The White Ship: A Medieval Titanic

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As with many of the great events of the medieval period, the story of the White Ship starts in 1066, when William the Conqueror earned his epithet by defeating Harold Godwinson at Hastings and subduing England. In a chaotic ceremony on Christmas Day, William was crowned King and began a new, Norman ruling dynasty. 

As was true of many medieval families, the Normans practiced primogeniture, meaning that it was extremely unlikely that the youngest of William’s sons, Henry, would ever sit on the throne. Instead, William the Conqueror was succeeded by his namesake, William Rufus. England soon fell into disrepair and one chronicler of the time, Orderic Vitalis, commented of Rufus that he “was generous to knights and foreigners, but greatly oppressed the poor inhabitants of his kingdom and took from them by force the wealth that he lavished on strangers.” Rufus spent a considerable amount of time arguing with his and Henry’s older brother Robert Curthose (literally, “short legs”), the new Duke of Normandy.

Henry was not awarded any title or lands after his father’s death, but inherited £5000, a fortune in those days. He continued his education – he was, in the words of one historian, “probably better educated than any previous English king except Alfred” – and rose through the ranks of the Norman court. This period witnessed a bizarre series of family squabbles and intrigues. At one point Henry was allied with his brother Curthose, only for the latter to then throw his younger brother in prison. Then, when another rebellious faction emerged, Curthose aligned with Henry to suppress their mutual enemies. On one occasion, Henry captured a rebel ringleader, Conan, and, in act of characteristically decisive ruthlessness, personally hurled him from a castle rooftop.

Not long after this example of swift justice, Curthose and Rufus went after Henry together. Buckling under the combined strength of this alliance, Henry was bankrupted and unable to present serious opposition. He spent considerable time wandering northern France in a state of relative of poverty, but this was a time of character building that would prepare him for the rest of his life. Some historians suggest that this period “instilled in Henry an eagerness to help the poor and an understanding of the need to account for resources in a thoughtful manner.” Alliances remained ever flexible, however, and Henry’s wheel of fortune turned another half cycle. The brothers were reconciled and for the last five years of Rufus’ reign, Henry was on good terms with the King.

Rufus died in a mysterious and highly suspicious hunting related death in the New Forest in 1100. Robert Curthose was away fighting in the First Crusade and Rufus had sired no heirs. Henry sniffed an opportunity. The interregnum between the death of one king and the succession of another was the most unstable in the medieval world, and Henry seized the chance. As Charles Spencer wrote: “Henry’s successful capture of the throne had been achieved through many powerful figures quickly agreeing to swear allegiance to him because he represented an alternative to chaos.”

Recognising the extent to which his power relied on his supporters, Henry made overtures to the aristocrats and the Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm, was invited back from exile, while the degenerate bishop Ranulf Flambard was placed in the Tower of London. Widely despised for his cruelty, Flambard used to extract “huge sums from rich and poor alike” and so his arrest was something of a crowd pleaser. Henry was a serious reformer, creating the Exchequer (an institution which exists nine centuries later) and oversaw a cultural revival. He ruthlessly hounded criminals, and it was said that England was made so safe that a woman could walk through the country draped in gold and remain unmolested. Perhaps most significantly, Henry sought to prevent a repeat of previous dynastic squabbles by producing a clear heir. In 1103, the crown prince William Ætheling was born and for Henry, the present and future seemed secure. Then came the White Ship. 

For the medieval world, the ship was vast, with a total of fifty oarsmen. For context, the ship at Sutton Hoo, the largest medieval long-boat ever found, had twenty-six. Despite its name, the ship was not actually white, and was merely lighter than most other vessels of the day. Most other ships were made water tight by having pitch placed on the hull, meaning that they were literally pitch-black. In contrast, the White Ship was limewashed, giving it a distinctive white tinge.

Sea travel was a terrifying business, and shipwrecks were extremely commonplace. The waves made no distinction between nobles and commoners, and so men of high status lacked the security they almost universally enjoyed on land. Harold Godwinson had been washed ashore onto Normandy in 1064 when his ship had sunk, and William Rufus’ attempted invasion of Scotland in 1091 had met a watery end when almost his entire fleet slipped below the waves. One bard of the day wrote “this water must be greatly feared, for it is so horrible, lengthy and wide,” while the twelfth century Benoît de Sainte-Maure described the ocean by writing: “Sluggish was the sea, black and hideous, / Murky and ugly and dark.” Few people could swim in the 1100s, and so when a ship load of people started to tip into the freezing depths, mass hysteria usually set in. The last moments of many a mediaeval sailor’s life were filled with flailing, breathless screaming and a muffled, bubbly climax.  

It is therefore baffling that Henry would allow the one man on whom rested the preservation of all his achievements to sail across the English Channel in the bleak mid-winter. Henry, his son and their numerous acolytes were returning from a successful embassy to the King of France, Louis the Fat, in November 1120. Henry did not board the White Ship, but left from the Normandy harbour of Barfleur on 25 November. His treasure and his heir, however, were aboard the White Ship. In the medieval era, white was the colour of celebrations and so it seemed only natural for William Ætheling and his entourage to leave port brimming with alcohol-induced jollity that evening. 

The weather was mild for darkest winter, and so there was no good reason for the Captain and the helmsman not to have swerved the well-known obstacle just outside Barfleur, the Quillebeuf Rock, as Henry’s ship had done a few hours prior. Instead, it seems in a fit of drunken foolishness, the White Ship was trying to race its King to England. In its haste, the vessel thundered into the Quillebeuf Rock. Water streamed into the ship and the passengers were swallowed by the ice-cold water. Screams and cries from the dying echoed across to the shore, but the inhabitants of Barfleur mistook the shouts for the party’s crescendo. 

William Ætheling’s bodyguard bundled the Prince into the ships’ sole rowing boat and made for the shore. Had they continued, the fate of England would have been changed irrevocably, but William could not stomach his half-sister’s cries for help and ordered the boat be turned around. The craft was dragged down by the drowning masses, desperate for salvation. Only one man survived the icy waters, a butcher from Rouen named Berold. The people of Barfleur found the next day that an entire generation of aristocrats had been wiped out, and Henry had lost his heir. Poetically, although the King’s authority protected all his subjects on land, he could not spare his son from the sea. 

Henry’s advisors kept the news of the sinking from him for some time, fearing his reaction. When he eventually discovered, he was distraught. He knew that, without an heir, the stability he had worked so hard for, would be lost without a trace. His wife, Matilda, had died in 1118 and although he had another child, another Matilda, medieval England was not ready to be ruled by a queen. Henry wed Adeliza of Louvain in January 1121, but, despite proving highly adept at siring illegitimate children, he found it impossible to get his new wife pregnant. He died in 1135 without a clear heir. Just as Henry had feared, a civil war broke out. Henry had ordered all his nobles to swear that they would back Matilda for the throne after his death, but many reneged on their vow and backed Stephen, Henry’s nephew. A back and forth, on and off civil war known as ‘the Anarchy’ followed and dominated English politics for a generation. This struggle would end with the accession of Henry’s grandson, Henry II, who began the Plantagenet dynasty.  

Jones, D., 2012. The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England. Harper Collins

Spencer, C., 2020. The White Ship. William Collins