Drinking and Sailing Lead to Succession Crisis

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A Brief History

On November 25, 1120, a ship sailing from Normandy, France, to England, hit a rock and capsized, quickly sinking and taking everyone aboard, save one, to their deaths.  Aboard the White Ship was the heir to the English throne, William Adelin, the only legitimate son of King Henry I.  The loss of William (also called William Ætheling) created chaos over the succession to the English throne, initiating a period known as “The Anarchy.”  While non-British people today may not be familiar with the sad tale of the White Ship, this particular wreck was a Big Deal back in the Middle Ages.

Digging Deeper

Back in 1066, William the Conqueror invaded England from Normandy, successfully defeating the English and creating a new dynasty of monarchs over England, ones of Norse descent that had previously conquered and settled the Normandy region of Northern France.  William I (The Conqueror) became King of England and established the House of Normandy.  William I was succeeded by William II in 1087, who in turn was succeeded by Henry I (also known as Henry Beauclerc) in 1100.

In 1120, Henry I and his retinue had traveled to Normandy and were about to embark on the short voyage across the English Channel to return to England.  Thomas FitzStephen (French name Thomas filz Estienne) had captained the ship that sailed William I across the channel in 1066, and was now the proud skipper of the White Ship, a refitted ship offered for use to Henry I.  Henry had already made plans to sail on a different ship, but sent many of his retinue to sail on the sleek and particularly seaworthy White Ship.  About 300 of these Norman/English nobles and servants boarded the White Ship and began a period of drinking and revelry.  Some became so drunk they actually disembarked the ship prior to its sailing.  When the White Ship left port on November 25, 1120, the Captain was eager to overtake and pass the ship carrying King Henry I, what should have been an easy feat for the streamlined and fast White Ship.  Setting off in the dark and in a hurry to catch up to the other ship, the White Ship almost immediately struck a rock (the offending submerged rock actually had a name, Quillebœuf) with its port side, causing the ship to become holed and quickly turn turtle, and then sink.  The darkness, the capsizing, and the quickness of the event led to everyone aboard drowning except Berold, a butcher from Rouen who clung to a rock overnight until rescued the next day.

The story of the sinking (how anyone would know this, we do not know), includes heroism by William Adelin, who had reportedly gotten into a small boat and could have survived, but he went back to the wreck to rescue his sister.  The small boat was pulled under by flailing victims in the sea trying to pull themselves aboard, which ended up drowning them all, including the heir to the throne.  Another tale that allegedly occurred is that of the Captain of the White Ship, Thomas FitzStephen, surfacing safely, but allowing himself to drown instead of facing the King when he found out the heir had died.  The exact casualty count is unknown, but estimated to be around 250 people, including the helmsman who was supposedly drunk at the time of the wreck.  An urban myth about the wreck was that the ship was doomed because it sailed without a priest aboard, but in fact the passengers did include a Bishop and an Archdeacon.

Almost as soon as the loss of the heir to the throne was announced, a crisis developed over the succession to the throne, even though Henry I lived all the way until 1135.  (His death was reportedly due to illness caused by eating “a surfeit of lampreys.”  Did people really eat those nasty things???)

After 15 years of squabbling and even fighting over the upcoming succession, when Henry I finally died in 1135 he was succeeded by King Stephen of Blois (reign 1135-1154) who had the unlucky experience of presiding over The Anarchy, a civil war against another claimant to the throne, Empress Matilda, daughter of and designated heir to Henry I.  The Anarchy lasted all the way until 1153, almost to the death of Stephen.  During this aptly named era, not only did English/Norman nobles fight amongst themselves, they also had to contend with invaders from Scotland and Wales.  The Anarchy finally ended with a treaty agreed upon, the Treaty of Wallingford (aka, The Treaty of Winchester), that kept Stephen on the throne until his death, with Henry II, the son of Matilda, named as successor.  The accession to the throne by King Henry II (sometimes called Henry Plantagenet) in 1154 started the House of Anjou.

Royal succession is a topic that strikes those of the anti-monarchist fold as ridiculous.  How can monarchs claim Divine support when murder, war and intrigue are required to place them on a throne or keep them there?  In fact, even the White Ship incident is not immune to conspiracy theories that the ship was intentionally sunk!

(Note: The author was unable to find any dimensions listed for the White Ship, nor was he able to find when and where it was built.  If you know these facts, please share them with us.)

Question for students (and subscribers): Can you name another monarch or heir to a throne that went down with a ship?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Cole, Teresa. The Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England. Amberley Publishing, 2019.

Peers, Chris. King Stephen and The Anarchy: Civil War and Military Tactics in Twelfth-Century Britain. Pen and Sword Military, 2018.

Salaman, Nicholas. The White Ship. Accent Press, 2016.

The featured image in this article, “Shipwreck of Prince William-Son of Henry I”  in Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, Volume 1, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.  This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1924.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.