Spencer's "White Ship" shows how a shipwreck changed the course of England

"The White Ship" by Charles Spencer

The White Ship

Author: Charles Spencer

William Collins, 352 pages, $28.99

Historian Charles Spencer centers his story of the Normans in England on a tragic shipwreck that resulted in the loss of more than 200 “of the most important people in England and Normandy,” including the only legitimate son and heir-apparent of King Henry I of England.

In 1120 “The White Ship,” with 50 rowers, was one of largest and fastest afloat. The king, returning to England after successfully subduing his continental enemies, was offered the ship, but he had already secured another, so he gave it to the rest of his court and family. As they waited to sail, the young son and his friends began a riotous party that included the crew. Upon leaving the harbor, the ship struck a rock and went down. All but one of its passengers drowned in the cold November waters.

The survivor was a lowly butcher who had tagged along to collect debts from some of the free-spending nobles. He told how the bodyguards of the king’s son had ushered the heir aboard the only lifeboat, but floundered when they returned to the sinking ship in an attempt to rescue his sister.

Fifteen years later, when King Henry died without an heir, the country slipped into civil war and “the bloodiest anarchy that England has ever suffered,” only recovering when in 1154 his grandson of the House of Plantagenet took the throne as Henry II.

With sumptuous detail Spencer takes us from the beginnings of the dukedom of Normandy through the savagery of William the Conqueror to the seemingly incessant battles of his sons, followed by the relative peace of Henry’s reign and the eventual civil war led by the fight for the throne between his daughter Matilda and nephew Stephen.

A tale well told.

Lee Scott lives in Avondale.

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Book review: 12th Century wreck of "White Ship" sent England into chaos