Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Charles Spencer has found his niche in the world of literature as the guide who takes his readers on lesser-known tours of English history, a status he reinforced yet again when he published The White Ship. Taking us back to 1120, it presents us with a narrative which explores the sinking of the titular ship, with members of royal families on-board, and its consequences in relation to the Norman Conquest as well as the decades of civil war that followed.
Table of contents
Charles Spencer Examines a Historical Sinking
History is dictated by a wide number of factors, ranging from environmental conditions to extraordinary personalities whose leadership touched millions, if not more. Sometimes, however, the course of history is determined by singular events, small in their nature, but explosive in their consequences. In The White Ship, Charles Spencer takes us back to the 12th century to explore one such event and its impact on English history.
Before moving on further, I would like to clarify we’re talking about a work of pure non-fiction, even if it is presented in the form of a more traditional type of narrative. All the events and people presented in this book truly existed, and their words as well as their actions have been documented.
The book is divided into three concrete parts, the first one being titled “Triumph”, chronicling the story of Henry I, a younger son of William the Conqueror. Contrary to his brothers, his prospects for the future seemed rather dim, but that didn’t stop him from going on a historical ascension to the English throne, becoming one of Europe’s most powerful figures.
The second part of the book is titled “Disaster”, and tells the story surrounding the sinking of the titular ship. The event is given a tremendous importance by the fact that Henry I‘s sole legitimate heir perished in the shipwreck. Ultimately, this would understandably have a tremendous impact on the king’s personal life, as well as his political views and ambitions, setting the stage for the third part of the book.
Titled “Chaos”, the final section of the book explores the consequences of Henry‘s death in 1135, fifteen years after that of his son. Anarchy reigns supreme, Henry‘s daughter Empress Matilda finds herself pitted against Stephen of Blois who stole her royal inheritance, and there’s no shortage of nobles trying to get their slice of the bloody pie England has become.
The Gripping Narrative of The White Ship
History books have always easily retained the attention of those who already had an interest in their contents, but I think recently there has been a collective realization that they need to offer something more to grasp a wider audience. As a result, more and more authors such as Charles Spencer have taken to creating enthralling narratives out of the historical content they want to share with the world, and I must admit, The White Ship is, in my opinion, one of the better examples on how to approach that.
For starters, the structure is rock-solid and extremely easy to follow, progressing in chronological order and starting at the logical point of Henry I’s biography. If there’s one thing Spencer excels at, it’s making his readers understand the importance and impact of whatever events or characters they are reading about.
The author explains quite concisely the tremendous role which the man played in his country’s history, and what’s more, he essentially manages to make an exciting display out of his story worthy of a great novel. In other words, it’s necessary to remind yourself from time to time of the fact you’re reading a work of non-fiction.
I think many people will agree with me when I say the second part of the book, the one detailing the accident which derailed English history, is made as morbidly captivating as the sinking of the titanic, if not moreso. The event is vividly reconstructed, detailed with a tangible compassion for the people on-board whose lives were swept away in the blink of an eye, reminding us that even if they lived almost a thousand years ago, they were people like us who loved life just as much as we do.
When the third part comes along, the cast of characters grows by a wide margin and the progression does become more complex, but Charles Spencer handles the situation quite adeptly, slowing the pace down a bit and making sure not to overload us with superfluous information. In my opinion, he really succeeds in conveying how royal life in those days was akin, more than anything else, to the world’s most lethal game of chess.
An English Legacy
Though The White Ship might be dressed up as a novel and feel like it through and through, it does remain a history book, and therefore I believe it must be examined from a more practical and factual perspective. Naturally, there is a limit to how much information Charles Spencer can share with us in the span of a single book, but in my opinion, he really does make the most of the limited space he has.
Whereas some historical authors fall in the trap of writing unnecessarily long paragraphs about completely irrelevant details (a great cure for insomnia), Spencer avoids it like the literary master he is. He never gets stuck in the mud to relay inconsequential bits of information, always keeping in sight what his readers are interested in, and what they actually need to know in order to understand the topic at hand.
Everything we learn is important in one way or another, from helping us understand the general spirit reigning over England during the 11th and 12th centuries to clarifying the decisions and ambitions of various key figures. Thankfully, we’re also given a decent amount of time to digest the information, but I think this is a book which still needs to be read multiple times to get everything out of it.
If there’s one area in particular where I think the author had the most success, it’s in his prominent ability to actually transport the reader into the heart of the Middle Ages. His descriptions of people, locales, mores and values are generally simple but poignant, and perhaps more importantly, very easy to picture.
As we learn about specific people, we are also led through the door of a greater general understanding of the time period, of what drove people to make the decisions they did, shedding some much-appreciated light on a complex and tumultuous period in English history. While I can’t claim it made me an expert in the field, I definitely feel confident enough not to appear as a complete fool if I were to discuss it with a historian.
|352||William Collins||Oct. 19 2021||978-0008296803|
The Final Verdict
The White Ship by Charles Spencer is a magnificent historical book, hitting all the right notes as it explores the life of Henry I, the shipwreck which changed his life, and the chaotic impact his death had on England. Presented like a first-rate novel, it brings only facts to the table and lays them out in the most reader-friendly way possible.
If you’re curious about English history during the 11th and 12th centuries, or are simply in search of a captivating history book to transport yourself a few hundred years back in time, then I highly recommend you check this book out.
Charles Spencer is a historian and an author who worked for NBC News for a decade as an on-air correspondent, and was interviewed as an expert historian numerous times by the BBC. His career as an author began with the publication of Althorp: the Story of an English House in 1998, followed shortly after by The Spencer Family, Blenheim, Prince Rupert, and more recently, The White Ship.