Publication Date: October 19, 2021
Length: 352 pages
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
I'd been eager to start this book, not only because it is about a period of time I love to learn about, but because it is a non-fiction history book. I made a goal this year to read a bit more history like I used to years ago before I made the switch to a lot of historical fiction and historical mysteries. Sometimes you just want the facts without a story line and so I thought this looked like a good book to begin with in January.
The book takes you through the reign of William the Conqueror to the rise of Henry II. It gives a good synopsis of each ruler and their influence on history, all of it linking back to the premise that the White Ship disaster of 1120 was the driving factor behind the ruin of Henry I's ambitions for England. The prologue, A Cry in the Dark, is short but riveting, describing the terror and horror of that night and in an interesting twist, leaves one hanging, thinking the young Prince William, shining star son of Henry I, has gotten away to safety. The story then switches to the rise of William the Conqueror and doesn't return to the sinking of the ship in detail until later.
The story is then divided into three main sections: the rise of Henry I, the shipwreck disaster and failure of Henry I to produce another male heir, and finally, the period of anarchy that saw the battle between his daughter, the Empress Matilda, and her cousin Stephen, to take the throne. Throughout we are given many personal stories including Henry's rocky relationship with his wild brothers, his rivalry with King Louis "The Fat" of France, and his tireless efforts to control Normandy.
The second part of the book reads like a novel in its recreation of the tragedy and the people aboard the ship. We are given some background on the frivolity of the atmosphere, the entitled nobility all vying for a place in the world of the celebrated prince, and the obvious effect of free flowing wine on the passengers and crew. As the story moves into the moment of shipwreck, Spencer does a superb job of making one feel as if they were there, describing the people on board, the weather, and the terror of the helpless victims. He details what it must have been like as they landed in the water, freezing and drowning in panic. Later, the description of the heartbroken Henry upon hearing the news of his son's death, "Henry fell to the floor, screaming in agonized disbelief at the realization he had lost his son and beloved heir," resonates with any parent today thinking of the same fate befalling their child.
Part three takes a very complicated period known as The Anarchy and gives a factual, solid account without getting too bogged down in minute details. The story of Stephen and Empress Matilda attempting to slug out who will rule after Henry's death has had volumes written about it. Keeping things brief and to the point is no easy task but Spencer handles it well.
I thought this book was an excellent introduction to the time period it covers and will allow the reader to walk away being able to recount the events and get a feel for the middle ages at this time. It reads smoothly and quickly in chronological order and I never felt lost or bored by irrelevant facts. It wouldn't be my first choice for really getting an in-depth understanding of The Anarchy, but would be a good place to start just to get the main players and key points down.
Another huge bonus with this book for me was the picture gallery at the end. Some I'd seen before, some were new, and some I'd seen but not up close and in color. From the portrait of William the Conqueror, to the tomb of Robert Curthose, to the painting of the White Ship disaster by Queen Victoria's daughter, Princess Louise, I was enthralled and spent quite a while studying each one. This addition alone makes the book worth purchasing. An entertaining history story, along with paintings and maps, makes me really feel as if I am transported through time.
When I went to do a little research on the author, I wondered how on earth I managed to buy this book, read it, and only then discover that Charles Spencer is....THE....Charles Spencer. I did not put it together that the brother of the late Princess Diana was an author until I went searching for more books of his. Imagine my surprise! I had no idea he'd written anything at all and was excited to find more books covering subjects that interest me. Because of his simple yet informative, narrative style, I will definitely be reading more of his books.