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.