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.
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.’