The sinking of the White Ship in 1120 is one of the greatest disasters England has ever suffered. In one catastrophic night, the king's heir and the flower of Anglo-Norman society were drowned and the future of the crown was thrown violently off course.
[A] disaster forms the vivid centerpiece of Charles Spencer’s The White Ship, but the event is just the fulcrum for a more expansive and intriguing story. In a deftly written, thoughtful narrative, Mr. Spencer explores the significance of the tragedy, spanning a tumultuous century of strife that began long before William Ætheling’s death ... As kings, queens, knights, bishops and even the occasional pawn move across the chess board, readers must concentrate to keep track of a shifting cast of remarkable characters.
Charles Spencer has shown himself to be a perceptive and lively historian of the 17th-century civil wars, a gifted storyteller. In The White Ship he looks back a further 500 years or so to another period of bitter division, which followed the reign of Henry I and the catastrophic loss at sea of his only legitimate male heir ... Spencer paints a vivid picture of this richly draped, exultant cast of intermarried aristocrats, the regime’s 'new men', and hubristic knights keen to cash in their credit with the monarch as they returned to his kingdom ... 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.
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 ... While the loss of the White Ship provides the narrative focus for Spencer, he places it in a wider history of the Normans from the Conquest to the succession of Henry II in 1154 ... Deftly using contemporary sources, Spencer writes with pace, and illustrates well how the interconnections of kin and aristocracy bound England to Normandy and the principalities of France, a fact that underpins the politics of this era ... There are times when Spencer could distinguish more clearly between what can be reasonably established from the primary source material and what is likely to be embellished apocrypha, not least in his retelling of the desperate moments of the shipwreck itself ... There is a risk, too, that the narrative arc of the book points to civil war following inevitably from the sinking of the White Ship. But that is not the case ... The White Ship is nonetheless a lively and gripping retelling of the history of Anglo-Norman England through the lens of a very human story of loss and pain. The book succeeds by resurrecting the characters involved in a 900-year-old maritime tragedy from their watery graves.