Until recently I had not heard of the White Ship Disaster. I was not aware that the White Ship was considered to be the Titanic of the 12th century.
William of Malmesbury, who was considered to be the foremost English historical of the 12th century said “No ship ever brought so much misery to England.” It is further said that the sinking of the White Ship had a colossal impact on English history and was a decisive point in the legacy of the Norman Kings.
How it happened
On 25 November 1120, King Henry I, the youngest son of William the Conqueror, and his heir, Prince William, were in Normandy. They had gone to France for the purpose of ensuring peace in the duchy of Normandy and, with this achieved, were ready to go home.
On their arrival at the port of Barfleur, a sailor, Thomas FitzStephen, captain of the White Ship, approached Henry and offered him his captaincy and the use of his ship. FitzStephen claimed to be the son of the captain who had been employed by William the Conqueror and taken him to England for the invasion of 1066. Henry had already made his own transport arrangements, so he accepted the offer for his son, William.
Henry set sail late in the afternoon, but William decided to stay on shore drinking and feasting with his friends. When he finally boarded the White Ship, he ordered that three barrels of red wine be given to the sailors so that they could drink his health. It is also said that when the priests came to bless the ship, as was the custom of the time, the Prince and his friends laughed and them and the sailors chased them away. Among the 300 people on the ship were many nobles of the Court as well as some of Henry’s illegitimate children, Richard and Matilda (called Marie).
The ship departed for England in the evening, with the oarsmen rowing full tilt. Barfleur port was notorious for rocks just beneath the surface of the water. The ship struck a submerged rock and capsized. It rapidly started to sink.
The Prince was nearly saved by the actions of his bodyguard who managed to secure a lifeboat and bundle the young man into it. It is said that Prince William heard the cries for help of his half sister Marie and asked the bodyguard to return for her. The lifeboat was swamped with people trying to save themselves and both the Prince and the bodyguard drowned.
Only one passenger from the ship survived, a butcher from Rouen called Berold. Berold got hold of a piece of floating debris and managed to hold onto it in the icy water for ten hours until he was rescued.
What happened next?
King Henry did not sire another legitimate son. He planned for his daughter, Empress Matilda, to be his heir. Upon the King’s death in 1135, however, the Norman’s decided that they did not want a woman on the throne and they offered it to the former King’s nephew, Stephen of Blois. The anger of some people at this action resulted in a period of time known as the Anarchy which initiated 14 years of civil war. The civil war only ended when the Treaty of Wallingford was signed in 1153. This document, signed by the de facto King Stephen, resulted in his relinquishing his own son as the heir to the throne in favour of the Empress Matilda’s son, Henry Plantaganet.