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On this day 1120… the tragedy of The White Ship

On this day in 1120 the course of English history was irrevocably changed due to drunken misadventure.

Henry I laments the sinking of The White Ship
Henry I laments the sinking of The White Ship and the loss of his son and heir

The tragic sinking of The White Ship has been described as the medieval equivalent of the Titanic disaster. The historian Robert Lacey, drew parallels between the two ships as high-tech vessels on their maiden voyage, “wrecked against a foreseeable natural obstacle in the reckless pursuit of speed. The passenger list constituted the cream of high society, cast into the chilly waters.”

Yet the disaster is largely forgotten today, as are the 300 victims, including no less a personage than William ‘Adelin’ (or ‘Atheling’ in Anglo-Saxon), the son of Henry I of England and heir to the throne.

William’s drowning in the harbour of Barfleur in late November 1120 is a pivotal moment in English history that started a bloody civil war that led to the rise of the Plantagenets and would ultimately lead to England’s dominion over much of France. And wine – at least over-indulgence in it – was the cause of it all.

William was the first and favoured son of Henry I and grandson of William the Conqueror. In 1120, Henry and William were in France fighting to uphold their rights to their Norman dukedom against the ever-encroaching French crown. After much political wrangling and a short period of warfare, the 17-year-old William paid homage to King Louis VI of France who recognised him as Duke of Normandy. Their Norman lands secured once again the royal family then prepared for the voyage back to England.

Henry and some of the older members of the aristocracy prepared to set out when a man called Thomas FitzStephen stepped forward and offered the use of his new ship, “La Blanche Nef” (The White Ship).

Not only was The White Ship newly fitted out and the fastest vessel in the royal fleet, FitzStephen also made it clear that his father had been captain of the “Mora” the ship that had taken William the Conqueror across the channel on his invasion of England. Indeed, Barfleur was the port from which the Normans had set out on their conquest in 1066.

No doubt impressed, Henry declined the offer but suggested that FitzStephen’s ship be used to carry home his son and a number of the other young nobles who were, apparently, in no mood to leave as soon as the king.

Accordingly, while Henry and his entourage set sail, the young prince and his train broached another cask of wine – and another, and another.

By the evening the young nobles and the crew, or at least FitzStephen who had the crucial task of steering the ship, were thoroughly drunk.

In this state the party decided to set sail, the crew boasting their fast ship could overhaul the king’s own vessel and beat them back to England and the young nobles egged them on to what must have seemed a brilliant caper.

The chronicler William of Malmesbury wrote: “The sailors, too immoderately filled with wine, with that seaman’s hilarity which their cups excited, exclaimed, that those who were now a-head must soon be left astern; for the ship was of the best construction and recently fitted with new materials. When, therefore, it was now dark night, these impudent youths, overwhelmed with wine, launched the vessel from the shore.”

The sea was calm but the moon was not bright and Barfleur harbour, to this day, is tricky to navigate. Strong currents and a fast, tidal stream can easily drag a ship off-course and there are a number of dangerous rocks near the harbour mouth that are only just covered by high tide. It was towards one of these, apparently named Quilleboeuf by the locals, that The White Ship now careened.

The Benedictine monk and chronicler, Oderic Vitalis, relates: “At length he [FitzStephen or William] gave the signal to put to sea. Then the rowers made haste to take up their oars and, in high spirits because they knew nothing of what lay ahead, put the rest of the equipment ready and made the ship lean forward and race through the sea. As the drunken oarsmen were rowing with all their might, and the luckless helmsman paid scant attention to steering the ship through the sea, the port side of the White Ship struck violently against a huge rock, which was uncovered each day as the tide ebbed and covered once more at high tide. Two planks were shattered and, terrible to relate, the ship capsized without warning.”

From this telling, one can well imagine the drunken FitzStephen, his mind clouded by drink, eyes heavy, slouched on the tiller and struggling to focus on the course of the ship. His immoderation and carelessness caused the death of hundreds.

The ship clearly sank very quickly but what, exactly, happened next out on the water is not known as there was only one survivor – a butcher from Rouen called Berold. The most common stories are that William and a few others managed to make it onto a small skiff and were rowing back to shore when William heard the screams of his half-sister, Matilda, Countess of Perche. Returning to rescue her the skiff was swamped by other passengers thrashing in the cold waters and all aboard perished. William, wrote Henry of Huntingdon, “instead of wearing embroidered robes…floated naked in the waves, and instead of ascending a lofty throne…found his grave at the bottom of the sea.”

Most people at the time would not know how to swim and it is likely most were wearing heavy cloaks to keep out the winter cold. These would soon have become water-logged, extremely heavy and dragged their wearers under within moments.

Another story from the wreck is that FitzStephen, shocked into sobriety, came upon Berold who was clinging to part of the mast. He asked Berold where Prince William was and on being told he had – in all probability –drowned along with everyone else, FitzStephen held his arms above him and allowed himself to sink into the deep.

In all around 300 people died in the wreck of The White Ship. Not just Prince William but his half-brother, Robert of Lincoln and half-sister Matilda; the Earl of Countess of Chester; King Henry’s steward, chamberlain and secretary; the Archdeacon of Hereford and various other noblemen and women of Normandy and England.

So great was the tragedy, so severe its repercussions, that no one dared tell Henry for two days. Eventually a little boy was pushed before the king and stuttered out the terrible news whereupon Henry broke down and wept and, it was said, never smiled again. The following year, aged about 50, he married Adeliza of Louvain*, daughter of the Count of Louvain, in the hope of producing another heir but he died in 1135 aged 66 or 67 without begetting any more children.

There were of course questions about how and why exactly The White Ship met such disaster. Contemporary writers give the stock explanation that it was a divine punishment, the drunken party apparently chased off some priests who tried to bless the vessel before it sailed. Conspiracy theorists have claimed it might have been an assassination by someone with an eye on the throne like William’s cousin, Stephen of Blois who excused himself from the trip at the last moment claiming to be ill. Yet, if it was an assassination then it was hardly the surest of methods to go about it.

It seems likely, given its frequent mention in the chronicles, that too much wine was the cause. Perhaps FitzStephen tried to be sensible but allowed his cup to be filled one too many times by an insistent prince; and the sailors, also at the prince’s instigation, likewise indulged too much. One can then imagine the young, boisterous nobles; at their head a pampered prince – Huntingdon infers he was spoiled – egging on FitzStephen to see how fast his ship could go. Or, to be kinder, maybe it did all start as a drunken, Wodehouse-esque caper, a lark, that simply went terribly, terribly wrong.

It’s possible. Whatever the truth, William of Malmesbury’s statement that, “no ship that ever sailed brought England such disaster. None was ever so notorious in the history of the world,” proved all too true in time.

Although Henry designated his daughter Matilda as his heir on his deathbed the nobles quickly broke their oaths of loyalty and declared Matilda’s cousin, Stephen of Blois, as king.

This sparked a civil war in England from 1135-1153 known as ‘The Anarchy’. So great was the death and destruction, lawlessness and general misery that it was said, in the words of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, “that Christ and His saints slept.”

In the end Stephen would remain as king but in 1153 at Wallingford he recognised Matilda’s son, Henry FitzEmpress, as his heir.

Thus, in 1154, Henry became King of England and, thanks to his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, England was catapulted into the major league of European states and the rule of the Plantagenets and English dominion over Bordeaux and its wine trade had begun.


*Adeliza was born and buried in Brabant. Her tomb, now sadly lost, was in the abbey of Affligem, the foremost cloister in the duchy and from which the now Heineken-owned beer was first produced by the Benedictines.

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