Cover Image: The White Ship

The White Ship

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Member Reviews

While this is a really enjoyable book to read, the title, The White Ship is a tad misleading (which is why only 4 stars). The events of the disaster only make up one chapter of the entire book. The Anarchy, or The Cause and Effect of the Anarchy might have been a more accurate title.

Having said that, it is a wonderful book, well written and accessible, that covers English history from the time of the Norman Conquest to the accession of Henry II.

Well researched and engaging, it provides a well balanced analysis of the causes of the Anarchy, the personalities involved and the reasoning behind their actions.

As to the White Ship, Charles Spencer, luckily, stays away from the modern conspiracy theories and presents the events as they happened, expertly depicting the high drama, fear and political consequences caused by this most tragic of events.

It is well worth reading!
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Charles Spencer takes as his starting point the sinking of the White Ship on a voyage from Normandy to England, carrying Henry I’s heir, William Ætheling, two of his illegitimate children and a number of the younger generation of courtiers. In a prologue he paints a vivid picture of the event itself and the terror of those who had to break the news to the king.

The book then tells the backstory, showing how Henry went from impoverished youngest son of William the Conqueror to a king at the height of his powers, having secured his kingdom and prepared his son to inherit. With the death of William Ætheling his plans are in disarray.

We see the aftermath of the disaster, his remarriage, his attempts to secure the kingdom for his daughter (in The White Ship she is called Matilda), and the way her cousin, Stephen of Blois, is able to take the throne at Henry’s death. (Ironically, Stephen should have been on the ship, but did not sail because he was ill with diarrhoea.) 

Matilda fought bravely throughout her life to try and claim her inheritance and the battles and dramas of the period known as ‘the Anarchy’ are vividly told, ending with the death of Stephen and the crowning of Matilda’s son as Henry II.

The White Ship is, for me, more of an entertaining read. While it lacks some of the detail of Weir’s book, and is very much focused on the key characters in the drama, Spencer is a great storyteller and uses notes more sparingly in the text, including only what is relevant to the story he is telling.

The chapters immediately before and after the sinking of the ship have the feel of a disaster movie, as we’re introduced to the key characters, watch them party, oblivious, before boarding, and then learn what happens as the ship sinks (based on the eyewitness account of the one survivor).

Then we see the distraught king, and the relatives of the other victims. Seeing the chance events that led to that moment gives you that terrible feeling of ‘what if?’. Reading the same events in Weir’s book did not have that emotional impact.

The White Ship humanises and dramatises the events in a way that brings the characters and their world to life. It’s a haunting story that not only tells you what happened but leaves you imagining how things could have been different. Even though I’d read about the sinking of the White Ship before, it gave it a new resonance.
I received a copy of The White Ship from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Amazing and informative. Great to get such a pacy narrative on such an exciting period of British History.
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Definitely one for the enthusiast, of which I am one.  I knew not much more than the date of the event and the basic outcome; the civil wars between Stephen and Matilda - no plot spoiler!  An awful lot of Matildas and sometimes difficult to keep track.   Like the way the book was laid out, with a 'before', 'during' and 'after'.  Empress Matilda has popped up in a lot of the historical fiction I have read recently so it was good to get some more background to her and the age she inhabited.  I will definitely look out for Charles Spencer's other non-fiction.  Thanks to Netgalley.
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Spencer uses the White Ship itself as an anchor for the story of one of the most tragic events in English history - in fact Spencer writes, "... there as not a part of Henry's Anglo-Norman realm that remained shielded from the impact of the catastrophe ...".

In this tale, Spencer takes you the reader on a tour of the timeline of events from William the Conqueror leading up to the tragedy at sea, and the repercussions for the English throne beyond this.   

His narrative is casual, almost conversational, as if he were giving you a conducted tour of Althorp. Yet this same narrative, with the gentle resonance of Spencer's voice, is concise, informative not dry or stuffy.  For me, this is well-worn ground - however, I at no time found my attention waivering only eagerly looking forward to the build up to the disaster and to the fate of England, left without a legitimate <i>male</a> heir for the concept of a woman ruling in the 12th century was anathema in both England and Normandy.  Spencer takes us through an abridged version of what became known as "The Anarchy" finishing up with the settlement of succession onto Henry Plantagenet.

Spencer finishes with this rather poignant quote from William of Malmesbury "... no ship that ever sailed brought England such disaster ..." 

Highly recommended and one I will be adding to my shelves (upon which I already have two of Spencer's books).
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When the ship carrying the only son of Henry I of England was dashed on the rocks outside Barfleur harbour in 1120 a great swathe of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy was lost.  This led to 'The Chaos', a civil war between the descendants of William the Conqueror that was only ended by the ascension of Henry II and the start of the Plantagenet dynasty.  This shipwreck was a turning point in English history in the early middle ages.
Whilst the book is called the White Ship, the shipwreck itself only occupies a few chapters.  What Spencer does in place the tragedy in the context of the political machinations of western Europe in the early twelfth century.  As a book about the Normans it is very good, the story follows William from Normandy to England and then focuses on the rivalry between his sons.  This period is not often written about in an accessible form for the lay reader and I really enjoyed it.
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Many thanks for allowing me to try this one but I've decided to buy the audio version instead. I'll update my review here once I've finished listening.
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I read this ARC for an honest review
All thoughts and opinions are mine

A book in 3 parts - I really enjoyed this
Its a subject that's not really been on my radar, I enjoyed the history lesson
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The White Ship" is about the accident that changed the course of history: on 25 November 1120 Henry I's son and heir, William Adelin, drowned on the White Ship together with some 300 other people.  His death led to a succession crisis and a period of civil war in England known as the Anarchy.

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1, "Triumph", tells the story of Henry I's path to the throne. Part 2, "Disaster", is about William Adelin's death and its impact on Henry I's private and political lives. Part 3, "Chaos", recounts the events that occurred following Henry I's death: the Anarchy, the war between Henry's daughter Empress Matilda whose royal inheritance was stolen from her by Stephen of Blois. 

"The White Ship" is my first book by Charles Spencer and I immensely enjoyed his writing style. He recounts this amazing story with great skill, but also shows that these historical personages were people: human beings who lived and loved as we do today. Spencer is very compassionate in his portrayal of William Adelin's death and his father's reaction to it. 

This is a book that you simply cannot miss. It's different than other accounts of this story because it concentrates on one even. The subtitle is very apt: "Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream".  It is an amazing story told with such vividness, I could picture being there. 

Highly recommended.
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I'd expected Lady Di's brother might bring a unique perspective to the story of a young royal lost to an ill-advised journey with a helmsman who'd been drinking, but no, this is really more of a general history of Norman rule in Britain, with the loss of Henry I's heir as its hinge, putting in jeopardy all that Henry, and the Conqueror before him, had achieved. As such, it's basically going over the same ground as the English half of my A Level, and it's interesting the way some characters have stayed with me – it's your boy Lanfranc! – while others we either didn't cover, or didn't stick in my memory. Though I struggle to see either how we could have not covered Robert Curthose's troublesome heir William Clito, or how his amusing name could have ever slipped my mind. William Rufus still gets the bad press here that he did 25 years ago, but I was glad to see a little of Henry's fairly spurious reputation for learning and virtue has been rubbed off; he's still presented as the most generally competent of the Norman kings, which is probably fair enough, but Spencer doesn't try to hide that he could be both vicious when slighted, and a bit of a prig (the copious extramarital shagging aside – 22 bastards! See, Boris isn't even world-beating at that). Once the White Ship is lost, and with it not just William Aetheling but a whole cohort of young Norman notables, Spencer delves into the other consequences (I had no idea the Trappists had started as a mourning foundation in response to this) but largely follows the consequences for the royal dynasty – not least the usurpation of the crown by the ghastly Stephen of Blois, who having obtained power by underhand means, didn't seem to have the first idea what to do with it except desperately keep hold of it while flailing ineptly (insert second Johnson joke here). Just like my course it ends with the triumphant-ish ascension of Henry II, pretty much the type specimen of mediaeval monarchy. The main developments are easy to follow (though admittedly I did have the advantage of prior familiarity); the account is liberally spiced with lively detail (Spencer clearly has a particular and entirely understandable interest in the ghastly Robert de Bellême, not to mention his mother, who was clearly only held back by her sex from achieving quite the same heights of awfulness); and all in all, it achieves pretty much what one hopes for in a work of popular history.

(Netgalley ARC)
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