King Henry I of England was an extremely fertile king who had anywhere from a dozen to nearly twenty-five illegitimate children, but only one legitimate male heir, William Aetheling. Aetheling was the Anglo-Saxon term used to show that William was the heir to the throne. This would be similar to the Dauphin title for the heir presumptive of France.
William was born 5 August 1103, to the King and his wife Matilda of Scotland. His father was the youngest son of William the Conqueror and his mother was the daughter of King Malcolm III of Scotland. By many accounts young William was an entitled prince who was very sociable. The hope of succession rested at the feet of young Prince William.
On the evening of 25 November 1120, the line of succession for the English crown was altered by tragedy. King Henry and three of his children were to leave the port of Barfleur in Normany for England. King Henry had already chosen his ship but needed one for his legitimate son William and illegitimate children Robert and Matilda for their voyage. In addition to his children was his nephew, Stephen of Blois and many other young nobles.
A man by the name of Thomas FitzStephen approached King Henry and informed him that he had a vessel called the White Ship that was excellently fitted and ready for royal service. The King agreed that the White Ship would be suitable to transport his children and informed FitzStephen that he was entrusting to him his sons William and Richard, “whom I love as my own life, and many nobles of my realm.”
The White Ship was a large vessel – it was capable of carrying a few hundred people and a crew of roughly fifty. Traveling with William this day were:
140 knights and 18 noblewomen; his half-brother, Richard; his half-sister, Matilda the Countess of Perche; his cousins, Stephen and Matilda of Blois; the nephew of the German Emperor Henry V; the young Earl of Chester and most of the heirs to the great estates of England and Normandy.¹
The wind was blowing from the south and promised a speedy crossing back to England. King Henry and his entourage launched first and the White Ship was expected to follow shortly.
After the King’s ship left, those who remained took it as an opportunity to have some fun without the watchful eye of the King. William was only seventeen at the time and many of the nobles that were traveling with him were close in age. The drinking and festivities ensued and may have gotten a little out of hand. A few of the passengers, including William’s cousin, Stephen of Blois, excused themselves from the ship for one reason or another. For Stephen, he had stated he was too sick to travel and would take the next ship back to England. It was past dark by the time a couple of priests came to bless the ship with holy water, but the rowdy passengers fatefully turned them away with laughter.
Not only were the young nobles enjoying an abundance of wine, but so were the crew. Someone who was overly confident stated that the ship was so fast and the wind conditions so perfect that they would be able to beat the King back to England…even with his head start. Unfortunately, this statement would seal the fate of the crew and passengers of the White Ship.
Chronicler Orderic Vitalis explains what happened next:
At length he gave the signal to put to sea. Then the rowers made haste to take up their oars and, in high spirits because they knew nothing of what lay ahead, put the rest of the equipment ready and made the ship lean forward and race through the sea. As the drunken oarsmen were rowing with all their might, and the luckless helmsman paid scant attention to steering the ship though he sea, the port side of the White Ship struck violently against a huge rock, which was uncovered each day as the tide ebbed and covered once more at high tide. Two planks were shattered and, terrible to relate, the ship capsized without warning. Everyone cried out at once in their great peril, but the water pouring into the boat soon drowned their cries and all alike perished.²
As the crew frantically tried to remove the water from the sinking ship, the others on board understood the importance of keeping William safe since he was the only legitimate male heir of King Henry I. William, along with a few others, were placed in a life boat. As they began to row toward shore, and safety, they could hear the screams of help and terror from their friends. William could hear the voice of his dear half-sister Matilda pierce through the noise – screaming for help. He insisted the boat be turned around to rescue her. When they reached Matilda they realized that she wasn’t the only person who was struggling to keep their head above water, being weighed down by their heavy clothing. Those in the water frantically tried to board William’s lifeboat, but it too capsized. Almost all were lost, including William, except one survivor – a butcher from Rouen.4 He was apparently on the ship to collect a debt and was unfortunately still on it when it had launched. He was the only survivor of the tragedy and was able to tell the story of what happened that awful night.
The job to inform the King of the death of his heir and two of his illegitimate children was given to a small boy. When the King was told he “fell to the ground, overcome with anguish.”³ It was said that the King never smiled again. All the hard work that King Henry I put into securing peace for England was shattered.
After the King’s death, Stephen of Blois – the nephew who chose not to travel on the White Ship that fateful day, took the crown of England for himself (in place of the rightful heir, Empress Matilda) and started a civil war. How different things would have been had he boarded the ship that evening.
Jones, Dan; The Plantagenets, pages 11-15
Soud, David; Kings and Queens of Great Britain, page 55
Dahmus, Joseph; A History of the Middle Ages, page 291
Crofton, Ian; The Kings & Queen of England, pages 56-57
Warren, W.L.; Henry II, 10, 11 & 226
History of Britain & Ireland (The Definitive Visual Guide), page 73
³Chronicler, Orderic Vitalis
4Jones, Dan; The Plantagenets, pages 11-15