The White Ship

897 years ago today, on 25th November 1120, the White Ship sank off the coast of Barfleur, Normandy, with the loss of all aboard save one. Such a terrible loss of life would have been a tragedy under any circumstances. But the bloodshed and suffering that resulted from this shipwreck very likely makes it the most disastrous wreck in history.

The White Ship represented the latest in English ship-building. Its captain was Thomas FitzStephen, who came from a long line of sailors. FitzStephen’s grandfather had captained William the Conqueror’s own flagship, Mora, during the Norman Invasion of 1066, and the family had enjoyed close ties with English royalty ever since. FitzStephen initially offered the White Ship to King Henry I (William the Conqueror’s youngest son) for a cross-Channel voyage from Normandy to England, but the king had already made other arrangements. However, he did allow his son and heir Prince William, his bastards Matilda, Countess of Perche and Richard of Lincoln, and scores of noblemen including (but not limited to) the Earl and Countess of Chester, the Viscount Exmes and the Bishop of Coutances to board the ship if they wanted to.

Depiction of King Henry I from Matthew Paris’s History of England (c.1245)

According to Orderic Vitalis, a Benedictine monk and historian alive at the time, Prince William gave the crew plenty of wine as part of their payment for sailing the ship, and there was excessive drinking even before the ship left port in Barfleur. Some of the passengers even got off the ship beforehand when they saw how drunk the crew had become. Most of the 300 passengers, however, remained aboard as the ship left Barfleur in late afternoon.

Overnight, however, the ship struck an underwater rock and quickly capsized. Prince William managed to reach a lifeboat and could have escaped the wreck, but decided to go back to rescue his half-siblings. His boat was swamped by others who had been aboard the ship, and the small lifeboat sank under their weight. Thomas FitzStephen, the captain of the vessel, is said to have let himself drown when he heard of the prince’s death, rather than face King Henry.

Vitalis writes that two people initially survived the wreck, one by clinging to a rock and the other by clinging to floating wood. These two were nobody of much note, and we do not know anything much about them beyond their names. The first, Geoffrey d’Aigle (son of the Viscount Exmes), clung to a rock to survive, but succumbed to exhaustion some hours later and drowned. Only Berold, a humble butcher, survived the disaster.

william adelin
Portrait of Prince William from a contemporary family tree

The disaster left King Henry with only one legitimate child, his daughter Matilda, who by then was married to the Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich V. Henry forced all the lords of England to swear several oaths of loyalty to Matilda and to any children she might have, these oaths were almost immediately abandoned upon Henry’s death in 1135. The foremost argument the nobles had against keeping their oaths was that Matilda was female, and that a woman could not and should not be a monarch in her own right. That very argument had been made by Pope Leo III when he had invested Charlemagne with the titles and styles of a Roman Emperor, in direct opposition to the Byzantine Empire’s monarch of the time, Empress Irene. If that logic had been good enough for a pope, and it had been, who were the nobility of England to argue? True, the precedent was over 300 years old by the time of Henry I’s death. But what did that matter?

Matilda was also unpopular because, after the death of her first husband in 1125, she had married Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou. Anjou was in French territory, and there was a centuries-old regional rivalry between Normandy, where the English nobility mostly originated from, and Anjou.

For these reasons, the English nobility mostly backed the claim of Henry’s nephew, Stephen, Count of Boulogne. Interestingly, Stephen had initially planned to be among those sailing on the White Ship, but a sudden bout of diarrhoea kept him from boarding. Stephen usurped the throne, not just from Matilda but from his own elder brothers William and Theobald, by the simple expedient of being first to Winchester, the ancient ceremonial capital of England, and having himself crowned by the city’s bishop – who just happened to be his brother Henry.

coronation of stephen
Coronation of Stephen, as depicted by Matthew Paris (c.1245)

That act sparked a civil war that would rage across England and France for eighteen years, with the supporters of Stephen and the supporters of Matilda slaughtering each other in countless battles and skirmishes. Stephen himself was captured in one such battle near Lincoln in 1141, but was exchanged for Matilda’s half-brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester, who was himself captured six months later. The war, called The Anarchy, did not end until Stephen agreed to make Matilda and Geoffrey’s son Henry his heir. Stephen died less than a year later, and Henry ascended the throne as King Henry II, first monarch of the Plantagenet dynasty that would rule England for the next 330 years.

Of course, given how much the sinking of the White Ship affected English politics, there have been claims ever since the time of the disaster that it was the result of a conspiracy. Certainly there are unusual circumstances surrounding the disaster, not least the fact that so many notable and politically important figures were all in such an easily isolable location at once. Further the explanation that the disaster was caused by drunkenness among the crew and passengers is unlikely, as only the most experienced sailors would be permitted to crew such a significant vessel, and the passenger list included senior noblemen and veteran crusaders; this was not the 12th century equivalent of an Ibiza party boat.

Perhaps one of the most notable irregularity was that the king was not aboard a ship specifically designed and built for his use, and neither was Matilda, the wife of the Crown Prince. It would be unusual for a wife in the 12th century not to travel with her husband, though as Matilda was only 9 years old* and still in the care of a guardian rather than her husband, this is perhaps not so strange as it first appears. Given the enormity of the disaster, the king would have launched a full inquiry into the sinking afterwards, but the result of any such investigation has not survived the centuries.

William of Malmesbury, a contemporary writer, noted of the White Ship and the war that followed its sinking that:

“No ship that ever sailed brought England such disaster”

The following people died in the disaster on 25th November 1120:

  • Prince William, heir to the English throne
  • Matilda FitzRoy, Countess of Perche, bastard daughter of King Henry I
  • Richard FitzRoy, bastard son of King Henry I
  • Richard d’Avranches, Earl of Chester
  • Matilda d’Avranches (nee de Blois), Countess of Chester, sister of the future King Stephen
  • Ottuel FitzHugh, bastard half-brother of the Earl of Chester
  • Geoffrey Ridel, brother-in-law to the Earl of Chester and a Royal Justice (a travelling judge)
  • Gilbert d’Aigle, Viscount Exmes
  • Geoffrey d’Aigle, son of the Viscount Exmes. Initially survived by clinging to a rock, but succumbed to exhaustion and drowned hours after the accident
  • Engenulf d’Aigle, son of the Viscount Exmes
  • William Bigod, steward of the royal household
  • Gisulf, secretary to the king
  • Robert de Mauduit, chamberlain to the king
  • Walter d’Everci, a nobleman
  • Richard Anskill, heir to valuable land in Berkshire
  • Robert Mauconduit, a nobleman
  • Hugh de Molines, a nobleman
  • Ralph the Red, a knight
  • Ivo de Grandmesnil, son of Lord Ivo de Grandmesnil
  • William de Grandmesnil, son of Lord Ivo de Grandmesnil
  • William of Rhuddlan, heir to most of North Wales
  • Geoffrey, Archdeacon of Hereford
  • William, Bishop of Coutances
  • Dietrich, a nephew or great-nephew of Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich V
    Thomas FitzStephen, the ship’s captain
    50 or so crew
  • Various servants, clerks and officials
  • A force of soldiers brought aboard to protect the ship from pirates
    Those who chose not to board the ship included:
  • King Henry I of England

  • Matilda, wife of Prince William
  • Two monks from Tiron (names unknown)
  • Stephen de Blois, nephew of King Henry, heir to Boulogne and future King of England. Also two men-at-arms in Stephen’s service
  • William de Roumare, Earl of Lincoln
  • Edward of Salisbury, High Sherrif of Wiltshire and chamberlain to the king
  • Rabel de Mauduit, son of the Robert de Mauduit who drowned in the wreck
  • Ranulf de Meschin, nephew of the Earl of Chester. Became Earl himself after the Earl and his sons drowned
  • William de Pirou, steward to the king (Orderic Vitalis claims he was on the ship and died, but as William is recorded as still being alive three years later this seems unlikely)

*Child marriages of this nature were common among 12th century nobility and amounted to nothing more than a betrothal. Although William and Matilda were legally man and wife, they would not have consumated their marriage until Matilda became a woman (probably aged between 12 and 14). Prince William himself was 17 at the time of his death.

Featured image: An artistic depiction of the White Ship‘s final fate, c. 1300

  • Orderic Vitalis, History of the Church
  • William of Malmesbury, The Lives of the Kings of England
  • Simon of Durham, History of Kings
  • Eadmer, New History of England
  • Henry of Huntingdon, History of England
  • Hugh the Canter, History of the Church at York
  • Robert of Torigni, Lives of the Dukes of Normandy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s