The sinking of the White Ship shaped not just a country but in some ways the world but due to its distant setting and the repercussions it caused, it’s largely unknown amongst the general public. Surprisingly though, we know quite a lot about what happened back on the 25th November 1120.
We know from contemporaneous accounts that the ship was white, or at least very light in colour. Perhaps she was lime-washed, rather than actually painted white. At that time, many boats were treated with dark pitch to make them watertight and so a lime-washed boat would have seemed especially bright. We also know that she was huge for the era. The Sutton Hoo ship which is the largest ancient longboat ever found in England only 26 oarsmen; the White Ship had 50… truly massive by comparison.
The White Ship was the fastest vessel of her day, captained by a man called FitzStephen. He had begged King Henry I to honour him with his presence on a trip across the Channel, from Barfleur in Normandy to Southampton. But the King made the fateful decision not to board, to the great frustration of Captain FitzStephen. Instead, Henry proposed that his son and his entourage might enjoy the journey in his place. It was a choice that would change the history of England for ever.
The young Prince William was still a teenager and surrounded by hangers got incredibly drunk. In fact, he was so drunk that he was persuaded that it would be a good idea to have the crew join him in their merriment. In fact they were so drunk that when some priests came to bless their voyage, they were jeered and chased off.
With her crew intoxicated, the White Ship was out of control from the moment she cast off from Barfleur. The oarsmen decided to go as fast as they could in an effort to overtake King Henry’s vessel, which had set off several hours earlier which would have been a crazy thought to anyone sober.
Both the Captain and helmsman both made major mistakes. The mainsail was dropped too soon, and the helmsman miscalculated the whereabouts of the hulking mass of the Quillebeuf Rock that lurked beneath the waves of Barfleur harbour. The White Ship struck the rock, and the Prince and all of his companions tumbled into the freezing water, ultimately dying of shock, hypothermia and drowning. The ghostly wail of the doomed passengers could be heard on the nearby French shore, where it was mistaken for the sound of rowdy revellers.
There is a bit of a twist in this typically medieval tragic-comedy with Prince William might actually having been able to survive. When the vessel first began to take on water, he was placed in a small boat rowed by his bodyguards. However, when he heard his half-sister Matilda, Countess of Perche, screaming for him to save her, William ordered the boat to turn around. This decision was as disastrous as it was compassionate: the boat was hauled beneath the waves by the weight of drowning courtiers attempting to clamber aboard.
The sole survivor of the disaster, clinging to wreckage, was a butcher from Rouen – a man called Berold and it is from him that we owe our detailed knowledge of the story. He had gone on board to collect money owed by passengers, avoided getting drunk, and so became the lone witness to one of the most momentous events of his age.
When Henry I was informed of the catastrophic loss of his children, and of many of greatest subjects, he collapsed, screaming. They say he never smiled again, during the remaining 15 years of his life. Whether or not he ever produced another smile, he certainly never produced another heir. The result of the shipwreck was civil war as a nephew of Henry I, Stephen of Blois excused himself from the ship shortly before it set sail, it is thought suffering from sickness and diarrhoea by having drunk far too much!
No one saw it at the time, but it was a seismic turning point, perhaps among the most decisive in English history. The young royal house of Normandy went into the waves along with William, and England set sail on a different course, soon descending into a civil war that ravaged the country for two decades as the weak and ineffective King Stephen manoeuvred himself onto the throne which the formidable Matilda battled for in long drawn out period known as the Anarchy. Things became so bleak that one monk lamented in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that “Christ and his saints slept”.
Most obviously, if the White Ship had made it safely across the Channel, a lot of England’s history would never have happened or would at least have occurred differently. Thomas Becket would not have been martyred and become one of the most venerated saints in Christendom. There may have been no Magna Carta, as John would not have had all the lands in France to lose, and Richard III would not have murdered the uncrowned child king and his brother in the Tower. The obscure Henry Tudor would never have taken the crown at Bosworth. And no-one would have heard of the ruthless, scholarly Henry VIII or the chaos of his marriage bed. Indeed, there may have been no break from Rome. King James VI would never have ridden down from Scotland, and his son Charles I would not have been beheaded for England to briefly become a republic.
But the wreck also heralded a more profound change in England’s political culture. In the century before the catastrophe of the White Ship, the country had seen a carousel of Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian and Norman rulers, with stability only emerging after 1066. Had the captain of the White Ship been less drunk, England’s history may have been that of a cross-Channel empire centred on Normandy.
Instead, the arrival of the Plantagenet chancers under Matilda’s son Henry II brought a grander vision, via their control of Anjou and Acquitaine, and they eventually saw themselves as rulers of England and France. Although England lost, the Hundred Years War was a crucible that defined the country as separate from France, with the old language of the Anglo-Saxons becoming its defining expression.
If the Ætheling had lived, the subtle progression of events that saw medieval Britain turn into Early Modern Britain would have been guided by very different hands. With no Tudors or Stuarts, perhaps even the settlements in the 13 colonies of what became the United States would not have happened as they did. The Anglosphere empire itself may never have emerged.
In the last year or two a series of expeditions has been run to track down the stricken White Ship. Almost within minutes, divers believed to have found the remains, helped largely by the fact that the rock it struck hasn’t really moved at all in the last 900 years! Further dives are planned to verify the discovery with the hopes that some objects will be retrieved for display.