Book Review: ‘The White Ship’ by Charles Spencer

I do not usually review books that are not about the 17th-century or the Stuart period, but given that this author has written several important works about the Stuart period, I thought I might make an exception this time (and that you’ll forgive me for doing so).

I know I’m not the only historian who was surprised when Charles Spencer, very well-known for his popular and riveting books on seventeenth-century Stuart history, suddenly said he was going to write about the 1100s. What?! I was genuinely taken aback because Spencer, to me, is synonymous with the Stuart period, so it seemed an odd move. That said, I finished reading my review copy earlier this evening and I’m really glad he wrote this because I probably wouldn’t have read a history about this period otherwise.

Before reading this book, I had a vague understanding of the Conquest of 1066, and I knew that some ship sank killing an heir, and had briefly read up on the chaos of the Anarchy, but this book fully engaged and enlightened me and definitely plugged in some serious gaps in my knowledge. I now wholly appreciate the significance of the sinking of the White Ship, which truly changed so much. I had no idea that around 300 people died—a great tragedy—and I didn’t know that many of the victims had been extremely important political and/or dynastic figures.

King Henry I by Unknown artist, circa 1620. NPG via Wikimedia Commons.

I have to be perfectly honest, though, this book was downright horrible. I mean that it was horrible in the sense that it was full of shocking, violent, petty, and devastating events, figures, and situations: I literally had to put it down on occasion because it was so graphic and unsettling at times. The amount of gouged eyes…shudders

The actual history of the sinking takes place in the middle of the book, for there is a great deal of information about the history leading up to the event, and the subsequent fallout from the disaster. This is like Titanic, but with a horrendously bloody civil war that followed. It’s just crying out to be filmed as an epic mini-series or movie.

In a nutshell, he’s done it again. This is another superb and engrossing work of history by Charles Spencer. What will he surprise us with next?

Don’t forget to check out my exclusive The Seventeenth Century Lady interview with Charles Spencer from November 2020.

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