The White Ship:  Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream

The White Ship:  Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream


Henry I famously died after ‘a surfeit of lampreys’, an unattractive bloodsucking fish that was a great delicacy in Roman times and the Middle Ages. They were favoured by royalty and the aristocracy because their rich and meaty flesh was particularly appetising during Lent, when meat was banned. In 1120, fifteen years earlier, he was devastated by a maritime disaster that had repercussions down through the years, and changed the British monarchy for ever. The event was the sinking of The White Ship, sailing from Barfleur on the Cotentin Peninsula in Normandy to England in November, carrying 300 passengers, including William Ætherling, Henry’s beloved (legitimate) son and heir, his half-sister Matilda, and his half-brother Richard. Henry had boarded another ship, which set off a few hours earlier, with the expectation that they would be overhauled by the faster White Ship. News of the tragedy filtered through to Henry later that morning, who was residing at his favourite royal hunting lodge at Clarendon in the New Forest, and, naturally, he was overcome with grief. The reason for the shipwreck was put down to the fact that the passengers and the entire crew, including the helmsman, were incapacitated with wine, which had started flowing even before the ship set sail. Three hogsheads had been loaded on board at the insistence of William. A serious misjudgement of seamanship led to the captain and helmsman hitting the submerged Quillebœuf rock a nautical mile off-shore, with disastrous consequences. Of the 300 passengers and crew, only one survived. Of those drowned, 140 were knights or noblemen and 18 were noblewomen. It is not difficult to imagine a fish kettle, containing dozens of writhing lampreys, and then picture the poor souls thrown into the icy waters of the English Channel to their watery doom.

The maritime tragedy is at the heart of this book, and is the meat in the sandwich. There is a lengthy preamble setting the historical and political scene from before the Norman Conquest, and an even more protracted post mortem, when the country descended into chaos and civil war, known as ‘The Anarchy,’ with Henry’s dream unravelling. Two historians provide the bones for Spencer’s book, namely Judith Green’s 2006 biography Henry I: King of England and Duke of Normandy and Warren Hollister’s Henry I for Yale University Press in the English Monarchs series. A novel by Nick Salaman, also called The White Ship, published in 2016, takes the reader on a somewhat fanciful trip, full of intrigue and passion, exploring a plot engineered by Juliana, another illegitimate daughter of Henry I, to sink the White Ship, as a way of avenging the blinding of her two hostaged daughters. 

There are some strangely-named characters in the story, as though they were penned by Tolkien, including Fulk, an illegitimate son of Henry I, Cnut, Clito, Louis the Fat, Hugh the Fat, Forne and Bigod. To complicate matters, there are no less than five Matildas mentioned, as far as this reader can understand: Matilda of Anjou, daughter of Fulk V, who was betrothed to William Ætherling; Matilda, illegitimate daughter of Henry I, also known as Maud; Matilda, legitimate daughter of Henry I, who married Holy Roman Emperor Henry V and, subsequently, Geoffrey of Anjou; Matilda of Flanders, Henry I’s mother; Matilda d’Avranches, who married Robert, son of Henry I; and his mistress, Edith, daughter of Forne, son of Sigulf, who became Matilda of Scotland, wife of Henry I. And he had another mistress called Edith, who was the mother of Matilda, Countess of Perche. He certainly had a large brood, totalling nine sons and at least fifteen daughters, with possibly another three, whose names are not recorded. Henry was the most prolific producer of illegitimate children of all the Kings of England, and his record still stands, even though Charles II had a good stab at it over five hundred years later, credited with eight sons and six daughters.

The dizzying array of machinations, manoeuvring, chicanery, duplicity, bribery, loyalty and treachery on both sides of the English Channel are all described in detail, and it is sometimes difficult to keep tabs on who married who, and whose allegiance Henry could command. There are some particularly nasty villains on both sides, notably an unspeakably brutal tyrant, Robert de Bellême, who thankfully gets his comeuppance, and Henry’s older brother Curthose, and his son William Clinto. William Rufus became king on the death of the Conqueror, but was himself killed in a hunting accident in the New Forest. Henry saw a legitimate opening and grabbed the crown, while Robert was on a Crusade in the Middle East. He then had major problems with the Norman barons, as well as his brother, when he returned. Loyalty was in short supply in the Anglo-Norman court, so imprisonments, torture, seizures of land and castles, and assassinations were rife. They were brutal times, but Henry tried to undo the wrongdoings and cruelty of his brothers. He was forever shoring up family rows, in many cases through marrying his illegitimate daughters into feuding dynasties, but also by handing out land and money. By 1131, Henry saw a time of peace in France, Flanders, Normandy, Brittany, Maine and Anjou, and he joyfully returned to England. On one of his many voyages to Normandy, Henry fell ill and subsequently died. As he predicted, chaos ensued, and John of Worcester lamented how, ‘After Henry’s burial, it was not long before there was much discord throughout England and Normandy, and the bonds of peace were torn. Each man was against his fellow . . . The strong violently oppressed the weak.’

Henry’s successor was to be Stephen of Blois, the third son of Adela, his favourite sister. He had had a lucky escape from the White Ship, when he disembarked because of a serious bout of diarrhoea, but his credibility was questioned after his lack of courage during a Crusade battle in Antioch. His reign was blighted by battles on both sides of the Channel, and particularly with King David of Scotland, who brought a new, bloody barbarism across the border into Northern England and down into Yorkshire, massacring women, children, the sick, the elderly, pregnant women, infants in the womb, ‘sparing no rank, no age, no sex, no condition.’ The book takes the reader up to Stephen’s death and the subsequent succession of Henry II, opening a whole new era. Although there is a cast of thousands, Spencer brings clarity and cohesion to a muddled period of English history, already much written about, and shines a light on events that happened nine hundred years ago. As William of Malmesbury wrote at the time, ‘No Ship that ever sailed brought England such Disaster.’


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