Book Review – The White Ship
by Charles Spencer and published by William Collins
Firstly, a word about the author. Charles Spencer is the brother of Princess Diana. He studied history at Cambridge and has written a number of books including three on the civil war. Secondly, we have just crowned a new King Charles, the third of that name. We have had plenty of Henry’s (8) Edward’s (8) George’s (6) and William’s (4) but what about Stephen? The name doesn’t sound very regal does it, unlike some other singletons like Victoria, Mary or Anne. Did we even have a King Stephen?
Back to the book; The White Ship is essentially a story about the life and death of William the Conquerors’ youngest and probably ablest son King Henry the First and the period, often referred to as ‘the Chaos’ which followed his death. Henry became king in August 1100 following the death of his brother William Rufus in a hunting accident. This was only 34 years after the battle of Hastings and the ruling classes were Normans. Henry’s eldest brother was the Duke of Normandy. William had bequeathed his English dominions to his son William Rufus, but that did not stop sibling rivalries and claims and counterclaims between the sons and wider family members.
Henry and his Queen had two children, a son William Aetheling and a daughter Matilda. Spencer suggests that Henry may have thought that a single male heir would be better than all the squabbling between a larger number of sons as in his family. Anyway, although Henry fathered several illegitimate children, there remained a single male heir and young William Aetheling appears to have been spoiled and it seems that he was a rather feckless youth. After campaigning in northern France, Henry returned home on 25th November 1120, this was late in the year and sea conditions were notoriously unpredictable. After waiting for a suitable tide and winds, Henry set sail leaving William and his entourage to follow on. They were in no hurry. With the King gone and plenty of wine on board, the crew all set about fully enjoying themselves. They were to set sail later in the ‘White Ship’ so called as it was coated in Limewash.
The ship set sail at about 10pm the crew and the helmsman almost certainly drunk. The ship was about a mile offshore when she ran on the rocks, a well-known shipping hazard which a crew in its senses would have avoided. All but two drowned including William. The whole ghastly episode is described in detail by Spencer. Henry was absolutely bereft at the loss of his only legitimate heir and so many of the court circle that had died with him. He was inconsolable spending days in bed and eating little. Now Henry was without a male heir and his supporters urged him to remarry. His first wife had died 18 months previously and in January 1121 two months after William’s death, Henry remarried.
However, the new union did not produce an heir and worse still relations became strained between Henry and his daughter Matilda and her husband now living in France and pressing Henry to name them as his successors to his English domain. He did not and died in 1135 with the succession uncertain. Henry’s nephew and a grandson of William the Conqueror was Stephen of Blois. He was meant to have sailed on the White Ship but fate took a hand and he was taken ill and left before it sailed. Stephen moved quickly and claimed the throne. Matilda was slow off the mark and although she did have supporters, many of the English barons were not quite ready for a queen.
Civil war ensued and raged across England and northern France for the next 20 years. Fortune swung this way and that, and eventually both sides recognised a stalemate. Matilda had left the scene and had passed the baton to her son, Henry, and in 1153 the warring factions eventually reached an agreement. Stephen was to remain King for the rest of his life but he recognised Henry as his heir to rule after him. Henry came to the throne the following year as Henry II and is generally regarded as one of England’s great kings although his reputation is marred by the murder of Thomas a Beckett, but that’s another story.
So what is the local connection that I mentioned? William was drowned at the end of November 1120 and a month later Henry spent Christmas at his hunting lodge on the banks of the river Great Ouse in Brampton. The approximate site is known and is on what is now Brampton golf course. The historian Henry of Huntingdon writing around that time records “ At Christmas Henry was at Brampton with Theobald, count of Blois and after this, at Windsor, he married Adela daughter of the Duke of Louvain because of her beauty”.
Well, so we did have a King Stephen and he reigned for almost 20 years although during much of that time, the country and its French provinces were at war with each other.
All this and more is told in this well-written and pacy book giving insight into this relatively unknown period of English history. Highly recommended.