The White Ship

King Henry I
King Henry I

In 1120 King Henry I had occupied the throne of England for twenty years. In that time he had sired many sons and daughters, but only two were legitimate. His daughter Matilda was married to the German Emperor. His son, William Adelin (or athelin) was his heir. A year earlier William had married Count Fulk V of Anjou’s daughter.

In November of that year, King Henry was about to cross from Normandy to England from the port of Barfleur. When the winds were right a man named Thomas FitzStephen approached and offered the use of a new vessel, named The White Ship. King Henry already had a fine ship for his own crossing, but suggested his son travel in the new vessel. William went aboard with two of his half-siblings and some two hundred and fifty others, many young people.

Aboard their own vessel and far from the stern eye of King Henry, the young people began to partay! Wine was also supplied to the crew on William’s orders. The revelers demanded that the captain overtake the king’s ship, which had already set sail. The white ship didn’t leave until after dark. It did not clear the harbor before striking a submerged rock and sinking. William Adelin managed to get into a small boat and might have survived, but he turned back upon hearing his half-sister’s cried for help. The boat he was in was swamped by those trying to get in and save their own lives. William drowned with the rest.

The White Ship sinking
The White Ship sinking


According to Orderic Vitalis only two survived by clinging to the rock all night. It was also reported that when he learned the heir of England had not survived, Thomas FitzStephen allowed himself to drown. (I wonder who found the courage to tell King Henry.)

More than the three hundred or so souls aboard died because of the wreck of the White Ship. With the loss of his heir, Henry tried to force the barons of England to accept his daughter Matilda as their queen. They were willing to swear an oath to her while the old king lived, but once he had departed for the next world, they supported Stephen of Blois’ bid for the throne. So began the civil war known as The Anarchy that lasted for nineteen years and heralded the advent of the Plantagenet dynasty.

The historian, William of Malmsbury wrote: ‘No ship ever brought so much misery to England.’

Almost king – Eustace of Boulogne –

Born c. 1129, Eustace Count of Boulogne was the son of Stephen of Blois and Matilda of Boulogne. Upon the death of King Henry I, Stephen seized the throne and fought a long civil war against Matilda, the only legitimate heir of the old king. Eustace married Constance, sister of Louis VII, making him, for a brief time,  brother-by-marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Stephen of Blois
Stephen of Blois

He did little else in his life but fight and extort. He was not very popular. The Peterborough Chronicler tells us: He was an evil man and did more harm than good wherever he went.

In 1452, Stephen tried to persuade the barons to pay homage to Eustace as their future king, but the Archbishop of Canterbury and other bishops stated they would crown none but Henry of Anjou, eldest son of Matilda, The pope also supported the claim of Henry over Eustace.

Perhaps Eustace felt a grudge against the church, for the following year found him plundering the church of Bury St. Edmunds. Less than a month later he was struck down, as it was said, by the Hand of God.

After the loss of his heir, coming so soon after the death of his wife, (she had died the previous year) Stephen lost heart for the fight, and made an agreement with Henry of Anjou that he would remain king for his lifetime and Henry would succeed him.

It is likely the civil war would have continued as long as Eustace continued in life. His death grieved none but his father and opened the way for the far more capable Henry II to inherit the throne peacefully.

Eustace was buried at Faversham Abbey in Kent, alongside his parents. The tombs are now lost.

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