of the country, but they remained at the heart of English politics and worked hard to help guide the king and the country to become stronger.

What made the Warennes a tour de force when it came to noble families was their ability to marry well, except for the final earl and his scandalous relationships. The second earl desired to marry into the royal family, which did not happen, but his daughter, Ada de Warenne would marry William the Lion, King of Scotland. One of the daughters of Hamlin and Isabel de Warenne would be the mistress of King John and would give birth to his illegitimate son Richard of Chilham. The only woman of the family who inherited the earldom of Surrey, Isabel de Warenne, was married twice and so both of her husbands, William of Blois and Hamelin of Anjou, are considered the 4th earl of Surrey.

Connolly does a wonderful job explaining each story in de Warenne’s long history, including the minor branches of the family. I was able to understand the difference between family members who shared the same first name, (like William, John, and Isabel) but I know that others might have struggled with this aspect. I think it would have been helpful if Connolly had included either a family tree or a list of family members of the de Warennes at the beginning of this book to help readers who did struggle.

I found this particular title fascinating. The de Warennes were a family that proved loyalty to the crown and good marriages went a long way to cement one’s legacy in medieval England. Connolly proved that she has a passion for bringing obscure noble families to the spotlight through her impeccable research. If you want a nonfiction book of a noble family full of loyalty, love, and action, you should check out “Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey” by Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Book Review: “English Collusion and the Norman Conquest” by Arthur C. Wright

51352100 (1)The Norman Conquest of 1066 was one of the most important dates in English and world history. It signaled the start of the Norman influence in England with Duke William, also known as William the Conqueror, becoming King of England. But does William I deserve the reputation that is attributed to him in history, or should we be careful with how we view him because his story is told by the avaricious Church? How much help did William and the Normans receive from their English counterparts? Can we call this event a “conquest”? Who was to blame for the “Harrowing of the North”? These questions and more are discussed in Arthur C. Wright’s latest book, “English Collusion and the Norman Conquest”.

I would like to thank Pen and Sword Books and Net Galley for sending me a copy of this book. When it comes to studying the Norman Conquest, I am a bit of a novice, so I was excited to read another book about this time.

I found this book rather difficult to understand. Wright writes in a style where he is having a conversation to experts, while at the same time saying that every historian has it wrong and he knows exactly what happened. This rubbed me the wrong way. If he had proved his point, I might have found his argument compelling, but he just came off as an angry rambler in the first half of this book. I really wanted to understand what he was trying to say, but I did not see his evidence for English collusion. Instead, he spent a lot of time arguing that feudalism is a myth, which was quite bizarre.

I think the second part of his book was stronger than the first half. It explored the life, commerce, and education of the average citizen. I think if Wright had reorganized his chapters, this book might have been a bit easier to comprehend. Wright tends to focus on after the conquest, without specifying dates, but it is hard to see where the English collusion comes into play. Another problem that I did have is when he tried to insert more modern sayings, ideas, and characters into the conversation. It felt out of place and rather distracting.

I do believe that Wright is knowledgeable when it comes to the subject of the Norman Conquest and England in the years that followed. Unfortunately, his writing style makes it difficult to understand what message he is trying to get across with this particular book. It was readable, but the focus was a bit off and it was hard to figure out his target audience. If you are familiar with the Norman Conquest and would like a challenge, check out “English Collusion and the Norman Conquest” by Arthur C. Wright. It was not my cup of tea, but that does not mean it is a bad book. Someone else might enjoy it.

Book Review: “Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England” by Annie Whitehead

51256446 (1)When one studies English history, many people tend to focus on the year 1066 with William the Conqueror and the Norman Conquest as a starting point. However, just like any great civilization, others formed the foundation of English history; they were known as the Anglo-Saxons. What we know about the Anglo-Saxons come from the records of the kings of the different kingdoms of England, which paints a picture of harsh and tumultuous times with power-struggles. However, every strong king and gentleman of the time knew that to succeed, they needed a woman that was equally strong with a bloodline that would make them untouchable. The stories of these women who helped define this era of Anglo-Saxon rulers in England have long been hidden, until now. In her latest book, “Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England”, Annie Whitehead dives deep into the archives to shed some light on the stories of the formidable women who defined an era.

I would like to thank Pen and Sword Books for sending me a copy of this book. I was not familiar with this period so I thought this would be a good book to dive into. This is the first book that I have read that was written by Annie Whitehead and I was thoroughly impressed with her passion for this subject.

Whitehead begins her book by explaining the rights that women had and how they could accept or deny a marriage, which seems like they had more rights than medieval women who I normally study. These women were queens, princesses, saints, regents, abbesses, a former slave, and some were accused of murder. To understand the significance of every woman, Whitehead organized her book not only in chronological order (covering several centuries worth of stories) but by the kingdoms which they called home. They had to deal with fluid family dynamics, dramatic dynastic feuds, vicious Vikings and other invaders, and monastic reform. To read most of these tales for the first time was invigorating and truly changed what I thought the lives of women were like during Anglo-Saxon England. Myths and legends circulated figures, such as Lady Godiva and Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, but Whitehead has taken the time to separate fact from fiction.

If I did have a concern with this book it would be that I did get a bit confused with family connections. The family trees at the beginning of each chapter did help a bit, but when different men and women from the same family shared the same name, it was a challenge to tell them apart. Although I did take a copious amount of notes, I did find myself rereading passages so that I could figure out the significance of the person that Whitehead was discussing in certain passages.

I think this book is intriguing as it explores women who have stood in the shadows for centuries. Whitehead’s passion and her elegant writing style bring these Anglo-Saxon women to life. I would say that if you are familiar with this time period, you might understand the significant figures and events a bit better than someone who is a novice in this era. If you want to learn more about Anglo-Saxon women, I would suggest you read, “Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England” by Annie Whitehead.

“Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England” by Annie Whitehead will be available in the United States starting on September 16th.

Book Review: “Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest” by Sharon Bennett Connolly

51uoBkbUhLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_There are quite a few events that one can name that radically shaped the course of British history. None more so than the events of 1066, the year that saw Norman, Breton, Flemish, and French forces, led by the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, invaded England in what we know today as the Norman Conquest. Most history books tend to focus on the men who lived before, during, and after the Norman Conquest: Aethelred the Unready, Edward the Confessor, Cnut, Harold II, Harald Hardrada, and of course William the Conqueror just to name a few. What the history books tend to gloss over is the strong women who stood by their husbands, brothers, and sons during this conflict. Who were these women? What were their stories? How did they help their families before, during and after 1066? These questions are answered in Sharon Bennett Connolly’s delightful book, “Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest”.

I would like to thank Amberley Publishing and Sharon Bennett Connolly for sending me a copy of this book. It has been a long time since I personally studied the Norman Conquest, so I found it rather enjoyable to read about a subject that I really don’t know a lot about.

Connolly explains in her introduction why she wrote this particular book about these extraordinary women:

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II, to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, we will trace the fortunes of the women who had a role to play before, during and after the momentous year of 1066. Throughout these tumultuous times, women played a prominent part, in support of their husbands, their sons and of their people, be they English, Norman, Danish or Norwegian. Their contributions were so much more than a supporting role, and it is time that their stories were told, and the influence they had on events, was examined in detail. …My intention is to tell the story of the Norman Conquest, while providing the women with a platform for their stories, from the dawn of the eleventh century to its close. (Connolly, 13-14).

The story of the Norman Conquest does not start or end in 1066; 1066 is the climax of the story, which is why Connolly explores women from before, during and after 1066. Women like Lady Godiva, whose story many people think they know, but the story of her infamous ride is more fictitious than fact. Emma of Normandy, the wife of both Aethelred the Unready and King Cnut,  who used her political influence to protect her sons. Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror, who helped her husband as regent of Normandy while he was in England. St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland, who helped reform Scotland and bring it into the Roman Catholic faith. Edith, Gytha and the wives of Harald Hardrada who followed their husbands into the battlefield. 

These are just a handful of the stories Connolly explores in this wonderful book. Connolly has meticulously researched the men and women who were all part of the events that led to and after the Norman Conquest. I took ample amounts of notes on this particular book, which to me was rather enjoyable. Connolly makes the rather daunting subject of the Norman Conquest and makes it so even a novice on the subject can understand it. If you are interested in the Norman Conquest, especially about the women during this time, I highly recommend you read, “Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest” by Sharon Bennett Connolly.