The sinking of the White Ship on the evening of 25 November 1120 was one of the most decisive turning points in English history. Aboard the vessel was the cream of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy, including King Henry I’s only legitimate son, William Ætheling. The sinking raised serious questions about the succession – questions that would dominate English (and Norman) politics for the next three and a half decades.
This disaster came at the high point of the reign of Henry I, the youngest son of William the Conqueror. As a younger son, Henry had come to the throne by chance rather than design. He was on hand when his elder brother, William Rufus, died unexpectedly in a hunting accident in the New Forest in 1100. Able to react swiftly, he secured the crown against the claims of his other brother, Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy. Determined to re-create his father’s cross-Channel realm, Henry soon moved against Robert. He made quick inroads and by 1106 Normandy was his as well.
Yet with new territories came new problems, as Henry soon discovered. He was immediately drawn into the complex world of northern French politics, which would occupy him for much of the following decade and a half. Particularly dangerous opponents proved to be Count Fulk V of Anjou and King Louis VI (‘the Fat’) of France, neither of whom had anything to gain from a newly ascendant Norman duchy to the north.
By autumn 1120, Henry had finally put these problems to rest – or so it seemed. He had decisively defeated Louis at Brémule in the summer of 1119. And he accompanied this with a series of deft diplomatic initiatives. That same summer, Henry wed his son (and designated heir) William Ætheling to the daughter of Count Fulk, bringing Anjou into alliance. The following June, the young prince did homage to Louis for Normandy on Henry’s behalf, a symbolic act of peacemaking that served to smooth ruffled feathers at the French court.
Yet it was at this moment of triumph that fate’s wheel took a critical turn. Just as King Henry was preparing to embark for England, Thomas FitzStephen – the son of the Conqueror’s captain back in 1066 – offered the services of his lavish new vessel, the White Ship. Henry had already made arrangements for the voyage and was not keen to delay. But he offered his retinue the choice of sailing on the stylish new vessel. Many accepted the invitation, including the young William Ætheling.
The White Ship set out a few hours after Henry’s vessel, its crew boasting that they would soon overtake it. Spirits were high, lubricated by generous supplies of wine. But looking to make up time, and quite possibly inebriated, the captain and crew made a terrible mistake, crashing the boat into the submerged rock known as Quillebœuf just outside the harbour of Barfleur. With temperatures near freezing, all but one of those aboard – a butcher named Berold – died. William Ætheling almost escaped tragedy on the one available dinghy. But hearing the anguished screams of his half-sister, he returned to the wreck to attempt a rescue. The small vessel was soon overturned by other passengers thrashing in the waves, desperate to save themselves.
It’s a good tale, which repays retelling. And Charles Spencer proves himself more than a match for the story. He guides the reader well through the dramatic twists and turns of these years, which first placed Henry on the throne, then seemed set to deny the succession to his progeny. Spencer has a particularly good eye for detail, enriching his account with vivid pen portraits of the main players: the proud and powerful Conqueror, the brave but incompetent Curthose, the hot-headed Rufus.
In doing so, Spencer’s aim is not to revise traditional understandings of these events but simply to bring them to life for a wide audience. In this, he certainly succeeds. Yet his jaunty narrative raises fundamental questions about the role of popular history. Should this just be a matter of telling tales, as the general public often seems to think? Or should popular historians not also seek to analyse sources and events (as academic historians do)? Put simply, is it enough to focus on what, or should we also be asking how and why?
There can be no doubt that Spencer is a more natural storyteller than scrutiniser. He cites sources, but individual testimonies are rarely questioned – and often they are invoked at second hand. Narrative history is only as good as its narrator, and sadly Spencer often comes up short. By a conservative count, I identified at least twenty-two errors of fact or interpretation; others will be able to add to this tally. Some of these slips are minor (the witnesses to royal charters did not append their own autograph signatures – this was left to the main scribe of the document). Others are more serious, raising questions about Spencer’s command of the material. For instance, Edward the Confessor did not set sail for England as soon as he heard of King Harthacnut’s death in 1042: he’d already been co-ruler there for a year.
In an age in which it’s said we’ve ‘had enough of experts’, Spencer’s fast-paced (and immensely enjoyable) account may fare well, despite these shortcomings. But is it history?