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The White Ship Reviews

The White Ship by Charles Spencer

The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I's Dream

Charles Spencer

3.67 out of 5

4 reviews

Category: History, Non-fiction
Imprint: William Collins
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 17 Sep 2020
ISBN: 9780008296803

'Here is the story, marvellously told, of the post-Conquest kings - and one almost-queen - of England: unpredictable, violently dramatic, and never less than compelling.' HELEN CASTOR, bestselling author of SHE-WOLVES

4 stars out of 5
20 Oct 2020

"a lively and gripping retelling of the history of Anglo-Norman England through the lens of a very human story of loss and pain."

This disaster, which forms the climax of Charles Spencer’s book, is recounted in moving and vivid detail. With an eye for the human angle, Spencer recounts how the crew, confident that their speedy vessel could catch up with the other ships, whiled away the evening in merry drinking. Everyone partook, so that by the time the ship set sail most of those on board were inebriated, including the helmsman. He paid scant attention to the well-known rocks beyond the harbour, striking them on the port side in an almighty collision. The shipwreck would have momentous consequences. Not only did Henry lose several family members and key supporters, but the peace with France and Anjou unravelled, while the death of his son reopened the question of the royal succession. That problem troubled the king for the rest of his life, ultimately exploding into civil war after his death.


4 stars out of 5
Paul Lay
18 Sep 2020

"Charles Spencer has shown himself to be a perceptive and lively historian of the 17th-century civil wars, a gifted storyteller"

An invasion force led by the young Henry FitzEmpress landed in England in January 1153, the claimant full of “blistering energy”. Bristol and Gloucester opened their arms to him, and senior churchmen saw that Stephen’s game was up after almost 18 years of civil war. He recognised the future Henry II as his heir, and so his now legitimate successor returned to Normandy, to return after Stephen’s death in October 1154. Matilda had gained ultimate victory through her son. Spencer’s is a complex tale spanning decades, with a rich but rarely attractive cast of characters, pivoted on one single, tragic winter evening. It is an event and a period of English and European history that should be better known, and now it will be.

3 stars out of 5
17 Sep 2020

"And as colourful and racy narrative history goes, this absolutely gallops. "

And as colourful and racy narrative history goes, this absolutely gallops. 

The White Ship whips through a hundred years of complex history, from the Norman Conquest to Henry II, in just under 300 pages.

At times you long for a little more detail, more evocation of sights, sounds and smells — though one happy aside will stay with me: Henry I's saintly first wife Matilda, 'Good Queen Maud,' gave London 'its first public lavatories'.

4 stars out of 5
12 Sep 2020

" rooted in excellent historical research"

Spencer’s text, rooted in excellent historical research, delves into fascinating backstories such as the real Macbeth and the prophecies of Merlin. He presents an image of a wily, powerful, successful yet dangerous king, a superb statesman, diplomat and warrior, against the epic backdrop of a family at war. For the scholar, Judith Green’s 2006 biography and Warren Hollister’s study for Yale English Monarchs remain the standard texts. But for the general reader, Charles Spencer has written a lyrical, vivid and compelling portrait. He succeeds in bringing to life huge characters from nearly a millennium ago, with huge emotions, and even huger girths; William the Conqueror was so fat when he died, he had to be squeezed into his tomb, whereupon his guts spilled open.