The Wreck of the White Ship|
On the 25th November 1120 a disaster
struck in the English Channel which had a dramatic
effect, not only on the families of those involved, but
on the very fabric of English Government.
The Norman dynasty had not long
established itself on the English throne and King Henry I was eager that
his line should continue to wear the crown for many
generations to come. Despite having numerous bastard
offspring, he had but two surviving legitimate children
and his hopes for his family were firmly secured by the
birth of his only son, William the Aethling: called by
the Saxon princely title to stress that his parents had
united both Saxon and Norman Royal Houses. William was a
warrior prince who, even at the age of seventeen, fought
alongside his father to reassert their rights in their
Norman lands on the Continent.
After the successful campaign of 1119
which culminated in King Louis VI of France's defeat and
humiliation at the Battle of Brémule, King Henry and his
entourage were finally preparing to return to England.
Henry was offered a fine vessel, the White Ship,
in which to set sail for England, but the King had
already made his travelling arrangements and suggested
that it would be an excellent choice for his son,
As the rising star of the Royal Court,
Prince William attracted the cream of society to surround
him. He was to be accompanied by some three hundred
fellow passengers: 140 knights and 18 noblewomen; his
half-brother, Richard; his half-sister, Matilda the
Countess of Perche; his cousins, Stephen and Matilda of
Blois; the nephew of the German Emperor Henry V; the
young Earl of Chester and most of the heirs to the great
estates of England and Normandy. There was a mood of
celebration in the air and the Prince had wine brought
aboard ship by the barrel-load to help the party go with
a swing. Both passengers and crew soon became highly
intoxicated: shouting abuse at one another and ejecting a
group of clerics who had arrived to bless the voyage.
Some passengers, including Stephen of Blois, who
was ill with diarrhoea, appear to have sensed further
trouble and decided to take a later craft.
The onboard revelries had delayed the
White Ship's departure and it only finally set out to
sea, after night had already fallen. The Prince found
that most of the King's forces had already left him far
behind yet, as with all young rabble-rousers, he wished
to be first back home. He therefore ordered the ship's
master to have his oarsmen row full-pelt and overtake the
rest of the fleet. Being as drunk as the rest of them,
the master complied and the ship soon began to race
through the waves.
An excellent vessel though the White
Ship was, sea-faring was not as safe as it is today.
Many a boat was lost on the most routine of trips and
people did not travel over the water unless they really
had to. With a drunken crew in charge moreover, it seems
that fate had marked out the White Ship for
special treatment. It hit a rock in the gloom of the
night and the port-side timbers cracked wide-open to
reveal a gaping whole.
Prince William's quick-thinking
bodyguard immediately rushed him on deck and bundled him
into a small dinghy. They were away to safety even before
the crew had begun to make their abortive attempts to
hook the vessel off the rocks. However, back aboard ship,
the Prince could hear his half-sister calling to him,
begging him not to leave her to the ravages of the
merciless sea. He ordered his little boat to turn round,
but the situation was hopeless. As William grew nearer
once more, the White Ship began to descend beneath
the waves. More and more people were in the water now and
they fought desperately for the safety of the Royal
dinghy. The turmoil and the weight were too much. The
Prince's little boat was capsized and sank without trace.
It is said that the only person to
survive the wreck to tell the tale was a Rouen butcher,
called Berold, who had only been on board to collect
debts owed him by the noble revellers. Finely dressed
bodies, such as the Earl of Chester's, were washed up
along the Norman shoreline for months after.
After King Henry heard of the disaster,
it is said that he never smiled again. Desperate to
secure his family's succession, he had the English barons
swear an oath to uphold the rights of his only remaining
legitimate child: his daughter
Matilda who they were
to recognise as their Queen after Henry's death. But the
time had not yet come for a woman to be accepted on the
English throne. When King Henry died, his nephew, Stephen of Blois siezed the crown and four years later, the status quo degenerated into a patchy Civil War.