On 25th November 1120, the White Ship sank in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy, France—an event which led to the drowning of the heir to the English throne, William Adelin—triggering a time of brutal civil war which came to be known as the Anarchy.
Today I’m speaking with Charles Spencer, historian and author of the new book about the tragedy, The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream.
ANDREA ZUVICH: Welcome! Readers of this website associate you primarily with your works about the Stuart period, including The Last Cavalier about Prince Rupert, Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I, and To Catch a King, among others. Given that so much of your previous research has been about the seventeenth and early-eighteenth-centuries, what was it about the time of the Anarchy and this particular event itself that struck a chord with you as a historian?
CHARLES SPENCER: I love to find stories from the past that have been fully or partly forgotten, and then I enjoy bringing them forward, out of the shadows, for a fresh audience. In the process, I aim to shine a light on the age in which such an event occurred. It’s what I did, for instance, with Killers of the King – a look at Charles I, the first two English Civil Wars, the Commonwealth, and the Restoration, underpinned by the energy of an international manhunt. Well, with The White Ship I found myself in an even richer pasture. There has never been a more terrible maritime tragedy, in England’s history. It soon led to a truly ghastly civil war, as you say. It has fantastically strong female characters at its heart – especially the Empress Matilda, the accomplished and remarkable heiress who was meant to succeed her father, Henry I, but who was beaten to the Crown by her cousin Stephen, the one great man not to go down on The White Ship, because he was feeling ill and disembarked the doomed vessel just before it put out to sea. As I said to my publishers (William Collins), the tale of The White Ship is essentially Titanic meets Game of Thrones, with Sliding Doors thrown in! But, more than the unimaginable tragedy of the shipwreck, there is so much more to share with the reader – the strong rule of Henry I, the Conqueror’s youngest son, who comes from nowhere to rule England, then beats his eldest brother in battle to scoop up Normandy, too. How Henry accommodated the Pope, in a way that largely worked for kings of England till Henry VIII tore down that structure more than 400 years later. How Henry built up royal governance with great effect – establishing the Exchequer that still dominates our finances now. How he dealt with overmighty aristocrats and meanwhile promoted men of humble birth who relied on him for their power. And Henry I led able armies, forged clever alliances, and trounced his great rival across the Channel, Louis VI – known, thanks to his generous girth, as “Louis the Fat” – in battle. The tragedy of The White Ship is the spine of a much larger story, which goes from the Vikings, through the battle of Hastings, the shipwreck and the Anarchy, through to the establishment of the Plantagenets as England’s rulers.
AZ: This month marks the 900th anniversary of the sinking of White Ship. Sometimes there is debate amongst historians as to whether or not it is important to recognise anniversaries. What is your opinion about this?
CS: I believe in getting people interested in History – and, if that requires an anniversary to light the fuse, then so be it. Publishers can be very wary about taking risks on History books. I am sure it would have been a tougher sell for me if I hadn’t had the 900th anniversary (this month!) to hang my pitch for The White Ship on. I write narrative History, rather than the dry, academic, variety, so my intention is to intrigue a general audience with a true tale from the past. If it takes an anniversary to get this done, then so be it!
AZ: Given the importance of the events you cover in your book, it is extraordinary that many, if not most, people may not have heard of the sinking of the White Ship or know who Henry I, the Empress Matilda, or Stephen of Blois were. With the exception of Ken Follett’s fictional works, among others, do you think that this lack of familiarity stems from this time not being covered much in schools and in historical dramas?
CS: You are absolutely right – this is a largely lost period. When I was growing up (I’m 56), I was lucky enough to receive a very general historical education. People had heard of The White Ship – indeed, it was such a staple of English history that, I found, historians referring to it one or two hundred years ago apologised for bringing up such a hackneyed tale! That has all changed. Nowadays history teachers need to attract students to their courses, to justify their jobs. They generally resort to Henry VIII and Hitler because that is what “sells”. I don’t blame them – but it is the student who ultimately loses out, when denied terrifically interesting periods of History because they need a little more explanation.
A few fun questions:
AZ: Do you listen to any particular music when you work on your books?
CS: That’s such a good question! While much of my research takes place in hushed libraries, I like to actually write to loud music. Not because I am actively listening to it, but because I like to distract the top wavelengths of my brain, so the rest of my thinking can focus on the job in hand. The soundtrack to The White Ship was a mixture of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and the classical track Spiegel im Spiegel, with some humour thrown in by the brilliant New Zealand comedy duo Flight of the Conchords.
AZ: What’s your favourite hot beverage?
CS: I kick off the day with freshly-brewed coffee in my old steel percolator – mixed with oat milk. I don’t drink anything hot after that point of the day. Sadly, I can’t handle caffeine after noon, because I won’t sleep a wink if I do!
AZ: I’ve never tried oat milk in my coffee—sounds good, I’ll give it a try sometime. Which of your books would you like to be made into a film?
CS: I worked for an American TV network for 9 years, in the ‘80s and ‘90s. While I was at NBC News I learnt to “write to picture”, and I think – I certainly hope – that has stayed with me. It’s therefore easy for me to visualise each of my books in cinematic terms. I think To Catch A King would make a gripping movie – but it would have to be gritty and raw. It’s about the 6 weeks on the run that the future Charles II endured in 1651, after being beaten at the Battle of Worcester. It was an amazing tale of endurance, luck, cunning and hardship, and that would have to come across in a movie or TV series. It couldn’t be presented as a jolly game of hide and seek in the woods. Charles II was on the run for his life, and it is absolutely astonishing that he escaped. I believe The White Ship could really work, too – but more as a miniseries: it has a natural momentum that takes the reader or viewer forward, episode by episode. There is a lot of horrifying detail – the blindings and mutilations dished out to those who upset the Crown, for instance – and the cast of characters is, I found, absolutely fascinating. The Middle Ages certainly don’t lack for drama.
AZ: Indeed! Can you share a bit about your writing routine?
CS: It generally takes me about 12-18 months of research, then 12 months of writing and editing. With The White Ship, I took a year to read all the sources and get my head round the Middle Ages, before researching the actual story in detail. Of course, it’s so different to the Stuart era – which is where my last four books were set – although God’s hand (its power; its meaning) is dominant in both periods. When I get to the writing part, I try to complete 1,000 words per day. Sometimes it’s a lot more, but then I know the editing process will really come into play: I edit away many times, before handing in the manuscript to my editor, Arabella. I am my own harshest critic, and hate it if I later find I’ve repeated a word, or whatever.
AZ: I think there are some good writing tips there! Are you at liberty to say whether you are currently working on a new book? And, if so, what is your topic?
CS: I’ve taken a true 20th-century story, and it’s proving a lot easier to put together than my past few books as a result! Rather less research required, and that is a huge relief.
AZ: You leave us in suspense—I can’t wait to find out what that will be! Thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure. Best wishes to you with your latest release!
CS: Thank you!
Charles Spencer is a best-selling historian and former reporter who also looks after his ancestral estate, Althorp. You can visit his website to purchase signed copies of his books. You can also follow him on Twitter @cspencer1508.