The shipwreck that changed the course of Medieval England, the White Ship sank off the coast of Barfleur in the English Channel on 25 November 1120, taking with it the heir to the English throne and over 150 members of the leading families of Norman England.
As historian Robert Lacey describes it in "Great Tales from English History":
"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. The passenger list constituted the cream of high society, cast into the chilly waters."
The death on the White Ship of William Ætheling, heir to the throne of Henry I, led England into a chaotic period called The Anarchy after the death of Henry I in 1135. This was in effect a civil war between followers of Empress Matilda, the daughter of King Henry I, whom he had named as heir to his throne, and her cousin Stephen of Blois who challenged her for the throne.
This project will link to those persons who died upon the White Ship. It has been difficult to find any comprehensive listing of the casualties. The best list I've found is in a book entitled The foundations of England, Volume 2 by Sir James Henry Ramsay (S. Sonnenschein & Co., Ltd., 1898), p. 292, while British Monarchy Family History also has an extensive list.
Who died on the White Ship?
- William Adelin, heir to the English throne
- his half-brother Richard FitzRoy of Lincoln
- his half-sister Matilda FitzHenry, Countess of Perche (sometimes called Marie de Mortagne)
- Richard d'Avranches, second Earl of Chester
- his brother Otheur or Othuel d'Avranches, governor of the King's sons
- the Countess of Chester, Mathilda or Lucia-Mahaut of Blois, the King's neice
- Geoffrey Ridel, Royal Justice, Son-in-law of Hugh, Earl of Chester
- William Bigod, Steward of the household of King Henry
- Ivo II de Grandmesnil
- William Grandmesnil (a brother of Ivo II de Grandmesnil)
- William of Rhuddlan (son of Robert)
- Hugh of Moulins
- Walter of Everci
- Geoffrey, archdeacon of Hereford
- Thomas FitzStephen FitzAirard (captain)
- Geoffrey de l'Aigle
- Engenulf de l'Aigle
- Ralph le Roux, Lord of Pont Echanfre (many believe him to be an illegitimate son of Robert de Lacy)
- Gilbert de l'Aigle, Vicomte of Exmes
- Dietrich (Theodoric), the nephew of the German emperor (probably a son of Henry V.'s sister Agnes by Frederic Duke of Suabia)
- Gisulf, the King's secretary
- William - Son of the Bishop of Coutances
- Richard Anskill - Son and heir of a Berkshire landowner
- William Pirou - Steward to the king
- Robert Mauconduit - Nobleman
A few people "escaped" the shipwreck--not after the wreck (only one survived), perhaps, but by leaving the ship's party before the ship set sail. According to SIr James Ramsay (see above), in addition to Stephen of Blois and two monks from Tiron, "Orderic ... names among those who thus escaped William of Roumare, afterwards Earl of Lincoln; Eadward of Salisbury, the Standard-bearer at Br^mule; and Rabel of Tancarville, the Chamberlain" (p. 291, fn 6).
Read Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poem The White Ship
"Renaissance Woman" wrote a great summary of the events of 25 November 1120 in her blog at http://voices.yahoo.com/the-white-ship-sinks-1120-10526563.html:
It was the Titanic of its day. The White Ship was one of the most advanced vessels of its time, and this would be its maiden voyage. Its captain, Thomas FitzStephen, was the son of the man who had captained the ship that brought William the Conqueror to England in 1066. Hoping to achieve as great an honor for himself, FitzStephen offered to steer William's son, Henry I, home from Normandy in November of 1120.
Henry had already made other arrangements for his return, and so he declined, but he was unwilling to disappoint the man. He suggested that his son, William Adelin, might wish to return on the new ship.
William was a brash young man, with a devoted party of followers. His entourage included some 140 knights and 18 noblewomen, including his half-brother, Richard, and his half-sister, Marie. He was also accompanied by his cousins, Stephen and Matilda of Blois, as well as many nobles heirs to the main estates in both England and Normandy. William had barrels of wine brought on board for the return home. At the last minute, Stephen of Blois, who was ill with diarrhoea, left the ship. He would take a later ship for his return, he said.
There are many theories about why the White Ship sank. Some said the sailors had partied with the passengers. Others blamed the fact that the ship had not been blessed -- a group of clerics who had come to bless the voyage had been chased away by the drunken revelers. William of Nangis, a chronicler writing in the 13th century, claimed that all the men on board had been sodomites, and that God had punished them for their sins.
It is likely that William, a spirited young man, wished to overtake his father's ship and beat him back to England. The oarsmen were rowing full-tilt when the ship's port side struck a submerged rock. The ship sank quickly, but William's servant managed to bundle his master into a small dinghy, the only one on the ship. He rowed him swiftly away, but as they left, William could hear his half-sister, Marie, calling for him from the ship. He ordered the servant to turn back for her.
Marie wasn't the only one who wanted to be saved, of course. As they returned to the scene of the capsized ship, dozens of others tried to climb aboard. The dinghy was soon overcome, and all swept beneath the seas.
For a while, two men clung to the White Ship's mast, which was still afloat. One was Geoffrey de l'Aigle, a nobleman. The other was a butcher from Roen, Berthold. Berthold had come on board to attempt to collect debts owed to him by the noblemen, and had been taken along when they set sail. After a time, he saw a third man in the waves. It was Captain FitzStephen.
FitzStephen asked Geoffrey and Berthold what had happened to the prince. When he learned the young man had drowned, the threw up his arms and sank into the sea. He would rather drown than face the king with the sad news.
Geoffrey de l'Aigle perished in the water also, and Berthold was the only survivor. He was picked up the next morning by fishermen. His sheepskin coat may have protected him; it certainly kept out the wind and cold better than the silks and satins of the nobles would have done.
It was said that after Henry learned of his son's death that he never smiled again. William was his only legitimate son. His only other legitimate issue was his daughter, Matilda, and he now wanted her to succeed him. He forced his nobles to swear an oath to support her claim to the throne upon his death. They swore, but they later forswore their oaths. Henry was succeeded by his nephew, Stephen of Blois, the young man who had been saved from drowning by a bout of diarrhoea. Stephen and Matilda would embroil England in a Civil War that lasted all through his reign of 19 years. It would be Matilda's son, Henry II, who finally defeated him.
[Sources: "White Ship", Wikipedia; "The Wreck of the White Ship", Britannia; "Henry I -- The Story of the White Ship", The Baldwin Project.]
Excerpted below is a wonderfully-written account, in French, of the drama that unfolded, written by Victor Godard-Faultrier in the book l"Anjou et ses Monuments (Vol 2, Angers, 1840, pp. 170-172). An English translation follows.
La victoire et l'humanité de Foulques eurent leur récompense; car, jaloux de se lier d'amitié avec un aussi glorieux personnage, le roi d'Angleterre lui proposa son héritier pour gendre. En effet, Mathilde d'Anjou, malgré son jeune âge, épousa Guillaume Adelin, fils d'Henri; et, peu de temps après (1129), Geoffroy d'Anjou, dit Plantagenet, prit pour femme Mathilde d'Angleterre, épouse en premières noces d'Henri V, empereur des Romains.
Le premier mariage ne tarda pas à être rompu par l'un de ces événements que le drame et la poésie se plaisent à célébrer.
Dans la nuit du 25 au 26 novembre de l'année 1120, on voyait au port de Barfleur deux nefs équipées. L'une portait Henri, roi d'Angleterre, et Mathilde, sa bru, fille du comte d'Anjou; dans l'autre était Guillaume Adelin, époux de la jeune Mathilde. La première nef déjà voguait en mer, et le silence et la gravité de ceux qui la montaient contrastait avec le bruit des convives de la seconde. Celle-ci restait encore amarrée, et, tandis que sa voile triangulaire commençait à prendre le vent, cent cinquante nobles hommes des premières familles de Normandie, d'Anjou et d'Angleterre se livraient à de joyeux propos, tous en brillant costume, le corps paré de vêtements étroits et traînants, de couleurs variées, les pieds chaussés dans des brodequins à longues pointes droites et recourbées, mode introduite en France par Foulques-Réchin. Animés par de jeunes femmes belles et folâtres, ils puisaient leur trop vive gaîté dans des coupes où moussaient le vin et l'hypocras. Cent cinquante vigoureux rameurs partageaient leur enivrement, et tous ensemble, la tête échauffée, montèrent sur la blanche Nef. Le signal est donné; quelques prêtres, voulant bénir l'assemblée à la lueur des flambeaux de l'orgie, sont honnis et raillés.
On part : la nuit est belle, la mer est calme. Thomas, fils d'Etienne, tient le gouvernail; son père avait eu l'insigne honneur de conduire Guillaume à la conquête de l'Angleterre. Thomas est bon marin, mais le vin le trouble, son œil et sa main le servent mal. Les rameurs, animés par la voix des jeunes nobles, battent la mer sans prudence; ils veulent devancer le roi Henri.
La nef fend l'onde; mais une pointe de rocher déchire un de ses flancs : sauvez Adelin! crie une voix, et l'esquif de secours le reçoit à l'instant.
Il s'éloigne, lorsqu'on entend : « Mon frère, m'abandonneras-tu? » c'était la sœur de Guillaume, femme de Rotrou, comte de Mortagne.
Le prince ordonne à l'esquif d'approcher, et recueille sa sœur, mais avec elle se précipitent d'autres passagers; la mer les engloutit tous ensemble.
Deux hommes seuls, s'attachant à une vergue, échappent au naufrage: l'un se nommait Bérold, boucher de Rouen, l'autre, Goisfred, noble fils de Gisleber de l'Aigle.
Alors, dit Ordéric Vital, « la lune était à son dix-neuvième jour dans le signe du taureau : pendant près de neuf heures, elle éclaira le monde de ses rayons, et rendit la mer brillante aux yeux des navigateurs. »
Au sein de cette nappe d'eau, image de l'infini, parut un troisième naufragé, c'était le pilote Thomas qui avait repris ses sens et la raison. Qu'est devenu, dit-il aux deux hommes de la vergue, qu'est devenu le fils du roi? — Il a péri! — Alors il m'est affreux de vivre, et l'abîme s'entr'ouvrit.
Les malheureux naufragés souffraient de la mer et du vent froid de la nuit; le jeune Goisfred, d'un tempérament délicat, sentit ses forces l'abandonner, et bientôt il disparut aux yeux de son compagnon. Bérold, vêtu d'un habit de peau de mouton, échappa seul à la catastrophe.
A cette fatale nouvelle, Henri tomba brisé par la douleur, et depuis, jamais on ne le vit sourire.
Les poètes du temps gémirent sur ce naufrage où, sans compter Guillaume Adelin et Richard, fils du roi, ainsi que leur sœur, comtesse de Mortagne, périrent dix-huit femmes qui avaient l'avantage d'être filles, ou sœurs, ou nièces, ou épouses de monarques et de comtes.
Ainsi, se trouva rompue l'alliance de Mathilde d'Anjou avec le fils du roi d'Angleterre. Elle conçut de la mort de son mari une telle douleur, qu'elle résolut de fuir le monde. En effet, de retour en Anjou, on la vit se rendre à Fontevrault, où elle passa ses jours dans la prière et le recueillement, acceptant après trente ans de religion le titre d'abbesse et le bâton pastoral de la main même de Pétronille. Elle mourut vers 1155.
A not nearly as eloquent English translation:
The victory and the humanity of Fulk had their reward because, jealous to befriend another glorious character, the King of England offered him his son and heir. Indeed, Mathilde d'Anjou, despite his young age, married William Adelin, son of Henry, and shortly after (1129), Geoffrey of Anjou, called Plantagenet, took as a wife Matilda of England, first wife of Henry V, Emperor of the Romans.
The first marriage was soon to be broken by one of these events that drama and poetry like to celebrate.
On the night of November 25 to 26 of the year 1120, one would have seen two well-equipped ships at the port of Barfleur. One carried Henry, King of England and Matilda, his daughter-in-law, daughter of the Count of Anjou; in the other was William Adelin ["the Aethling," the heir to the throne of England], the young husband of Matilda.
The first ship set out to sea, and the silence and the severity of those aboard contrasted with the noise of the guests in the second. It was still docked, and while its triangular sail began to catch the wind, one hundred and fifty noblemen of the first families of Normandy, Anjou and England indulged in merry way, in brilliant attire, bodies covered in clothing both close-fitting and with long trains of various colors, feet shod in boots with long and curling points, a style introduced in France by Fulk-Réchin. Animated by beautiful frolicking young women, they drew their lively gaiety from the effervescent wine and hippocras [a spiced wine drink]. One hundred and fifty vigorous rowers participated in this mass intoxication, and all together, empassioned, they mounted the White Ship. The signal was given, and a few priests, wanting to bless the assembly, in the torchlight of the orgy, were reviled and ridiculed.
It sets off: the night is beautiful, the sea is calm. Thomas, son of Stephen, at the helm, his father had the honor to have led William to the conquest of England. Thomas is a good sailor, but the wine clouds him: his eye and his hand serve him poorly. The rowers, inspired by the voices of young nobles, fight the sea without caution; they want to pull ahead of King Henry's boat.
The White Ship cleaves the wave, but a rocky crag rips one of its sides. Save Athelin! cried a voice, and the small skiff received him for a moment.
It is moving away, when he hears: "My brother, do you abandon me?" It was the sister of William: the wife of Rotrou, Count of Mortagne.
The prince orders the skiff to approach the ship, and gathers his sister, but with her the other passengers charge forward, and the sea swallows them up all together.
Two lone men, clinging to a mast, escape the wreckage: one was called Berold, a butcher from Rouen, and the other Goisfred (Geoffrey), a noble son of Gisleber de l'Aigle.
Thus, said Orderic Vital, "The moon was at her nineteenth day in the sign of the bull, hanging in the sky for almost nine hours, she lit up the world with her rays illuminating the sea to the eyes of the navigators. "
Within this body of water, the image of infinity, appeared a third castaway: the captain Thomas, who had recovered his senses and reason. What happened? he said to the two men on the mast. What has become of the king's son? - He died! - Then it is terrible for me to live, and the abyss opened.
The unfortunate shipwrecked men suffered from the sea and the cold night wind. The young Goisfred (Geoffrey), of delicate temperament, felt his strength leaving him, and he soon disappeared from the eyes of his companion. Berold, wearing a coat of sheepskin, escaped the disaster alone.
Hearing the tragic news, King Henry fell broken into sadness, and no one ever saw him smile after that.
The poets of this time lamented this shipwreck where, without counting William Adelin and Richard, sons of the king, and their sister, Countess of Mortagne, perished eighteen women who were daughters, sisters, nieces or wives of monarchs and counts.
Thus was broken the covenant between Mathilde d'Anjou and the son of the king of England. She found the death of her husband so deeply painful that she decided to flee the world. Indeed, back in Anjou, she returned to Fontevrault, where she spent her days in prayer and meditation, accepting after thirty years of religion the title of abbess and the pastoral staff of the hand of Petronilla herself. She died about 1155.