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The White Ship Disaster and Collapse of a Royal Family

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The Medieval Titanic

On November 25, 1120, the White Ship (Blanche-Nef) set sail from Barfleur in Normandy. She was a sleek and speedy vessel engaged to carry the cream of the French and English nobility to England.

It was the ship's maiden voyage and she carried three members of the royal family to their doom. The tragedy that engulfed her led to her being labelled “The Medieval Titanic.”

King Henry I is shown mourning the loss of three of his children in the wrecked ship. The roundels contain the names of those children.

King Henry I is shown mourning the loss of three of his children in the wrecked ship. The roundels contain the names of those children.

Dynastic Background

Henry I was the son of William the Conqueror who had seized England from his base in Normandy. Henry had been a frisky man in the bedroom and had sired at least 26 children, but only two of them, Matilda and his son and heir William Adelin, were legitimate.

The king had been in Normandy to quell a revolt and in November 1120 was preparing to return to his kingdom in England. He was approached by one Thomas FitzStephen who said he would be honored to put his boat, the White Ship, at the king's disposal for his cross-Channel voyage. After all, said FitzStephen, his father, Stephen FitzAirard, had captained the Mora, the ship on which William the Conqueror had sailed in his 1066 victory over England.

King Henry had made other plans but he would be pleased to have Captain FitzStephen transport his son, William Adelin and his entourage.

The party of nobles, a veritable who's-who of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy, was joined by two of King Henry's illegitimate offspring, Matilda FitzRoy, Countess of Perche and Richard of Lincoln. They boarded the White Ship, bringing with them copious quantities of wine. Let the booze cruise begin.

A depiction of King Henry I a century after his death.

A depiction of King Henry I a century after his death.

Prelude to Disaster

Before long, young William Adelin, he was 17, and his pals were getting boisterously drunk. Seeing there was plenty of wine, crew members asked the young prince for a flagon or two.

Contemporary chronicler Orderic Vitalis tells us that “The prince gave orders that they should have three muids. No sooner was the wine delivered to them than they had a great drinking bout, and pledging their comrades in full cups, indulged too much and became intoxicated.”

(A muid was a unit of measure that had different values in different places in France, ranging from 260 litres in Aisne to 608 litres in Montpellier. Even at the smaller measure, three muids was more than enough to turn the entire crew wobbly.)

So, in dark of night, with a drunk helmsman, and 150 rowdy young people aboard, the White Ship set sail. The carousing nobility urged the captain to increase speed so as to overtake King Henry's ship, which had departed earlier. The skipper, his judgment clouded by wine, urged his 50 rowers to bend more vigorously to their task.

The phrase “What could possibly go wrong?” leaps ominously into the mind.

William Adelin.

William Adelin.

The Sinking of the White Ship

The vessel was scarcely a mile out of Barfleur harbour when something did go wrong. The inebriated helmsman steered his ship into a reef that snagged the hull and caused the boat to capsize.

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James Turner writes in The Medievalist that “A single skiff was afloat. Its crew swiftly found William and started to row away. All around friends and comrades screamed and fell silent as the winter sea claimed them.”

But, the cries of William's half-sister Matilda caused him to order the crew to attempt a rescue. As they grew closer to the wrecked ship, people in the water grabbed on to the small boat, capsizing and sinking it.

The heir to the throne disappeared beneath the waves never to be seen again, along with his half-brother Richard.

Just one person survived the disaster, a butcher name Berold, who clung to a piece of wreckage until he was found by fishermen the following morning.

A few nobles avoided the calamity by leaving the ship before it sailed, being uncomfortable with the rowdy drunks. One of these was King Henry I's nephew Stephen of Blois who had been stricken with a bout of diarrhea.

In all, about 300 people perished in the cold sea on that night in November 1120.

Drowning off Barfleur.

Drowning off Barfleur.

The Anarchy

The catastrophe off the coast of Normandy triggered an event on the other side of the English Channel that became known as “The Anarchy.”

With his son and heir to the throne dead, Henry moved to solidify his family's hold on the crown. He named his only remaining legitimate child, Matilda, as his successor and demanded that the country's barons swear allegiance to her.

It seems likely that some of these nobles might have taken their oaths with their fingers crossed behind their backs.

Henry died in 1135, and Stephen of Blois, now recovered from his intestinal difficulties, stepped forward to claim the crown; through his mother he was a grandson of William the Conqueror.

Some of England's aristocrats and the Church supported him after finding they could not tolerate the idea of a woman on the throne. Stephen was crowned King of England in December 1135, but he turned out to be an indecisive and weak leader.

Greedy and unruly barons exploited Stephen's feebleness to enrich themselves. Matilda, the would-be queen, seized her chance and invaded England in 1139 with the backing of Welsh and Scottish nobles. At the same time, Matilda's husband, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, attacked Stephen's holdings in Normandy.

The civil war between Stephen and Matilda, involving numerous factions, dragged on until 1154 without either side making decisive gains. Stephen died in 1154 and the crown passed to Henry Plantagenet, Matilda's son.

Two decades of conflict caused by a reckless bit of navigation off the coast of Normandy.

Bonus Factoids

  • Orderic Vitalis, a contemporaneous chronicler of the events described above, tells us that when priests arrived to bless the White Ship for its maiden voyage the drunk young aristocrats ridiculed them. He adds that the religious men were driven away without blessing the vessel and that God saw to it that “they were speedily punished for their mockery.”
  • Vitalis also gives us a little nugget that may or may not be true. The story he tells is of Captain Thomas FitzStephen swimming over to those clinging to wreckage to ask where Prince William was. On finding out that the heir to the throne had drowned, Vitalis relates that the captain said “It is misery for me to live any longer.” Having spoken his final words FitzStephen, “abandoned himself to his fate in utter despair, preferring to meet it at once rather than face the rage of the king . . . or drag out his existence and expiate his crime in a dungeon.”
  • Contemporary chronicler William of Malmesbury wrote that “No ship that ever sailed brought England such disaster.”
  • The sole survivor of the White Ship sinking, the butcher Berold, was not even supposed to be on the vessel. He had gone aboard to collect debts from his noble customers and failed to disembark before the vessel sailed.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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