Book of the Week: Charles Spencer’s “The White Ship”

“No Ship that ever sailed brought England such Disaster”

– William of Malmesbury


25th November 2020 marks 900 years since one of the greatest disasters that England has ever suffered: the sinking of the White Ship – the repercussions of which would change English and European history for ever.

In this fascinating new book, Charles Spencer relates not only the lead up to the tragedy, but analyses its aftermath, evoking the harsh and brutal story of the Normans from Conquest to Anarchy


King Henry I was sailing for England in triumph after four years of fighting the French. Congregating with the king at the port of Barfleur on that freezing November night was the cream of Anglo-Norman society: three of his children, including the only legitimate male heir to the throne, as well as the flower of the aristocracy, famous knights, and mighty courtiers. By 1120, Henry was perhaps the most formidable ruler in Europe, with an enviable record on the battlefield, immense lands and wealth, and unprecedented authority in his kingdoms. Everything he had worked so hard for was finally achieved, and he was ready to hand it on to his beloved son and heir, William AEtheling.

Henry I and his retinue had set out first. The White Ship – considered the fastest afloat – would follow, carrying the young prince. Spoilt and arrogant, William had plied his comrades and crew with drink from the minute he stepped aboard.

It was the middle of the night when the drunken helmsman rammed the ship into rocks. There would be only one survivor from the gilded roll call of passengers…

With the heir to the throne dead, a civil war of untold violence erupted, a game of thrones which saw families turned in on each other with English and Norman barons, rebellious Welsh princes and the Scottish king all playing a part in a bloody, desperate scrum for power.


As Helen Castor has written: “Here is a story, marvellously told, of the post-Conquest kings – and one almost-queen – of England: unpredictable, violently dramatic and never less than compelling.”

Indeed, the pace at which Spencer relates The White Ship is exhilarating, yet the historian never loses touch with those telling details, in particular the individual characters of the cast, that so brilliantly bring a nine-hundred-year-old event to life for us today.


The White Ship:

Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream

by Charles Spencer

Hardback, William Collins, £25 – signed copies available

To order a copy, please email or telephone 0207 439 9921 – we look forward to hearing from you.

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