"White Ship" Sinks, Killing Heir to King of England

"White Ship" Sinks, Killing Heir to King of England

On the night of 25 November 1120, the White Ship, carrying the heir to the English throne and hundreds of England and Normandy’s most powerful knights and noblewomen, hit rocks near the coast of Normandy in the English Channel and sunk. All but one passenger, a butcher, drowned, including the heir and only legitimate son of Henry I, the King of England.

The sinking of the White Ship has been dramatised by English writers, from the Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to the contemporary popular novelist Ken Follett. Facts are scarce, but it is thought that prior to setting out, the prince, passengers, and crew of the White Ship engaged in a bout of drinking that would have made Bacchus proud.

The prince, William, and his father, Henry, were fresh from their glorious victory over King Louis VI of France, having reasserted their rule over Normandy–with the marriage of William a key element in the settlement agreement. Upon their return to England, Henry sailed ahead of William. The White Ship was offered to the prince (via his father) from Thomas FitzStephen, the son of a sea captain for William the Conqueror, who had been Henry’s father. Celebrations raged past sunset, as William and his entourage, including the heirs to many of England and Normandy’s great estates, swigged wine by the barrel-load on board the docked ship.

William, perhaps encouraged by his lively companions and the undoubtedly fine vintage in his cup, decided that despite the darkness settling over the treacherous English Channel, the White Ship must sail. Moreover, he supposedly dared the captain to overtake his father’s fleet–now well ahead. (Historical research may prove otherwise, but it seems a safe assumption that dares from drunken medieval princes would often have ended with poor results.)

The White Ship wouldn’t make it far–hitting rocks near the harbour of Barfleur along the coast of Normandy. The only survivor was the ship’s butcher–whom Rossetti made the narrator of his great poem, the White Ship, with its refrain:

By none but me can the tale be told, The butcher of Rouen, poor Berold. (Lands are swayed by a King on a throne.) ‘Twas a royal train put forth to sea, Yet the tale can be told by none but me. (The sea hath no King but God alone.)

On the far side of the Channel, in England, the morning Henry was forced to scramble together a solution, for his son was not only a critical player in his settlement agreement with France, he was also the heir to the throne. Henry demanded that his daughter, Matilda, be recognised as his successor, leading to a succession crisis and decades of civil strife.

Credit: Alamy A4JGNH
Caption: Colour plate entitled “Wreck of The White Ship” from “Pictures of English History.”