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Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The wreck of the White Ship, 1120




The background to the story

There are some interesting parallels between the wreck of the White Ship in 1120 and that of the Titanic in 1912. Granted, the two ships could hardly have been more different in terms of their size and means of propulsion, but the ways in which they were lost had some uncanny similarities. As far as the consequences of the two disasters were concerned, it could be argued that those of the 12th century tragedy were more far-reaching than those of the 20th century near-equivalent.

King Henry I of England was the youngest son of William the Conqueror, the Norman warlord who had added England to his domains in 1066. Henry came to the throne in 1100 on the death (by accident or design has never been proved) of his brother William, who is known to history by his nickname of Rufus.

Henry was 32 at the time of his accession. He lost no time in acquiring a queen, this being Edith (also known as Matilda) who was the daughter of King Malcolm of Scotland. Edith bore him two children, Matilda and William, although Henry also fathered many more children with various mistresses, both before and after his marriage.

William was therefore Henry’s heir and had been given the honorary title of “Aetheling” which was an Anglo-Saxon term that meant “throne worthy”. By November 1120 he was 17 years old, healthy and strong, and well placed to succeed his father when the time came.

Henry was both King of England and Duke of Normandy, having defeated his brother Robert who had held the latter title while William Rufus was King of England. This dual rule meant that Henry and his court made frequent trips across the English Channel in ships that were not unlike Viking longboats. These were powered both by oars and sail and carried a team of 50 oarsmen who would row the ship out of harbour until a good wind was found to fill the sail.

The unfolding of the tragedy

On the night of 25th November the royal party was preparing to sail from Barfleur in Normandy to England. Henry had his own ship, and had originally expected that his son William would join him on board. However, Henry was approached by a sea captain, named Thomas FitzStephen, who had just acquired a brand new vessel which he called the White Ship. He invited Henry to be the first voyager, thus giving FitzStephen the kudos of having had royal patronage on the ship’s maiden voyage, but Henry thought that this privilege might be something that young William would enjoy, so the two set sail on different ships.

William was joined on the White Ship by most of the “young set” of the royal court. These included a half-brother and half-sister, plus many courtiers and their attendants. The total complement of passengers and crew was around 300. There was evidently a party spirit on board, with plenty of wine being drunk before the ship set off.

Henry’s ship left first, and had cleared the harbour before the White Ship loosed its moorings, but William’s group then decided that they wanted to see what this new ship was capable of in terms of speed. They therefore challenged the captain to see if he could overtake the king’s ship. The oarsmen gave everything they could to speed the White Ship on its way.

Unfortunately, the wine had the effect of making the captain forget that a particularly nasty shipping hazard lay just outside the harbour mouth, namely a large rock that was submerged at high tide. The White Ship hit this rock at speed and capsized almost immediately, throwing all 300 people into the cold water.

The cries of the drowning people were mistaken for the shouts of merriment that had been heard up to this point, and the king’s ship continued on its way without anyone realising what had happened.

There was only one survivor of the tragedy, this being a local butcher who had gone on board to try to get a debt paid. He survived because he was wearing a thick coat that protected him against the freezing temperature of the sea.

The consequences of the tragedy

The loss of his only male heir hit Henry hard and he suffered from nightmares for the rest of his life. He tried to get the English barons to accept his daughter Matilda as his heir but the idea of a woman monarch was not something they could accept. When Henry died in 1135 the throne was seized by his nephew Stephen and civil war ensued as Matilda fought for her claim.

So – a maiden voyage, a night sinking after hitting an object at sea, the suggestion that the ship was being handled recklessly due to a quest for speed – the parallels between the White Ship and the Titanic are there for all to see. However, the loss of the Titanic did not lead to a civil war.


© John Welford