Tuesday, June 06, 2023

The White Ship by Charles Spencer

Diana’s brother Charles has no need of a ghost writer, unlike his nephew Harry. 


His highly competent popular histories have hardly strayed beyond his own family’s apogee, e.g the reigns of Charleses I & II.

Yet it seems he has a fascination with this, one of Medieval history’s dopey yet highly significant misadventures which occurred in 1120, when roughly 300 members of the ruling Norman elite, including the royal heir, set off from Barfleur in the Blanche-Net, the majority of both passengers and crew a little bit juiced up, choosing speed over caution in an effort to catch up with the King’s own vessel, thus encountering some rocks. The only survivor a butcher from Rouen who had boarded in order to chase his bills. 901 years later Spencer led the expedition which located the wreck.

“Game of Thrones, but in the real world” says the dust cover. (Oddly enough, today’s versions attract dust as opposed to repelling it like the old paper ones.) Thrones was based — loosely, let's say — on the Wars of the Roses, a later conflict aroused and fed by the awkward presence on the throne of the two least effective Plantagenets, Richard II and Henry VI, whose impact, domestically and abroad, encouraged their geographically-entrenched relatives to seek alternatives.

“The anarchy” which followed the sinking of the White Ship and the ascension of Stephen* — first (and last) of that name — was instead rooted in earlier dynamics which differed from GOT. The key players changed sides far more often. And if there was one thing the Norman nobility hated it was open battle (except when the other side was obviously French), so we see here how on two significant occasions the antagonists were encouraged by their aristocratic allies to sit down and parley.

Most conflicts that didn’t result in treaties were characterised by a string of sieges. Other than Masada, these have never made for good TV.

But there is some fun stuff here, including a defenestration enacted by the future Henry I himself, the victim a commoner (merchant) who had forgotten the golden rule of feudalism — flexibility was for the landed elites only, everyone else had to abide by their oaths, or else.  
* Only a bad case of the runs had prevented the then Stephen of Blois from boarding the doomed longship at Barfleur.

No comments: