The wrecking of the White Ship

Tragic Accident or Mass Murder? The Sinking of the White Ship leads to Disaster for England

(Read the article on one page)

Many year ago, before modern air travel, the only way to travel across large bodies of water was by ship. Many passengers would crowd onto a large vessel for a lengthy journey to their destination. Unfortunately, when one of these ships sank, many passengers lost their lives because of too few life boats, icy cold water, long wait times for rescue boats, and lack of swimming skills. One well-known ship disaster occurred in the year 1120. A ship known as the “White Ship” struck a partially submerged rock and sank soon after departure. Only one person aboard the White Ship survived.

However, this was not just any ship that sank. The White Ship carried William Adelin, the son of King Henry I of England, heir and first in line to the throne. Due to the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the White Ship, and the subsequent succession crisis, some have speculated that the sinking was not an accident at all, but the result of an event intended to disrupt the stability of the throne. Was the sinking of the White Ship a tragic accident with severe consequences, or was it the mass murder of hundreds orchestrated to get away with the murder of the future king?

Illustrated portrait of William Adelin, son of King Henry I of England.

Illustrated portrait of William Adelin, son of King Henry I of England. Public Domain

King Henry had a dozen children, and possibly more. Matilda and William were born to the King’s wife, Matilda of Scotland, and the rest of the children were with his mistresses. While the King treated all of his children well and gave them all important government positions, William was the child positioned to take over the throne. Shortly before William’s death, King Henry and the King of France had executed an agreement through which William would marry the daughter of Count Fulk V of Anjou. With this agreement in place, there was nothing stopping William from inheriting the Anglo-Normal Empire. King Henry felt secure knowing that his son would succeed the throne.

In November 1120, everything would change. A fleet was being assembled to transport King Henry and his party from Normandy to England – a journey that required crossing the English Channel. Thomas FitzStephen, captain of the White Ship, offered to transport the King across the channel. King Henry declined this invitation, as he had already made his travel arrangements, but many in his party decided to travel aboard the White Ship – including William. Other nobles boarding the White Ship included Henry’s illegitimate son and daughter - William’s half-siblings Richard and Matilda - and several others. All-in-all, more than 300 people boarded the White Ship on November 25, 1120.

The Sinking of the White Ship in the English Channel near the Normandy coast, 1120 AD.

The Sinking of the White Ship in the English Channel near the Normandy coast, 1120 AD. Public Domain

According to the story, as chronicled by historian Orderic Vitalis, the crew asked William to supply them with wine – a request to which he obliged in great quantity. Everyone on board consumed large volumes of wine, passengers and crew alike. Because of the excessive alcohol consumption, several people left the ship prior to departure, including Stephen of Bloise, who came down with a severe case of diarrhea. Eventually, the ship carrying the King disembarked, followed by the White Ship. The passengers on the White Ship urged Captain FitzStephen to push ahead, and to try to catch up with the King’s vessel. The captain and crew were confident that the ship could reach England first. The crew rowed ferociously, fueled by their drunkenness from the wine. However, as the ship set sail into the waters, which were blackened by the nighttime sky, the White Ship struck a partially submerged rock. The port side of the ship was severely damaged, and the White Ship quickly capsized, sinking with hundreds aboard.

MORE

Initially, William made his way to a small lifeboat and attempted to escape the sinking ship. However, he was drawn back to the wreckage when he heard the screams of his half-sister, Matilda. As he returned to save her, the passengers in the water desperately tried to board the lifeboat, which could not sustain such a capacity. William drowned as the lifeboat sank. The White Ship sank in a location where people on shore, and even those aboard King Henry’s ship, could hear the passengers’ frantic screams. However, due to the darkness of night, it was difficult to tell where the screams were coming from, and no one was able to help the passengers. Tragically, only two people survived the sinking of the White Ship - a butcher from Rouen and Geoffrey de l'Aigle. Captain FitzStephen perished, although it is said by some that he initially survived, but upon hearing that William had drowned, he chose to die rather than face the King for having contributed to the death of his son. Upon learning of William’s death, King Henry was devastated.

Comments

I would say it was the wine. it leads to debauchery, misbehaviors, bad decisions, raises fears in people, of water when away from land. i very doubt someone sabataged the boat so he could become king, so remote a chance, he knew it too.. Was the boat found ? any artifacts ? Bones ?

Justbod's picture

Fascinating story that I’d never heard about before – thank you! Will look into this further.

 

Sculptures, carvings & artwork inspired by a love of history & nature: www.justbod.co.uk

 

 

 

Thank you for this wonderful story. It is perfectly timed for use in the studies I am doing with my son for home school. We just love history and are learning all about Britain. Thanks again,,

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

Himmerod Abbey and Church building
Himmerod Abbey, a Cistercian monastery that's existed for almost 900 years in what is now western Germany is closing down for good, due to running expenses and also a shortage of monks. Notably, the monastery was used during the 1950’s in a distinctly non-monastic capacity, as a secret meeting point of former Wehrmacht high-ranking officers discussing West Germany's rearmament.

Myths & Legends

Sak K'uk'/Lady Cormorant – Public Domain, Palenque, Mexico, Jiuguang Wang - CC BY SA 2.0
In the mountain rain forest of Chiapas, México, sits the ruins of Palenque, considered the most beautiful ancient Maya city. Silhouetted against a backdrop of natural hills and valleys, the elegant pyramids and palace offer fine Maya bas-relief carvings of high-grade limestone and stucco.

Human Origins

Noah's Sacrifice - watercolor circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot
The imperfect state of archaeological researches in the Near East impedes any definite identification of the original race or races that created the earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. According to Gordon Childe, however, the predominant racial element in the earliest graves in the region from Elam to the Danube is the ‘Mediterranean’.

Ancient Places

Himmerod Abbey and Church building
Himmerod Abbey, a Cistercian monastery that's existed for almost 900 years in what is now western Germany is closing down for good, due to running expenses and also a shortage of monks. Notably, the monastery was used during the 1950’s in a distinctly non-monastic capacity, as a secret meeting point of former Wehrmacht high-ranking officers discussing West Germany's rearmament.

Opinion

The ancient and mysterious Sphinx, Giza, Egypt.
In 1995, NBC televised a prime-time documentary hosted by actor Charlton Heston and directed by Bill Cote, called Mystery of the Sphinx. The program centered on the research and writings of John Anthony West, a (non-academic) Egyptologist, who, along with Dr. Robert Schoch, a professor of Geology at Boston University, made an astounding discovery on the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article