Cover image of "The White Ship," a book about 12th century England

Why, you might ask, should an American care to read a history of medieval England? Of course, that’s a question most of us would shrug off. But for me the reasons are clear. The period before and after the Norman Invasion of 1066 was a time with clear echoes in our day. Yes, here “across the pond” as well. For that was the time when the language we speak was taking shape as an admixture of Anglo-Saxon and Old French. And the values and beliefs that underpin our hard-fought liberties first found early expression. But there’s another reason I suspect most readers will find far more compelling: the history of that tumultuous time, when well-told, makes for a cracking good stories. And that’s exactly what you’ll find in Charles Spencer’s fast-moving account of 12th century England, The White Ship.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

A biography of a king, but it’s bigger than that

The White Ship is, effectively, a biography of William the Conqueror‘s youngest son, King Henry I of England and Duke of Normandy. Henry reigned from the year 1100 until his death from overeating toxic lampreys in 1135. But the book is more than that. After a cursory review of Norman history from 799, when Norsemen first invaded the coast of northern France, Spencer then delves deeply into Henry’s long struggle to defeat his two incompetent older brothers and seize the crown of England. During the following twenty years, Spencer shows, Henry gradually brought the turbulent country under his firm control. England lived in peace and what passed for prosperity early in the 12th century. Then catastrophe struck. The White Ship crashed on the rocks off the coast of Normandy, taking with it Henry’s—and England’s—hopes of dynastic succession and stability.

The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy, and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream by Charles Spencer (2020) 352 pages ★★★★☆

Painting of Princess Mathilde calling to her brother, the crown prince, as the White Ship breaks up on the rocks, a critical event in the history of medieval Englan12th century England
Watercolor of Princess Mathilde calling for her brother, Crown Prince William, as the White Ship breaks up on the rocks. Image: Painted by Princess Louise for her mother Queen Victoria. Royal collection.

The White Ship disaster

To cut to the chase, the eponymous White Ship was a luxurious vessel gifted to King Henry I by his wife. When he and his army moved north to the French coast after a huge victory over the French, they set out from Normandy to England—and Henry arranged for his beloved son and heir, William Ætheling (also known as Adelin), and his young noble companions to travel in the White Ship. He then set out for home in a fast ship. Meanwhile, still in port, his foolish seventeen-year-old son ordered up casks of wine to share with everyone on the White Ship, including the crew. They all got roaring drunk. And no sooner had they left the port than the vessel crashed on rocks that every sailor in the English Channel was well aware were there. The White Ship broke up almost instantly, and all but one of the three hundred passengers and crew drowned in the icy-cold waters. Thus died the hopes of a Norman dynasty that would outlive Henry I.

Two historic consequences

From an historical perspective, the loss of the White Ship was hugely significant for two reasons.

The Anarchy

When King Henry died without leaving a male heir, the succession to the English crown became contentious. Henry had named his daughter, Empress Matilda (otherwise known as Empress Maud), as his heir. She was the young widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, and he had induced nearly all the lords attending him at court to swear to support her. But one of Matilda’s cousins, Stephen of Blois, claimed the throne in her stead. Many of the nobles who had sworn to support Matilda quickly declared for Stephen, and he was crowned. A bloody civil war ensued.

Called “the Anarchy,” the seesawing, on-again, off-again war lasted for seventeen years while Stephen sat on the throne. The constant fighting devastated the English countryside, decimated the population, and impoverished them for years to come. A near-contemporary chronicler more colorfully recalled, the result was “a most grievous oppression of the people, a general depopulation of the kingdom, and the sprouting everywhere of seeds of war and strife.” As Spencer notes, the Anarchy was “the most devastating consequence of the White Ship‘s sinking.”

The Plantagenet Dynasty

King Stephen died in 1154 as the war was coming to an end. His own son and heir had pre-deceased him. In his place, Empress Matilda’s son, Henry, gained the throne. Henry II was her son by Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou. Henry’s accession to the throne ushered in the Plantagenet Dynasty, which ruled England for two and a half centuries. As Spencer explains, “Henry II’s Plantagenet bloodline would, after the reigns of his sons Richard the Lionheart and King John, split off into different tributaries. But the broader house of Plantagenet would occupy the throne of England from Henry II’s succession in 1154 until Richard III’s slaying by the Tudors in 1485.” It was the longest-lasting of the eight royal dynasties of English history—far longer than the Tudors, the Stuarts, or the German dynasties of the Hanoverians and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (today’s Windsor family), none of which has lasted much more than a century.

“Game of Thrones but in the real world”

Charles Spencer writes reasonably well. The White Ship is an engrossing history of one of the most consequential periods in English history. But the book is most definitely not “as gripping as any thriller,” as Bill Bryson is quoted as writing on the book’s cover. Anthony Horowitz’s blurb is much closer to the mark: “Game of Thrones but in the real world.” Read this book, and you’ll marvel at the unrestrained bloodshed and cruelty of the age.

Of course, Charles Spencer is no fantasy author. Otherwise, 12th-century England might not have seemed quite so confusing. Because there seems to have been only a limited supply of names among the English and French nobility. Here, for example, is a statement attributed to King Henry I: “I have founded a new monastery at Reading . . . for the salvation of my soul and those of King William, my father, King William my brother, and my son William, and Queen Matilda, my mother, and Queen Matilda, my wife.” Just try sorting all that out as you’re reading this book!

About the author

Photo of Earl Charles Spencer, author of this history of 12th century England

Here’s what Wikipedia tells us about Charles Spencer: “Charles Edward Maurice Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer, DL (born 20 May 1964), styled Viscount Althorp between 1975 and 1992, is a British peer, author, journalist, and broadcaster. He is the younger brother of [the late] Diana, Princess of Wales, and is the maternal uncle of William, Prince of Wales, and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex.”

Spencer was born in London in 1964. Queen Elizabeth was his godmother. “He was educated at Eton College and read Modern History at Magdalen College, Oxford. . . [He] has seven children from three marriages.” The White Ship is his seventh book of history and biography.

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