In the year 1120, Henry I the ruler of what might be termed the united kingdom of England and Normandy, spent much of the summer and late autumn in France engaged in diplomatic negotiations with Louis VI the king of France and the Norman barons. Having achieved what he wanted, recognition from the French king and the local Norman nobility of the position of his son William the Aethling, as Duke of Normandy as well as his nominated heir and successor, Henry now made his way to the port of Barfleur in Normandy ready for the homeward voyage to England.
Lying at Barfleur was the Blanche Nef or the White Ship, apparently the very latest thing in Norman maritime technology, one of the finest and largest ships then afloat captained by one Thomas Fitz Stephen. Fitz Stephen approached Henry and begged that he grant him the honour of taking him back to England aboard the White Ship, just as his father Stephen had ferried Henry's father across to Pevensey in 1066. For whatever reason Henry decided that whilst he would continue his journey back to England aboard his own ship, his two sons William and Richard together with a group of the younger Norman nobility would travel on the White Ship.
The decision did not appear to be of any particular importance, for the Norman rulers of England, the channel crossing was a regular and fairly unremarkable necessity; William I for example, had crossed the channel seventeen times during his twenty-one year reign, and it was not regarded as a particularly dangerous crossing provided one avoided bad weather.
Presumably the prospect of sailing aboard the latest and fastest addition to the Norman navy was a thrilling prospect, so William and his friends broke open a few casks of wine to celebrate. And then a few more. By the time the ship was ready to leave most of the passengers and crew were reasonably drunk. The bishop of Coutance who turned up with his entourage to bless the ship was greeted with derision and abuse and left in a hurry.
It was at this point that Henry's nephew Stephen of Blois, made his excuses and left, either because a) he had an attack of diarrhoea or b) because of moral outrage at the shenanigans on board, a decision for which he was no doubt later extremely thankful.
Sometime before nightfall Henry left harbour leaving the White Ship behind. There is no clear evidence as to why the White Ship was delayed and did not leave with the rest of the fleet, but is likely that the inebriated state of the crew had something to with it. But by all accounts, it was a relatively calm night and ideal condition for the short seventy mile journey to Portsmouth when the White Ship finally left on the evening tide.
Various figures were later given for the number of people aboard the ship when it sailed, but a figure somewhere in the region of 280 to 320 people is the most probable. The night crossing was nothing unusual as in many ways it was easier to navigate at night, (given a clear sky) by reference to the North Star. But by the time it left port the White Ship was some way behind the king's ship, and there was no doubt an eagerness aboard to demonstrate the abilities of the new ship by catching up with the king.
Now the passage out from Barfleur harbour was relatively straightforward so long as the pilot steered to the south, as to the north there were a series of dangerous rocks that became submerged at high tide. However, the fastest and most direct route home to Portsmouth was north and it seems that in his eagerness to catch up with the king, Fitz Stephen piloted the ship northwards and tried to 'cut the corner' a little too lightly, sailed too close to land and struck a rock, in all likelihood the rock known as the 'Quilleboeuf'.
Now fatally holed the White Ship sank, eventually becoming completely submerged with only her masts visible above the water. Although the Quilleboeuf rock stands only half a mile offshore, there was no medieval equivalent of the lifeboat or coastguard service, most of those aboard were drunk, it is very unlikely that any of them could swim and of course it was dark and there was naturally a general panic.
There was only one survivor, a butcher from Rouen named Berold who managed to climb up one of the masts and clung there all night until he was rescued the next morning by some fishermen. It was presumably Berold who was the source of the account that prince William together with a few friends, had initially managed to get aboard the ship's single small boat and were making their way to safety, before he heard the cries of his sister the Countess of Perche and returned to save her, only for the boat to capsize in the general panic thereby drowning all hands.1
It was a number of days before the news reached Henry that the White Ship had been lost. (It was assumed the ship had simply landed at another port.) Few bodies were ever recovered from the wreck as most were swept out to sea by the tides although much treasure from the ship was recovered. According to Orderic Vitalis. Henry I `bewailed not only his sons but favoured knights and eminent barons' and amongst those that were lost were,
William's brother Richard2
William's sister Matilda Countess of Perche
Richard Earl of Chester and his wife
Othuer, William's tutor
William of Pirou the King's steward
Hugh of Moulins
the sons of both Ico of Grandmesnil and William of Rhuddlan
Not everyone took a sympathetic view of matters, the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon had no doubts that the tragedy had a darker side when he claimed that `all or most were said to be tainted with the sin of sodomy. Behold the terrible vengeance of God'.
The Tragedy of the White Ship was to have a significance much greater than the immediate loss of life.
Whilst Henry I was one of the most sexually prolific kings of England that ever lived and fathered at least twenty children through a variety of mothers, out of his nine or so sons, only William the Aetheling was legitimate and therefore counted in terms of determining the succession to the crown. Hence the loss of the White Ship left Henry without an heir and the succession very much in question.
Despite reigning for another fifteen years and re-marrying Henry I never managed to acquire another male heir, he therefore nominated his daughter Matilda to succeed him, and it was Stephen of Blois, who had so fortuitously stepped off the White Ship before it sailed that rose to dispute this nomination and to bring about the period of civil war and disruption known simply as 'The Anarchy'.
The Anarchy was born on the 25th November 1120 when the White Ship sank with almost total loss off the coast of Normandy.
1Of course, given that William the Aetheling was of royal blood, it would be entirely appropriate for his death to have been recorded in such a gallant and heroic manner, and it is therefore entirely within the bounds of possibility that the tale was invented for that reason.
2Whilst Henry I and his wife Matilda of Scotland did have a son named Richard, there is some suggestion that this Richard died in infancy, and that the Richard who died on the White Ship was another Richard altogether whose mother was one of Henry I's many mistesses. A somewhat academic point, as whoever his mother was, he most certainly died with brother William.
The Normans by David C Douglas (Folio, 2002)
T Brett-Jones The White Ship Disaster at