Charles Spencer on the White Ship disaster, “the most disastrous moment in British maritime history”

On the 900th anniversary of the White Ship disaster, Charles Spencer, author of a new book on the tragedy, and medieval historian Dan Jones discuss how it rocked the English monarchy

The White Ship disaster

Dan Jones: Your new book concerns one of the most dramatic events in the Middle Ages, that’s the sinking of the White Ship in 1120 – nine centuries ago. It’s been described as the medieval Titanic, but you argue in the book that it’s even more meaningful in the course of history. Can we begin with what happened in November 1120?

Charles Spencer: On the night of 25 November 1120, something cataclysmic happened to the English royal family. On the White Ship were 300 people, among them some of the most important figures in Anglo-Norman society. And the most important by a very long way was the sole legitimate male heir to King Henry I.

Advertisement

Henry is the backbone of this story. It’s a true-life Greek tragedy where a king has, over 20 years, seized the throne, built up a system of government that works, and quelled all sorts of problems. He’s already started to hand over power to his heir, William the Ætheling, who’s the designated king and Duke of Normandy for the next generation.

William got on board the ship, partied like crazy with his friends for several hours, and got everyone drunk on board, including, unfortunately, the helmsman. And so about one nautical mile outside Barfleur, the White Ship, one of the finest ships of its age, hit a rock. And there was one survivor, so we know what happened in the water as people struggled to survive.

A 14th-century manuscript shows an image of the White Ship.
A 14th-century manuscript shows an image of the White Ship. Henry I was crushed by news of the death of three of his children in the sinking. (Image by Alamy)

What sort of king was Henry I?

Henry is one of the most interesting historical figures I’ve ever come across because his is such a human story. As the fourth son of William the Conqueror, he was an obscure figure who was destined to be a well-bred non-entity. Yet he became a titan of European history in the first 35 years of the 12th century.

He was a very effective medieval king in that he kept the peace: for the last 29 years of his reign in England, nobody kept a castle against him or rose in rebellion. People said that a young girl laden with treasure could walk from one end of the kingdom to the other without being held up. And that was an incredible thing for a king to give to his people, that level of peace. Henry also had a very clear idea about finance, and formed the Exchequer, the name of which survives to this day.

So Henry was an effective ruler, which is what people craved. And he knew the importance of having an established, acknowledged heir, because that was the one person who could bring about order. If you didn’t have that, then you opened the gates of hell.

So this brings us on to William the Ætheling, Henry’s only legitimate son. Henry had more than 20 children but only two of them were legitimate: one boy and one girl, William and Matilda. Tell us about William the Ætheling – this strange word, what does it mean, and what was Henry’s plan for him?

‘Ætheling’ is an odd Anglo-Saxon term that means that you are eligible to be king. For William, it was the equivalent of the heir apparent, because there was no one else – he was the only legitimate male son.

Henry was a loving father who invested all his hopes in this boy, and we know from the chroniclers that he took great care with him. For four years before the White Ship sank, Henry had been fighting Louis VI to get the French king to acknowledge his son as Duke of Normandy. And Henry took his son to diplomatic events where he was arguing for his right to be the duke. He was grooming him to be his heir in a very thoughtful way, engaging him in things as a young man.

William the Ætheling was at the centre of a hard-living aristocratic group, which is sort of inevitable if you’re a teenage king-to-be

And what do we know about William? What’s difficult is that all the sources are ecclesiastical writers, and of course they see the hand of God in everything. When William died in the White Ship, people were looking for God’s reason for doing this. For somebody to be deprived of a magnificent future must mean that God didn’t like him. I found a lot of chroniclers were saying how spoilt and obnoxious he was. There was a story that he viewed the Anglo-Saxons as a sort of Untermensch – a species not quite as good as the Normans – and that he’d promised, when he was king, to put them to the yoke. But it’s hard to tell how true this is.

We know that William was the centre of a hard-living aristocratic group, which is sort of inevitable if you’re a teenage king-to-be. He loved fine clothes, and apparently, he was a handsome boy, although again, for the chroniclers, if you were royal, you tended to be either beautiful or handsome.

William must have been flattered by the attention of the crew of the White Ship, who were absolutely thrilled to have him as their passenger. And in return for their adulation, he bought the crew three barrels of wine for them to enjoy with his friends.

So let’s get into the detail of the sinking. Why were William and Henry in Barfleur? And what was this White Ship? Why was William sailing on it?

Henry was in Barfleur because it was the favourite port at which to embark from Normandy to England – for anyone of note, really. In good weather, it was a 10 to 12-hour journey and it was very easy. Henry had spent four years campaigning against Louis VI and he’d finally won the war, he’d had his son acknowledged by his great enemy. So he arrived in Barfleur in triumph.

Henry already had the ship that always took him back home. But then the captain of the White Ship came forward and tried to give Henry a tribute in return for him changing his mind and going on his ship. The man also pointed out that it would be his honour to take the king back because it had been his father’s great privilege to captain the Mora, which was William the Conqueror’s flagship on the invasion of England in 1066. But Henry was fixed in his ways and said: “No, I’m actually fine but it’d be enormous fun for my son and his friends [and a couple of Henry’s illegitimate children]” to go on the White Ship.

The White Ship was obviously a very special ship to look at. There was still a huge crossover from Viking to Norman culture at this time and the ships hadn’t evolved much from those in the Bayeux Tapestry. They were Clinker built, meaning one plank was put across the next, and they were then hammered together. And they were very fast.

So it was a large Viking ship and it had a particularly large crew of oarsmen. We know from a speech of the captain that she must have been white, and I think she would have been lime-washed, rather than painted white.

From the list of passengers, it’s clear that it was a gang, a clique, who got together on there. The most powerful earl in England, Richard, Earl of Chester, got on board with his entourage and it seems the main body of aristocrats on the ship were connected to him. There were also two of Henry’s greatest knights on board and 18 women who had the rank of countess or princess.

So it was chock-full of the most important people in Anglo-Norman society, as well as 50 members of the crew. They had a rip-roaring party ashore: the crew got drunk, the passengers got drunk and then right at the last minute, one or two of the passengers got off because they were worried about the state of the crew.

And then some monks come to the ship…

In one chapter I write about Anglo-Norman attitudes towards the sea. And of course, people didn’t know anything much about it except it was sometimes very beautiful and often very dangerous. They didn’t know what was under the waves. If you look at the poetry or maps from the time, the sea is full of terrifying species: sea goats, sea elephants – think of any animal and it has a devilish counterpoint under the waves.

Drowning was considered the most painful way to die. One way of countering this was getting God’s blessing before you sailed and it was common, with an important ship like this, for monks or priests to come and bless it. Unfortunately, on this occasion, the passengers were so drunk that when the monks turned up, they were chased away. Later, the chroniclers saw this as inviting the doom that came along. The ship probably set sail just before midnight. A large crowd watched them go: some were relatives of people who were sailing, but others just wanted to have a good look at this glamorous bunch of people on one ship. And then they pushed out to sea.

The helmsman was from Barfleur and knew the area very well, but he was drunk, and the sail was dropped too soon. They were going at a hell of a speed: the rowers bending their backs to try to catch up with the king who had set off a few hours before.

There’s a big rock, which you really would expect to avoid, called the Quillebeuf. And they hit it at full speed. I think they had gone so fast in that one mile from the harbour, that the helmsman hadn’t realised quite how far out they were.

They hit it extremely hard and the sailors used hooks to try to push the boat clear, but all they did is make it worse. And these sailors were the first casualties – they got washed away. The planks started to open up and once one opens, there’s no plan B: you’re open to the sea then.

And they were only a mile from land?

Interestingly, the people of Barfleur heard a big cry, but they just assumed that the party had gone up a notch on the ship and they went home, thinking nothing of it. So it was the middle of the night and nobody knew what had happened, even though the ship was only a mile away.

I try to bring in a little bit of modern science to work out what happened. First of all, I don’t think anyone could swim – very, very few people could swim at this time – but the real killer that night was the cold and there is a scientific thing called cold-water shock. If you are immersed in very cold water suddenly, you will gulp in water and your muscles become uncontrollable. Most of the people on board will have died very quickly, especially as they were wearing heavy clothes to counter the cold of a November night.

Were there lifeboats?

There was one lifeboat. There were bodyguards on board, and they bundled William the Ætheling into the one rowing boat and started to get him away. But there’s this moment that has always haunted anyone who knows the story, where William’s sister, Margaret of Perche (one of Henry’s illegitimate daughters), sees William escaping and starts screaming for him to come back. She insulted his manhood for leaving his sister to die. And William ordered his crew to turn the boat around to go and get her. But there were so many people thrashing around for their life in the water, and when they saw this rowing boat, they tried to clamber on board and the boat went down.

The prince went back to rescue his sister but the rowing boat was dragged under by people thrashing around in the water

There were just a handful of survivors at this stage. One of them is a fantastic figure, Berold the butcher, from Rouen, who was the humblest man on board, apart from the crew. He had scrambled onto a bit of broken mast with a man called de l’Aigle who came from an aristocratic fighting family. The captain of the ship swam to them and said: “Where’s the king’s son?” They told him the news, and the captain knew that Henry was not one to be trifled with, so he allowed himself to die because he didn’t want to be the one to explain what had happened to Henry’s three children who had died. He just let himself drift under and was never seen again.

So the ship went down, William the Ætheling went down, and Berold the butcher survived to tell the story, which is how we know the dramatic details. When did Henry find out that he’d lost his legitimate son, two of his illegitimate children, and, beyond that, his whole plan for the Anglo-Norman realm?

People quickly knew something had gone wrong with the White Ship because it was a clear night and there was no possible explanation except that it had sunk. Then the confirmation came when Berold was discovered the next morning by a fisherman. The news reached southern England within a day, but nobody wanted to tell Henry because, even on a good day, he was terrifying, and he loved his children.

All the courtiers had relatives or friends who they knew had drowned, but they tried to hide their sorrow from the king, so he didn’t ask them about it. Eventually, the courtiers persuaded a young boy to tell Henry what had happened. The boy went in, fell on the ground and spewed out this terrible news. And Henry bellowed and fell down on the ground in shock and despair.

He was completely devastated, went into denial and ordered the coast to be checked in case the White Ship was somewhere else. And when he realised that it was true and he’d lost all these people who were the cornerstone of his ambitions, he took to bed and didn’t eat for a very long time. This went on until one of his closest confidants told him that all this crying wasn’t going to bring William back and was just going to make his enemies stronger. Crying, he said, is for women, not for kings, and you’ve got to get on with it. And Henry did get up, and actually lived another 15 years.

Fifteen years seems ample opportunity for Henry to marry again – as he does, to Adeliza of Louvain – and produce another legitimate heir. But he doesn’t do that, so that leaves him with one legitimate child: Matilda. Can you tell us about her?

Matilda had a conventional life, up until this point. She was married off to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V in Germany and it was a huge moment for Henry I to have his daughter acknowledged as effectively the empress of central Europe. She was brought up in a different way of royal governance: when her husband was off fighting wars, she was left with real power. She was not just an adjunct to the king – she was a proper regent.

And then the emperor died of cancer, and Matilda went back to her father. She was now an incredibly eligible heiress and Henry used her for his dynastic purposes: he persuaded her to marry a much younger man, Geoffrey, who was the son of the Count of Anjou.

It was difficult for Matilda to swallow this. First of all, she was marrying a boy, while she was a woman. And secondly, she was being downgraded to a countess. But she did it for her father. Henry needed to disable the House of Anjou, because they’d been allied with France against him.

So instead of producing another heir, Henry decided to load the future of his realm onto his daughter. He forced the barons to swear homage to her. This is extraordinary, isn’t it? In a patriarchal age, what was a political wizard like Henry thinking in loading all this on to Matilda?

Henry was, in our parlance, as sexist as anyone and he did make a distinction. After about six years of not producing a child with his second wife, he announced to his lords that the White Ship had been a national catastrophe and had deprived him of his heir. But he would like them all to acknowledge Matilda as his successor. Being a successor was very different to being an heir. What Henry was asking was for people to be loyal to her, to recognise her as queen, but really, she was a stepping stone, dynastically. By the time Henry died, she had some sons – the eldest one called Henry – and the king was really trying to use her as somebody to pass on the baton to his grandson. But he couldn’t do that without having her made queen.

Henry was completely transfixed by the problem of his succession and it dominated his last 15 years. But when he died, he must have thought: “Well, I’ve dealt with that,” because the leading bishops, abbots and aristocracy, in England and Normandy, had sworn to recognise his wish and Matilda was going to become queen.

But it’s a staggering thing – and it says so much about the role of women in society at the time – that as soon as Henry died, few people bothered to even think about that. And Henry’s nephew, Stephen of Blois (who was one of those who had got off the White Ship in Barfleur), raced for the crown. He was a popular chap, a good warrior, and, crucially, male, and he snapped up the crown with all sorts of promises that he didn’t observe.

Stephen was okay for the first years of his reign, but then Matilda arrived in 1139 with an army and a proper civil war began. [That civil war, now known as the Anarchy, saw Stephen and Matilda vying for the English throne for 19 years. The conflict was effectively brought to an end by the Treaty of Wallingford (1153), which decreed that Stephen could retain the throne until his death on condition that the crown then passed to Matilda’s son, Henry.]

The upshot is that, against all odds, the long dead Henry I got his way, didn’t he?

Henry’s grandson became Henry II and so it all came good – but after utter chaos. The Anarchy was aptly named. It was a complete bloodbath. It was about as tumultuous a time as Britain’s ever suffered and it all stemmed from the sinking of one ship.

That’s why I maintain that this was the most disastrous moment in British maritime history. Yes, the Titanic is remarkable in its scale and the glamour of the people on board, but this was an entire royal family destroyed. It’s an extraordinary thing for one ship to bring such calamity to a nation.


ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Charles Spencer is an author and former journalist who has written bestselling history books, including Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I (Bloomsbury, 2014). His latest book is The White Ship (William Collins, 2020)

Dan Jones is a historian and broadcaster who has written numerous bestselling books of medieval history, most recently Crusaders: An Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands (Head of Zeus, 2019)

Listen to the full conversation below, or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts:

Advertisement

This article was first published in the December 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine