How Did The White Ship Disaster End a Dynasty?

Matt Lewis

Middle Ages
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On 25 November 1120, King Henry I of England was preparing to board ship to return to his kingdom for Christmas. He had been in Normandy to quell rebellion but could reflect on 20 mostly successful years.

He was in his early fifties, and as the youngest son of William the Conqueror, had not expected to inherit much. However, his brother William II had died without a son in a hunting accident, and Henry had acted quickly to snatch the throne. That brought him into conflict with his oldest brother Robert, Duke of Normandy, and in 1106 Henry had successfully taken the duchy from Robert, who was his prisoner.

As well as a recorded-breaking (about) 24 illegitimate offspring, Henry had been blessed with two legitimate children. His daughter Matilda was 18 and married to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V. His son, William Adelin, was 17 and set to inherit the Anglo-Norman lands without rival.

These successes, however, sank into oblivion alongside The White Ship.

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A boat fit for a king

As King Henry waited to sail, a local man named Thomas sought an audience. He told Henry that his father had transported the king’s father, William the Conqueror, across the Channel in 1066, and he sought the honour of doing the same now. Thomas had just taken possession of a brand new vessel called The White Ship; a fast boat fit for a king.

Henry explained that he was too far through boarding to change his plans, but suggested that Thomas could take William Adelin and his companions instead. Overjoyed, Thomas got The White Ship ready to sail.

When the young lords and ladies arrived, they brought with them barrel after barrel of wine. As they piled on board, the sailors asked for alcohol, and it was freely given. As the scene grew more raucous, several men, including Henry’s nephew Stephen of Blois, stepped off the ship ‘upon observing that it was overcrowded with riotous and headstrong youths.’

Priests who came to bless the voyage were drunkenly shooed away as intoxicated soldiers pushed the oarsmen off their benches and took their places.

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The young men on board goaded Thomas to push his ship to its limits and try to overtake the king, who had left port earlier. The oarsmen took back their positions, and the intoxicated pilot began to navigate out of Barfleur.

Just as the ship was leaving the harbour, picking up speed, it struck a large bank of rocks just below the surface of the high tide. It was a well-known feature of the port, and a drunken lack of care is the only explanation for the navigator’s mistake. The jagged stone tore away the starboard side of the ship and water rushed in. Panic spread through the young lords and ladies on board as the boat quickly sank.

A few, including Henry I’s heir, William, made it into a lifeboat and began to row away. William ordered the boat to turn around when he could no longer bear the screams of those fighting to keep their heads above the water. He could hear amongst the voices one of his half-sisters begging him to rescue her.

As they rowed back, hands grasped desperately at the sides of the little rowboat until it capsized and spilt those who had been saved back into the cold black water.

Illustration showing the sinking of the White Ship in the English Channel near the Normandy coast off Barfleur, on November 25, 1120, Royal MS 20 A II (Credit: Public Domain).

One survivor

Two men remained above water in the gloom of the moonlit night, clinging to the broken mast. One was a young nobleman named Geoffrey, son of Gilbert de l’Aigle. The other was a butcher from Rouen named Berold.

As silence fell over the scene of the disaster, Thomas, the ship’s captain, bobbed to the surface near the mast. Seeing the two other men, Thomas called ‘What has become of the king’s son?’ Berold and Geoffrey told Thomas that no-one else had survived, so the prince must be amongst those lost to the sea. The captain despaired. ‘Then it is misery for me to live longer’, he complained as he allowed himself to slip beneath the sea into the depths.

By the time the sun rose on the calamitous scene, only Berold the butcher still held on to the mast. His cheap sheepskin overcoat had kept him warm. Geoffrey’s finer robes had offered him no protection.

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When word of the tragedy reached England, those with the king were thrown into dismay and turmoil. Many had lost sons and daughters on the White Ship, the young prince’s companions, but no one was brave enough to tell the king what had happened to his only legitimate son. Lords and ladies at court stifled their tears and screamed their grief in private as all avoided telling Henry his heir was dead.

It was 2 days before Henry’s nephew Theobald, Count of Blois, took control by pushing a young boy in front of the king to deliver the news. As the tearful lad relayed the story, King Henry fell to his knees weeping. His attendants had to lift him to his feet and lead him to his chamber. He remained hidden away for days refusing to eat or see anyone. His courtiers feared he might never recover.

One chronicler lamented that ‘Not Jacob was more woe-stricken for the loss of Joseph, nor did David give vent to more woeful lamentations for the murder of Ammon or Absalom.’

Detail of Henry I mourning on his throne, Royal MS 20 A II (Credit: Public Domain).

Dynastic turmoil

Alongside Henry’s personal grief came political and dynastic turmoil. The only son able to succeed him was gone so the only way to keep his bloodline on the throne was to ensure the succession of his daughter, Matilda. Henry had his nobility swear oaths of loyalty to Matilda and promise they would support her taking the throne on his death.

There had never been a female ruler of England, and none, including Henry, knew how it might work. For a king who had snatched the crown from one brother before the other’s corpse was cold, there was no certainty he would get his desire. Henry remarried in the hope of bearing another son, but no children came.

When he died on 1 December 1135, Henry was 67. He had done all that he could but was at odds with his daughter Matilda and her second husband Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, when he passed away.

Detail showing Stephen enthroned, Royal MS 20 A II (Credit: Public Domain).

3 weeks later, there was a coronation at Westminster Abbey, but not for Matilda. Instead, Henry’s nephew Stephen, who had disembarked from the White Ship just before it sailed, rushed to take the crown. This began 19 years of civil war as the cousins Stephen and Matilda fought for the throne, which only ended when Matilda’s son succeeded Stephen as Henry II.

The White Ship disaster was a personal tragedy for many families in England and Normandy, but it was also a dynastic catastrophe. That drunken night radically changed the course of England’s future forever, ending the Norman dynasty and ushering in the Plantagenet era.

Matt Lewis