Charles Spencer won’t tune in when CNN airs its multipart series on his late older sister, Diana, Princess of Wales, who would have celebrated her 60th birthday this year.
When he learns about another media expedition through her life, “I always think, here we go again,” the 9th Earl Spencer said via video link on Friday. “But I don’t ever watch it or read it. So I do notice these things coming up. And I’ve already resigned myself to the fact that it’s never-ending,” he said of the media attention his family has received for 40 years now.
Mr. Spencer, 57, would much rather discuss the events of 900 years ago. His book, “The White Ship,” just released in the U.S., is a dramatic retelling of the November 1120 sinking of a vessel carrying many of the Norman aristocracy, including William Adelin, son and heir to King Henry I.
“It’s an obscure period,” he acknowledged, so the author of volumes about the English Civil War as well as the Spencer family and its illustrious home, Althorp, framed this book proposal to his publisher differently.
“I said to HarperCollins, ‘This is “Game of Thrones” meets “Titanic” with a slice of “Sliding Doors.”’ That, they got,” he recalled.
Henry I’s father, William the Conqueror, led the Normans to power in Britain at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Less than 60 years later, that dynasty lay in ruins due to careless seamanship and the fact that no one then knew how to swim.
In 1120, Mr. Spencer explained, “This is offshore. There was no concept, though, of a leisure pastime such as swimming. The only people I can find at this time who could swim were directly connected to the sea, such as fishermen.”
When the ship capsized in the freezing waters of the English Channel after striking a submerged rock off the town of Barfleur, Normandy, “the fact that they couldn’t swim was the guarantor that any who hadn’t scrambled about upon a piece of wreckage would go down,” Mr. Spencer said.
The only survivor was a butcher from Rouen who’d boarded the vessel hoping to collect money owed. The royal heir William Adelin could have made it, having escaped in a smaller boat, but drowned when he turned back to rescue his half-sister Matilda. Too many survivors swamped the returning vessel, sinking it.
“‘No ship ever brought such misery to England,’” Mr. Spencer quoted from a contemporary account. The sinking also brought about what today would be called regime change following Henry I’s death in 1135.
After William Adelin died, another legitimate sister, also named Matilda, was a potential monarch. However, the barons of the day wouldn’t accept a female sovereign, clearing the way for Stephen of Blois, Henry I’s nephew, to take the throne. That unleashed an 18-year period of terror called “The Anarchy” that ultimately saw a new dynasty seize power, with far-reaching historical consequences.
“Nobody realized it at the time,” Mr. Spencer said, but the sinking of the White Ship “marks the end of the Norman dynasty, and it paved the way for a new bloodline in the royal family, which happened to be the Plantagenets.”
Without the Anarchy, “You would not have had Richard the Lionheart, you wouldn’t have had [the] Magna Carta, and Henry the Eighth,” he said. And, he added, “You wouldn’t have Queen Elizabeth II, I mean, there’s literally that story.”
And how would Mr. Spencer, himself no stranger to dealing with royalty, get along with Henry I, a monarch whose brutal record included castration and blinding for those who dared to seriously offend the Norman king?
“I think I’d have been very wary of him,” Mr. Spencer replied. “We’re talking about a sort of thundering presence and actually a very able medieval monarch. But part of the job of the medieval monarch was to impose the rule of law and … a lot of your rule would be through fear.”
At the same time, he said, Henry was praised for being a “law and order” leader.
“During his reign — and it certainly wasn’t the case before or after him — a young girl with a purse of gold could walk from one end of Britain to another without being molested in any way. And that was considered really a magnificent achievement.”
Mr. Spencer said he hopes readers will see commonalities between the Norman period and today’s world.
He said, “Whenever I write a history, I try and reconnect the reader with the past in a way that makes the past acceptable. My very simple thesis is that we as a species haven’t changed in 900 years. We go about things differently, but what drives us is the same.”