It is one of the greatest naval disasters in the history of these British Isles but one that few people have heard ever of. One seemingly small event on a foul day in November 1120 was to cause a crisis in the royal succession and lead to a civil war that was comparable in impact to its more famous successors in the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.
As the Chronicler, William of Malmesbury wrote: ‘No ship ever brought so much misery to England’.
So what happened? The king at the time – Henry I, fourth son of William the Conqueror – had been in Normandy to deal with a dispute over the title to the Duchy that had been raging with Louis VI of France since 1115. Peace had finally been achieved with the help of Pope Callixtus II and now Henry was preparing to sail back to England with his only son and heir, William Adelin.
(NB. Regular readers of this blog may recognise a similarity with the Saxon word Aetheling, meaning prince of the royal dynasty, as in Edgar Aetheling who was briefly acclaimed King by the Saxons after the death of Harold II at Hastings. Adelin is the Norman spelling of the word and an attempt to show continuity with the former Saxon rulers; a union of old and new, if you will.)
Henry and William arrived at the port of Barfleur where they were met by a ship’s captain, Thomas FitzStephen, who offered his newly refitted, state of the art vessel – the White Ship – to convey the king back to England. Thomas was a man of some renown as he was the son of Stephen FitzAirard who had captained the Mora in 1066; the ship that had carried Duke William to England to launch his invasion.
Despite these impressive credentials, King Henry demurred. He had already made his travel plans and no doubt he preferred his trusty old ship rather than any new-fangled, modern nonsense. Nonetheless, he did allow his son and his retinue (including two of the king’s illegitimate children: Robert of Lincoln and Matilda FitzRoy) to avail themselves of Thomas FitzStephen’s offer.
That is when the drinking started. William was 17 at the time and, like many teenagers suddenly free of the shackles of an overbearing father, he saw the opportunity for a party with his mates. The wine flowed in copious quantities and by the time the ship set sail that night, over 300 people were on board, most of whom would have been roaring drunk; including the ship’s captain.
Whether it was William himself or one of his friends that put him up to it is not known, but – full of drunken bravado – they ordered the captain to show them what the ship could do, challenging him to overtake his father (who had left port several hours earlier) and to reach England before him. No doubt William pictured himself standing smugly at the docks in Southampton or wherever, casually waving as his father eventually arrived, shouting “What took you so long?”
However, the harbour of Barfleur is difficult to navigate at the best of times but in the dark and with the crew several sheets to the wind, it was a recipe for disaster. In order to gain time on the rest of the royal fleet, they dispensed with following the safe route and instead went full pelt in the most direct route possible. Disaster struck not far out to sea, when the hull struck a submerged rock, ripping a huge gash in the timbers.
It would appear that not everyone was completely trousered, however, as members of William’s household did manage to bundle the prince into a small dinghy and get him away from the floundering ship. Everything might have been well were it not for the fact that William was said to have heard the cries of his half-sister who was still on the White Ship. William gallantly ordered the dinghy back to rescue her and it is ironic that such a noble action was to seal his fate. By now there were so many people in the freezing waters of the Channel that there was a mad scramble to reach the dinghy, the result of which was that the little boat was swamped. It capsized and sank without trace, taking the heir to the throne of England and Normandy with it. For months after, finely dressed bodies were washed up all along the shoreline, but no race was ever found of William Adelin.
So why did the loss of this one ship have such a huge impact? Well, never was the phrase ‘Heir and a spare’ more apt. Despite having numerous illegitimate children, William was Henry’s only surviving male heir. His only other legitimate offspring was his daughter, Mathilda (also sometimes known as Maud), and in these unenlightened times, no one was quite ready for England to be ruled by a woman.
The death of William therefore caused a succession crisis. Although Henry married again and was to reign for another 15 years, he did not produce any more legitimate children. On his death in 1135, therefore, England was plunged into a period of civil war – known as the Anarchy – that was not fully resolved until Mathilda’s son, Henry II, acceded in 1154 (him of Thomas a Becket fame).
Henry I did nominate his daughter as his successor and made his nobles swear an oath of allegiance to her but, with him gone, they weren’t inclined to make good on that vow. Mathilda, together with her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, tried to take the throne as planned but they were met with resistance from the Norman barons who, instead, favoured her cousin (and Henry I’s nephew), Stephen of Blois, who was to become King Stephen.
Mathilda did actually defeat and capture Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141 but her attempted coronation at Westminster Abbey collapsed in the face of bitter protests from the London crowds. Then, as now, there were those who would rather anyone other than a woman be in charge.
Thereafter an uneasy stalemate ensued with many twists and turns until a point was reached whereby the future Henry II acknowledged Stephen as the rightful king was in return was adopted as Stephen’s son and successor. Although Mathilda had failed to become Queen in her own right, she had at least managed to secure the succession for her son. A great grandson of William the Conqueror would carry on the line.