BBC History Magazine

“This was the most disastrous moment in British maritime history”

Dan Jones: Your new book concerns one of the most dramatic events in the Middle Ages, that’s the sinking of the White Ship in 1120 – nine centuries ago. It’s been described as the medieval Titanic, but you argue in the book that it’s even more meaningful in the course of history. Can we begin with what happened in November 1120?

Charles Spencer: On the night of 25 November 1120, something cataclysmic happened to the English royal family. On the White Ship were 300 people, among them some of the most important figures in Anglo-Norman society. And the most important by a very long way was the sole legitimate male heir to King Henry I.

Henry is the backbone of this story. It’s a true-life Greek tragedy where a king has, over 20 years, seized the throne, built up a system of government that works, and quelled all sorts of problems. He’s already started to hand over power to his heir, William the Ætheling, who’s the designated king and Duke of Normandy for the next generation.

William got on board the ship, partied like crazy with his friends for several hours, and got everyone drunk on board, including, unfortunately, the helmsman. And so about one nautical mile outside Barfleur, the White Ship, one of the finest ships of its age, hit a rock. And there was one survivor, so we know what happened in the water as people struggled to survive.

What sort of king was Henry I?

Henry is one of the most interesting historical figures I’ve ever come across because his is such a human story. As the fourth son of William the Conqueror, he was an obscure figure who was destined to be a well-bred non-entity. Yet he became a titan of European history in the first 35 years of the 12th century.

He was a very effective medieval king in that he kept the

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