When the White Ship – la Blanch-Nef – sank on November 25th 1120, it was not only a tragedy in lives lost at sea, it was the spark that would linger long enough to be behind the civil war that would start in 1135 and rage for almost 20 years.
The passengers aboard the long ship – which was owned by Thomas FitzStephen, son of Stephen FitzAirard who had been the captain of Mora, the ship which brought William the Conqueror over the channel to England for the first time – was not only the cream of the young Norman nobility, it also carried William the Aetheling, only legitimate son if Henry I and therefore the heir to the crown and after his mother´s death sometimes referred to as rex designatus, king designate, as he had taken over her role as regent when Henry was in Normandy. On the ship was also Henry´s two illegitimate children Richard of Lincoln and Matilda FitzRoy, Countess of Perche.
There was cause for celebration because not only was young William relatively newly-wed, in 1119 he had married Matilda whose father was Faulk V, Count of Anjou and the future king of Jerusalem, he had also only weeks before been made the new Duke of Normandy.
The Dukedom had been handed over to him by his father Henry I, and was a step towards becoming the next king, and also a sign that William was one of the important political powers in Europe of the time.
So celebrated they did. Not only the young heir to the throne and his nobles, but also the crew of the ship, which at least with modern eyes seems insane. But the fact remains, that while the ship still was lying at the harbor of Barfleur, everyone aboard got heavily intoxicated. Some of the passengers on board clearly got worried and left the ship, not even in those days everyone thought it a wise idea to travel over open water with heavily drunk people. One of those who was better safe than sorry was Stephen of Blois, cousin of William and the one who would turn out to be the actual king once Henry I passed.
As the party went on, a group of clerics who arrived to bless the ship before it went on its journey was sent away, something which to some became the explanation to what later happened.
But the disaster was the result of alcohol in combination with youthful stupidity. King Henry had left ahead in another ship, and all of a sudden someone, some say prince William himself, others say someone in the entourage, dared the skipper that even though hours had passed, the White Ship was fast enough to not only catch up with the king´s great warship, but also outrun it and arrive first in England. Most likely it was the alcohol which made this pass as a good idea. It wasn´t. But the skipper accepted.
The chronicler William of Malmesbury claimed that once the ship had weighed anchor,
she “flew swifter than the winged arrow”, but speed didn´t do much in bringing the large party closer to England, in fact they barely got out of the harbor. Just at the mouth of it, there was, and still is, a sharp rock – still visible just under the surface still today – which the ship crashed into. One of all the things we will never know is if this was a result of the oars men´s intoxication or something else, but it left a huge hole in the ship´s side, and water started pouring in.
As they were expected to, the main concern of everyone was to get the heir to the throne to safety, and William the Aetheling did get into a small dinghy.
For anyone who has read the novel Pillars of the Earth where the White Ship disaster sets the scene for the story, or seen the mini-series based on the book, it may be considered a fact that William the Aetheling was murdered during his attempt to get away from the ship. The actual fact is in a way even more tragic.
Among his following was his half-sister Matilda – obviously not the Matilda who would fight Stephen of Blois in the Anarchy for decades later – and as William was being rowed away from the scene of the disaster, he supposedly heard his drowning sister cry for help and ordered the boat to turn around to save her.
But Matilda was not alone in the cold November water, and as the boat reached the spot where she was, panic erupted among the other people desperate to save their lives. The small boat turned over, and instead of being brought to land and safety, William the Aetheling drowned not far from the harbor.
William´s wife had been rescued in another boat and made it safely to shore. She went on to become a nun and eventually the Abbess at the monastery of Fontevrault.
When the news reached England a day or so later, no one dared to tell the king, knowing full well the force of his rage. Eventually a servant boy couldn´t keep the dreadful secret anymore, but fell to his knees at the king´s feet and told him of the tragedy. Allegedly the king fainted and had to be carried to bed. It is said that Henry I didn´t smile again after having received the news of the death of his son.
Apart from the grief of his father, the death of William the Aetheling also threw England into a crisis of succession which would at the time of Henry´s death in 1135 lead to the civil war known as The Anarchy. As the contemporary historian William of Malmesbury wrote; “….No ship ever brought so much misery to England”
The Plantagenets – The Warrior Kings and Queens that made England – Dan Jones
Thomas Becket, Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim – John Guy
History of England – Simon Schama
William (1103–1120)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography/J. F. A. Mason
Henry I: King of England and Duke of Normandy – Judith A. Green
William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the Kings of England – J.A. Guiles