Charles Spencer’s book The White Ship tells the story of the first Norman kings of England, and the shattering effect that one event – the sinking of a ship – had on the course of English history.
Of course, 1066 is the one date burned into the mind of every English child – when the Norman invasion by William the Conqueror effectively turned England into a province of Normandy, and the land of England was shared out between William’s favoured knights.
The job of every king at the time was to produce a male heir. If there was more than one boy, there was often conflict between the brothers. William had three sons, so there were years of conflict after his death in 1087, complicated by the fact that the English Channel split the ‘nation’ or empire.
Eventually William’s youngest son prevailed to become the dominant monarch, King Henry I, of the re-integrated country. After the final battles on the continent that assured his dominance, Henry returned to England from Barfleur in Normandy in late November 1120.
Henry and his wife Matilda had just one son, William Ætheling, and a daughter Matilda. There were also a number of illegitimate sons. Henry left for England early evening, on a favourable tide. William was to follow Henry back later in the evening, on a faster, White Ship, along with many of Henry’s supporters and heroes of the campaign. The story tells how drunkenness and revelry led to the ship running aground on rocks off Barfleur, losing all but one on board.
Henry I now had no male heir. The rest of the book details the contortions as he tried to get his daughter Matilda accepted as the next monarch, and the ensuing conflict and anarchy after Henry’s death in 1135, between his nephew, Stephen of Blois, who actually became king of England, and Matilda based on the continent. When Matilda’s son Henry took on the battle, Stephen was eventually forced to concede that this Henry should become the next king, Henry II, who became a dominant monarch in 1154 in the same mold as William and Henry I.
Similar tales have been recorded over the ages – the problems of succession, the intervening of natural disaster or folly. This one has a particular ring about it, at a key point in the history of England, Normandy and associated territories. It is well told by Charles Spencer in this book.
Featured image of the White Ship was produced in 1321, public domain.