On November 25, 1120, a royal vessel called the White Ship sank in the English Channel leaving only a single survivor. Among those killed was William Adelin, the son of Henry I, King of England. William’s death spawned a nineteen-year war of succession between Stephen of Blois, a grandson of William the Conqueror, and Stephen’s cousin, Matilda, the daughter of Henry I and wife of the Holy Roman Emperor in Germany. This fascinating period in English history, called The Anarchy, provides the setting for one of my favorite works of historical fiction, Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth.
Follett builds his entire story around the events set in motion by the sinking of the White Ship. Indeed, the mystery surrounding this disaster – and its sole survivor – is a central part of the plot, starting with the novel’s very first scene, the hanging of Jack Shareburg. Other characters in the real-world historical drama feature prominently in the story, including Stephen, who rules as king during much of The Anarchy, and Matilda’s son, Henry II, who ends the war of succession by becoming King of England in 1154 and provides the catalyst for the climactic events at the novel’s end.
I won’t give away any more of the plot (and I’m sure most of you have read it anyway), but The Pillars of the Earth serves as a wonderful example of how an author can take a dramatic event in history and turn it into a fictional masterpiece.