The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream
By Charles Spencer Harper Collins, 352pp, £20
It is difficult to imagine a disaster more well-intentioned, or complete, than Stephen, the king who ruled England for 19 catastrophic years between 1135 and 1154. His reign proved sufficiently wretched that a chronicler recalled: “To till the ground was to plough the sea; the earth bare no corn, for the lands were all laid waste … and [men] said openly that Christ slept and his saints.” This period, dubbed “the Anarchy”, was rendered all the more remarkable in its protean tragedies by the fact that it followed the stability cultivated by Stephen’s predecessor and uncle, Henry I. Handsome, courteous, and gentle, Stephen nonetheless glibly abandoned the promises he had made to support his cousin Matilda’s right to the throne and instead arranged his own coronation at Westminster, prompting Matilda to take up arms to recover what she regarded as her birthright.
The nobility and the Church were both split over Matilda’s claim. The dispute, which partly revolved around whether a woman could rule, caused a civil war, despite the late Henry I’s valiant attempts to unite the magnates in loyalty to his daughter through a series of public oath-swearing ceremonies.
This succession crisis, its war, and the ensuing disintegration of royal authority all traced their origins to one horrible event in the English Channel in 1120. During a return voyage from Normandy, the White Ship was dashed on submerged rocks and sank, leaving a single survivor – Berold, a butcher from Rouen. A particularly blue-blooded set can be expected somewhere around Barfleur on the day the sea gives up her dead, for among the drowned were several of Henry I’s ennobled bastards and his only legitimate son, William.
The foundering of the White Ship forms a vivid opening to Charles Spencer’s most recent book. It is impossible to be left unmoved by his account of the screams of the dying that whistled over the waters, loud enough to be heard by the townsfolk in Barfleur, or a countess shrieking as the heavy fabrics of her gown dragged her under, and a knight blessing the butcher floating next to him in the water as he himself succumbed to hypothermia.
The White Ship, however, is not solely a history of a shipwreck, but also of how the consequences of that winter’s night explain how the dark brilliance of Henry I gave way to the floodlit incompetence of Stephen. The latter should have been among the White Ship’s victims but a providential bout of crippling diarrhoea rendered him bedridden and unable to travel. Whether it was because of a previous illness or, as Spencer tentatively suggests, because he may have drunk too much earlier in the day, it saved him from joining his cousin William at the bottom of the Channel.
This combination of restless seas and stomachs left Matilda as heiress presumptive and Stephen, and his brothers, as the old king’s closest legitimate male relatives, a tension which came to the boil when Henry I died without producing a spare to replace the heir.
Spencer’s previous works as an historian have focused mainly on the Stuarts and the Interregnum. Shifting to the 12th century presents certain challenges: to those who despair of, say, the Tudor era’s proliferation of Thomases, Annes, Catherines and Henrys, the Normans’ limited pool of Christian names make the Tudors look as if they possessed the same variety as the Big Book of Baby Names. Spencer deals well with the tangled roots of these family trees – to avoid yet another queen Matilda, for instance, he refers to Stephen’s wife by the French version of her name, Mathilde.
The result of weaving together the specifics of the White Ship’s last voyage with the wider unravelling of the Anglo-Norman monarchy is a fine book that balances well the personal with the political. The White Ship reads as an epic, gripping history of hubris, piety, treachery, happenstance, rebellion and slaughter. To this is added a roll call of the magnificent, the deplorable and the pathetic.
Henry’s lovely and gracious widow, the Dowager Queen Adeliza, is refreshingly given due attention; as is the litany of humiliations endured by Matilda, inflicted on her first by others and then by herself. Stephen’s coronation promise, that he would rule England “to my utmost ability”, proved a depressingly low bar for an oath, yet it is hard not to feel sorry for him in his final years, when Spencer writes of him clinging to the trappings of kingship with “the empty posturing of a battered, elderly, peacock”.