Henry Beauclerc, the youngest and last surviving son of William the Conqueror, served as King Henry I of England after the death of his older brother, William II, in 1100. Nineteen years into his reign, he and his only legitimate son, William the Atheling, celebrated a successful military campaign against Louis VI of France, and the marriage of the teenaged William to Matilda of Anjou, the daughter of a powerful French Count. They remained in Normandy for some time and, on November 25, 1120, King Henry, Prince William, and their respective entourages prepared to cross the English Channel and return to London.
Captain Thomas Fitz-Stephen, a lifelong sailor whose father had personally piloted William the Conqueror across the English Channel during the invasion 54 years earlier, offered to ferry the royal retinue back to England upon his fast, solid, and recently refitted ship, called the Blanche Nef, or the White Ship. Henry himself declined, having already made other arrangements for his travel home, but he instead accepted on behalf of his son William; the King therefore departed from the port city of Barfleur, Normandy on a different ship, just before twilight on November 25. William, by then all of 17 years old, decided he wanted to stay in Barfleur and enjoy the festivities for a few hours longer and, in a bout of youthful indiscretion, further decided that he wanted to extend the merriment to the crew of the White Ship, and to that end he ordered that three barrels of wine be sent for them to drink as well. William's cousin, Stephen of Blois, declined at the last minute owing to an upset stomach.
The party continued as the ship departed with about 300 passengers, including 140 knights, all of whom soon became seriously drunk. The party intensified as the ship departed for England in the dark of night, and the crowd turned increasingly rowdy. The drunken Prince called for the ship to overtake his father's vessel, and to that end, the crew rowed with reckless abandon while the festivities raged on. No one on board noticed the Catte-Raze, a submerged rock not far from the Norman coast, until the White Ship impaled itself upon it, punching a hole in the port side of the hull, and holding the ship fast.
Bedlam ensued. Crewmen, still roaringly drunk, raced to the gaping hole and attempted through torrents of seawater to extract the ship from the rock. Others rowed furiously backward, but still the vessel remained stuck. Many fell into the water in the chaos. A quick-thinking bodyguard rushed Prince William to a lifeboat, which he then put out to sea as the White Ship began to break apart and sink. William was safely out to sea when he heard the cries of his half-sister, Matilda of Peche, calling out to him by name and begging him not to abandon her. He commanded that his tiny skiff return to the wreckage to rescue her, and once it did, other passengers and crewmen, frantic and panicking as they floundered about in the water, swarmed and sank the Prince's craft.
In the end, a butcher from Rouen named Berthould, who was only aboard in an attempt to collect a debt owed to him by some of the Prince's followers, remained bobbing in the water. As Berthould clung to the White Ship's mast, he caught the attention of Thomas Fitz-Stephen, the Captain, who wearily called out to him and asked the Prince's fate. Berthould, who had seen the events unfold, told Fitz-Stephen that the Prince had drowned, at which point the Captain lost all hope and let himself slip beneath the waves. A boy, Gilbert de Craigle, lasted for a while in the water, but when his strength failed and he too drowned, Berthould alone remained alive from the wreckage. He climbed to the crow's nest and clung there, bobbing, until fishermen rescued him in the morning.
Besides William, numerous other members of the royal family perished aboard the White Ship: Matilda of Peche, the king's illegitimate daughter; Richard, his illegitimate son; Richard Earl of Chester, and his brother Outell, both nephews of the king; the countess of Chester, the king's niece; and most of the royal court. Prince William's new wife was left a widow at the age of 12. For days, no one could bring themselves to tell King Henry what became of his son and family, until Theobold de Blois conscripted a young, much-adored pageboy to break the news, at which point the King broke down, inconsolable.
The loss of the only legitimate male heir also cast the nation into a dynastic crisis. King Henry broke tradition and named his only remaining legitimate child, his daughter Matilda of Blois, as the heir to his kingdom. The English nobility, still chafing from dislike for the Norman dynasty, largely rejected the idea of being ruled by a woman. Ironically, it was Stephen de Blois, the King's nephew who missed the doomed trip due to his bout with intestinal distress, who contested her appointment. After King Henry died in 1135, the forces of cousins Stephen and Matilda became embroiled in a civil war called the Anarchy, lasting for 19 years. After Stephen's death in 1154, the crown passed, through mutual agreement, to Matilda's son, who assumed the throne as Henry II.
Links and sources:
"The Wreck of the White Ship", britannia.com, retrieved April 26, 2012.
Orderic Vitalis, Historia Ecclesiastica.
Lives of the Queens of England from the Norman Conquest by Agnes Strickland, Lea and Blanchard, 1848.
The History of the Kings of England, and Of His Own Times by William of Malmesbury, Seeleys, 1854.
"The White Ship" © 2015 by James Husband.