White Ship

White Ship

The "White Ship" (or its real name "la Blanche-Nef" ), a twelfth-century vessel, sank in the English Channel near the Normandy coast off Barfleur, on November 25, 1120. Those drowned included William Adelin, the only legitimate son of King Henry I of England. William of Malmesbury wrote: "Here also perished with William, Richard, another of the King's Henry I sons, whom a woman without rank had borne him, before his accession, a brave youth, and dear to his father from his obedience; Richard d'Avranches, second Earl of Chester, and his brother Otheur; Geoffrey Ridel; Walter of Everci; Geoffrey, archdeacon of Hereford; Matilda the Countess of Perche, the king's daughter; the Countess of Chester; the king's niece Lucia-Mahaut of Blois; and many others..." Only one of those aboard survived. "No ship ever brought so much misery to England," wrote William of Malmesbury. [A section of his account of the White Ship is in "English Historical Documents"vol. II, no.8.]


The "White Ship" was a new ship owned by Thomas FitzStephen, whose father Stephen had been sea captain for William the Conqueror when he invaded England in 1066. He offered to let Henry I of England use it to return to England from Barfleur. Henry had already made travelling arrangements, but suggested that his son William Adelin travel on it instead.

But when the "White Ship" set off in the dark, its port side struck a submerged rock (this rock can still be seen from the cliffs of Barfleur), and the ship quickly capsized. The only known survivor was a butcher from Rouen. He was wearing thick ramskins that saved him from exposure, and was picked up by fishermen the next morning.

In his account of the disaster, chronicler Orderic Vitalis claimed that when Thomas FitzStephen came to the surface after the sinking and learned that William Adelin had not survived, he let himself drown rather than face the King. The accuracy of this account is debatable — it describes a full moon, but NASA sky tables, which include adjustments based upon the Gregorian Calendar to the Julian Calendar in use during the twelfth Century, show that the moon was actually new that night. The cause of the shipwreck remains uncertain. Various stories surrounding its loss feature a drinking binge by the crew and passengers (it is also suggested that the captain was dared to try to overtake the King's ship ahead of them), and mention that priests were not allowed on board to bless the ship in the customary manner. However, the English Channel has often proven a notoriously treacherous stretch of water.


Stephen of Blois, King Henry's nephew by his sister Adela, had allegedly disembarked just before the ship sailed. Orderic Vitalis attributes this to a sudden bout of diarrhoea. As a direct result of William's death, Stephen later usurped the English throne, resulting in the period known as the Anarchy.

The death of William Adelin in this shipwreck resulted in the chaos following the death of King Henry I. The English Barons were reluctant to accept Matilda as Queen Regnant, causing Stephen to usurp the throne. Even during the sixteenth century, the example of that time contributed to Henry VIII's several marriages in the search for a male heir.

Robert Lacey has observed that "The White Ship was the Titanic of the Middle Ages, a much-vaunted high-tech vessel on its maiden voyage, wrecked against a foreseeable natural obstacle in the reckless pursuit of speed,". [Lacey, "Great Tales from English History" (2003)]

Historical fiction

The sinking of the "White Ship" is the opening to the prologue of Ken Follett's most popular novel "The Pillars of the Earth" (1989). The ship's sinking sets the stage for the entire background of the story, which is based on the subsequent civil war between Matilda (referenced as Maud in the novel) and Stephen. In Follet's novel it is implied that the ship may have been sabotaged. It is also described in detail by Sharon Penman in the historical novel that was to make her famous "When Christ and His Saints Slept" (1994). The ship resurfaces in Geoffrey Hill's poem "The White Ship" in "For the Unfallen".


* [http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/1-1878.tinkerms.rad.html Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "The White Ship: a ballad"] ; first published 1881 in his collected "Ballads and Sonnets".


* [http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Wreck-of-the-White-Ship-Posters_i1871137_.htm "Wreck of the White Ship", an illustration by printer Joseph Kronheim (1810-1896)]



* Victoria Chandler, "The Wreck of the "White Ship", in "The final argument : the imprint of violence on society in medieval and early modern Europe", edited by Donald J. Kagay and L.J. Andrew Villalon (1998)
* Robert Lacey, [http://www.robertlacey.com/henry_whiteship.html "Henry I and the "White Ship" in "Great Tales from English History" (2003)]

External links

* Britannia.com [http://www.britannia.com/history/bb1120.html The Wreck of the White Ship]
* [http://www.history.org.uk/PDFS/White%20Ship.pdf T Brett-Jones, "The White Ship Disaster"] (pdf file)
* [http://www.robertlacey.com/henry_whiteship.html Robert Lacey, "Henry I and the White Ship"]

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