Tragic Accident or Mass Murder? The Sinking of the White Ship leads to Disaster for England
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. 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. 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.
- Ill-fated ship of ill-fated explorer reportedly found in Lake Michigan
- Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a treasure under the sea
- Shipwreck found in Haiti may be Santa Maria, the flagship of Christopher Columbus
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.
King Henry I mourning the death of his son. Public Domain
The sinking of the White Ship had a strong negative impact upon England. The death of William led to a succession crisis, and the country was gripped by a civil war known as the Anarchy.
After William died, King Henry had only one remaining legitimate child – a daughter named Matilda (not to be confused with his illegitimate daughter Matilda who had died when the White Ship sank). King Henry fought to ensure that Matilda would succeed the throne, but a woman had never led the country prior to this point. Although King Henry’s barons swore an oath to support Matilda as King Henry’s heir, upon his death in 1135 the barons hesitated to accept Matilda as the queen Regnant. Instead, King Henry’s nephew, Stephen of Bloise, became king.
Portrait of the king Stephen of England, as imagined by George Vertue (1684-1756) Public Domain
Stephen is commonly viewed as having played a suspicious role in the sinking due to the fact that he was aboard the ship before it set sail, and he then left the ship due to a “sudden illness,” and he ultimately benefitted greatly from the sinking, becoming king. However, some say that Stephen’s chances of becoming king were too remote at the time of the sinking for him to take such drastic measures to achieve that goal.
Matilda launched a war against Stephen of Bloise as she pursued what she believed to be her rightful role as leader. This tumultuous time, known as the Anarchy, lasted from 1135 to 1153, and resulted in great destruction and despair in England.
Was the sinking of the White Ship a tragic accident due to wine-induced carelessness, or was it mass murder intended to upset the succession of the English throne? The answer may never be known.
Featured image: The wrecking of the White Ship. Public Domain
White Ship Disaster – History in an Hour. Available from: http://www.historyinanhour.com/2012/07/30/white-ship-disaster/
The Wreck of the White Ship – Britannia. Available from: http://www.britannia.com/history/bb1120.html
Was the White Ship disaster mass murder? - Medievalists. Available from: http://www.medievalists.net/2013/05/21/was-the-white-ship-disaster-mass-murder/
White Ship – Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Ship
By M R Reese
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 ?
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,,