What Was the White Ship Disaster? | History Hit

What Was the White Ship Disaster?

History Hit

21 Jan 2021
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Contemporary illustration of the sinking of the White Ship in 1120.
Image Credit: Alamy

On 25 November, 1120, William Adelin, grandson of William the Conqueror and heir to the thrones of England and Normandy, died – aged just seventeen. Having set sail for England, his vessel – the famous White Ship – struck a rock and sunk, drowning almost everyone on board in the icy November waters.

With the heir dead, this tragedy plunged England into a horrific civil war known as “the anarchy.”

Restoring stability to England

In 1120 England was twenty years into the reign of the Conqueror’s son Henry I. Henry was famous for being an intelligent and learned man, and after wrestling the throne off his older brother Robert he had proved to be an effective ruler who had stabilised a kingdom still growing accustomed to Norman rule.

In 1103 a son and heir was born, and Henry, despite being a younger son of the Conqueror, appeared to have started a stable and successful dynasty that could rule over England for many years to come.

The boy was named after his fearsome grandfather and despite being called “a prince so pampered that he would be destined to be food for the fire” by one chronicler, he ruled England while his father was away in the last year or so of his life, and did so well with capable advisers surrounding him.

Charles Spencer joined Dan on the pod to discuss the sinking of the White Ship on the 25th November 1120. It is one of the greatest disasters that England has ever suffered. Its repercussions changed English and European history for ever.
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In 1119 he was married to Matilda of Anjou in a strong dynastic match which secured the borders of King Henry’s continental possessions (despite her being only eight years old at the time) and he seemed to be the perfect heir.

With so much resting on the shoulders of this young man, his pampered childhood seems understandable in an age where children died very easily, and the trauma his death caused further illustrates how important it was to have a line of succession secure in Medieval Europe.

William’s mission to the mainland

William was made the honorary Duke of Normandy and in 1120 had to pay homage to his feudal liegelord, the King of France, as that Duchy was technically a French possession.

As the owner of the land, Henry was meant to go himself, but disdaining the idea of kneeling before a foreign King he persuaded Louis VI to accept his son’s loyalty instead. Having performed this task, William rode back north and joined his father in Barfleur, a Norman port in northwestern France.

Henry had his own arrangements to sail home, but William was taken by an offer from a local captain called Thomas FitzStephen. FitzStephen’s father Stephen FitzAirard had captained the vessel which had taken the Conqueror across the sea, and he approached that man’s grandson with an offer to sail him across the channel as a gesture of royal continuity.

Furthermore, Fitzstephen had just had a new ship refitted, which was famous across the channel coast for its elegant beauty and speed. Known as the la Blanche Nef, or “the White Ship,” William and his entourage were eager to be associated with the glamorous offer of a passage on such a vessel.

While Henry sailed ahead on his own royal ship, William’s party drank their generous supplies of French wine as they boarded, and after some encouragement began to hand out the drink amongst the crew as well. At this point, some, including Stephen of Blois (the future King Stephen), disembarked after drinking to excess.

The sinking of the White Ship

What happened next was horribly predictable. Having seen the King’s ship leave, the drunken revellers roared at FitzStephen to try and reach England first, and the captain – who had complete faith in the speed of his beautiful ship, happily welcomed the challenge. How much he himself had had to drink is not known.

As the crew emphasised speed over care as they rushed out of Barfleur, they paid little heed to the dangerous rocks around the point at Gatteville, where there is now a famous lighthouse to warn modern shipping against meeting the same fate.

FitzStephen took the ship too close to the land and suddenly it struck a submerged rock known as the Quilleboeuf and began to sink into the freezing water. Panic ensued as the distinguished passengers tried to reach safety, though enough sober bodyguards kept their heads to ensure that William found his way onto a small lifeboat.

Heroes die young

What happened next is the true tragedy. Seeing his beloved half-sister Matilda floundering, William ordered his little vessel back, even though it was already dangerously overcrowded.

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He managed to grab Matilda, but in doing so, allowed many other desperate men to scramble onto the little lifeboat. Unable to bear the weight, it sank, killing everyone on board.

One chronicler writes that FitzStephen actually survived and came to the surface, but upon learning about the fate of William he let himself sink back down and drown rather than face the wrath of the fearsome and grief-stricken Henry.

It is said that after hearing the news the King never smiled again. Henry reigned for another fifteen years and re-married (his first wife Matilda died in 1118) in an attempt to sire another heir: the union produced no children and he was left with just one daughter from his first marriage – yet another Matilda.

The Anarchy

Matilda was clearly very capable and had the official title of Empress after marrying the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V. With her character and her bloodline Henry saw no problem with declaring her his heir, but his barons had other ideas.

empress matilda anarchy civil war

The Great Seal of Matilda. Image credit: Public Domain.

No woman had ever ruled England, and Matilda’s second husband Geoffrey of Anjou was known as a rival, meaning he was widely disliked in England. When the old and embittered Henry finally died in 1135, Henry’s nephew, Stephen of Blois, usurped Matilda, plunging the kingdom into chaos. The barons crowned Stephen as King, leading to Matilda and Geoffrey invading from Normandy in 1139 in an attempt to claim the crown.

This began the bitter civil war known as “the Anarchy,” though some at the time traced it back to its cause and called it “the shipwreck.” William of Malmesbury, a contemporary historian, wrote “No ship that ever sailed brought England such disaster”, and the effects of the White Ship disaster were longlasting.

Henry’s line and all his good work as King were destroyed as the kingdom was wracked by endless fighting and devastation. For centuries afterwards it would be remembered as one of the darkest periods in English history, and all because of a rock and a series of bad decisions taken on that fateful night in 1120.

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