The White Ship by Charles Spencer, William Collins Publishing, 2020 –
Even if you slumbered through your English history lessons, you might vaguely remember 1066 as the momentous year when the Normans under William the Conqueror squashed the Anglo-Saxons at the battle of Hastings and took control of the country. The next date to jog the memory would be 1215 when King John was forced to sign the Magna Charta. The old noggin might possibly sprinkle in a couple of Henrys between those two dates, then sputter and draw a blank.
Spencer’s book helps fill in the gaps from the death of William the Conqueror up to the emergence of the dynastic Henry II and his famous consort, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Of course some interest in the continuous violent squabbles between kingly wannabes is essential in reading this kind of history. Medieval aristocrats seemed to spend most of their time slaughtering each other’s populations to see who would emerge as the most violent, bloodthirsty, cold-blooded psychopath of them all – in other words, the one who would be king. A balanced appraisal of this period might conclude that the only thing worse than having a King, was not having one. Living with the whims, humors and bad hair days of a monarch was bad enough, but it was worse when a king died without a male heir from the legitimate side of the bed sheets. That was a recipe for living with a constant bloodbath – the anarchy and civil war that arose when there was no heir apparent.
The general focus of Spencer’s book is Henry I – his rise to power, domination of England and continuous wars to subjugate large parts of his old turf in what is now France; especially Normandy. Things were going splendidly with plenty of the usual blood-bath battles, pillage, plunder, rape and ravage. Henry was the dominant ruler of his day and had a succession plan well mapped out with a male heir. That’s when disaster struck. After a particularly jolly time slaying countless enemies in Normandy, Henry was ready to return to England. He sailed off, leaving his heir and a large percentage of his noble peers, warriors and bureaucrats to follow him in the ‘White Ship’, which turned out to be the medieval equivalent of the Titanic.
The best part of the book is the chapter devoted to the actual sinking of the White Ship. There was only one survivor – a butcher from inland Normandy who had boarded the vessel seeking payment for bills owed to him by the rich lords crowded on board. The death of Henry’s heir set England on a course for a civil war after Henry’s death. With two main contestants for the title role of ‘most likely sociopath to win the crown’, England had many years of internecine war before the emergence of Henry II.
The U.K. Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, The Daily Mail and the Daily Express all deemed this ‘the best book of the year’ in 2020. Meh! There is much I liked about the book, and it did fill in a period of English history of which I’m not that familiar, but I found parts of it a bit of a slog. Too many characters dropped into the narrative in rapid succession to the point where it could get confusing. It’s bad enough when those bloody aristocrats gave their spawn the same name and that the bulk of them were related to each other so that figuring out who’s who was sometimes like the blind men describing the elephant.
I could mention the similarities of those Russian novels where confusion reigns because every character has about sixty different names, but of course we hate everything to do with Russia right now and are boycotting the place (thanks Vlad).
TL:DR – not on my list of most readable historians, but enough interesting material to make it worth a go.