25 November 1120: Henry I’s heir drowns at sea

William Ætheling finds “his grave in the bellies of fishes” off the coast of Normandy


On the morning of 25 November 1120, William Ætheling, son and heir of England’s king Henry I, was in the prime of life. He and his father were in Barfleur, Normandy, preparing to return to England, when they were approached by sea captain Thomas FitzStephen. “Stephen, my father, served yours all his life by sea, and he it was who steered the ship in which your father sailed for the conquest of England,” said Thomas. “Sire king, I beg you to grant me the same office... I have a vessel called the White Ship, well equipped and manned with 50 skilful mariners.”

Henry had made other arrangements. But William fancied a trip home on a fast new ship. Alas, he also liked a drink. By the time the clerics arrived to bless the ship, William and his friends were already the worse for wear. So were many of the crew, whom the prince had encouraged to join them. By the time the ship left, it was packed with some 300 people – many of them roaring drunk.

What followed was one of the worst disasters in the history of the English monarchy. The White Ship had barely left port when it hit a rock and began to sink. William managed to escape in a small boat, but when he turned back to rescue his half-sister Matilda, other survivors crowded abroad and the boat promptly capsized. “The head which should have worn a crown of gold,” wrote the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon, “was rudely dashed against the rocks; instead of wearing embroidered robes, he floated naked in the waves; and instead of ascending a lofty throne, he found his grave in the bellies of fishes at the bottom of the sea.”

25 November 1177

Baldwin of Jerusalem and Reynald of Chatillon defeat Saladin at Montgisard.

25 November 1783

Three months after the signing of the Treaty of Paris brings the American War of Independence to an end, the last British troops leave New York.

25 November 1839

An estimated 300,000 people lost their lives when a massive cyclone and 40-foot tidal wave hit the Indian port of Coringa.

25 November 1941

Members of Einsatzkommando 3 murdered nearly 3,000 deported German Jews in mass shootings at the Ninth Fort near Kaunus, Lithuania. It was the first systematic killing of German Jews during the Holocaust.

25 November 1963: America mourns its president

Three days after the world is rocked by his assassination, family and foreign dignitaries pay their respects to JFK

The American people were still in shock, three days after John F Kennedy’s murder in Dallas. Brought back to Washington almost immediately after his death, the late president’s body was taken to the Capitol on Sunday 24th, a quarter of a million people queuing for hours to pay their respects. In the meantime, foreign dignitaries, among them Britain’s prime minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, were flying to Washington for the next day’s funeral.

The funeral itself was the largest gathering of world leaders since that of Edward VII in 1910. Amid massive security, the procession wound its way from the Capitol to the National Cathedral, with satellite coverage beamed across the globe. Most eyes were on the veiled widow Jackie, a study in grief, as well as her two young children, Caroline and John Jr. It was John Jr’s third birthday. Images of the little boy saluting his father’s coffin appeared on front pages around the world.

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Both in the US and abroad, Kennedy’s funeral was widely seen as a uniquely moving occasion. CBS called it “the most majestic and stately ceremony the American people can perform”. The front page of the Daily Mirror, then the bestselling paper in the English-speaking world, read simply: “Farewell”, though inside pages salivated over pictures of “Tragic Jackie, So Courageous in Her Silent Grief”. What really worried the Mirror, though, was America’s future. “Can we place total reliance,” it asked, “on a nation where political passions run so high, a nation with a town like Dallas?”

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