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White Ship

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Subject: Empress Matilda, The Anarchy, November 25, Malcolm IV of Scotland, 1120s
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White Ship

The White Ship sinking

The White Ship (French: la Blanche-Nef) was a vessel that sank in the English Channel near the Normandy coast off Barfleur, on 25 November 1120. Only two of those aboard survived.[1] Those who drowned included William Adelin, the only surviving legitimate son and heir of King Henry I of England. William Adelin's death led to a succession crisis and a period of civil war in England known as the Anarchy.


The White Ship was a new vessel captained by Thomas FitzStephen, whose father Stephen FitzAirard had been captain of the ship Mora for William the Conqueror when he invaded England in 1066.[1] FitzStephen offered his ship to Henry I of England to use it to return to England from Barfleur in Normandy.[2] Henry had already made other arrangements, but allowed many in his retinue to take the White Ship, including his heir, William Adelin; his illegitimate son Richard of Lincoln; his illegitimate daughter Matilda FitzRoy, Countess of Perche; and many other nobles.[2] According to chronicler Orderic Vitalis, the crew asked William Adelin for wine and he supplied it to them in great abundance.[2] By the time the ship was ready to leave there were about 300 people on board although some had disembarked before the ship sailed due to the excessive drinking.[3]

The ship's captain, Thomas FitzStephen, was ordered by the revellers to overtake the king's ship which had already sailed.[3] The White Ship was fast, of the best construction and had recently been fitted with new materials which made the captain and crew confident they could reach England first.[4] But when it set off in the dark, its port side struck a submerged rock and the ship quickly capsized.[3] William Adelin had got into a small boat and could have escaped but turned back to try to rescue his half-sister, Matilda, when he heard her cries for help. His boat was swamped by others trying to save themselves, and William drowned along with them.[3] According to Orderic Vitalis only two survived by clinging to the rock all night; one was a butcher from Rouen, the second was Geoffrey de l'Aigle.[5] The chronicler further claimed that when Thomas FitzStephen came to the surface after the sinking and learned that William Adelin had not survived, he let himself drown rather than face the King.[6]

The cause of the shipwreck remains uncertain and various stories surround its loss. The most frequently aired version of events is that of a drinking binge by the crew and passengers. When seabound the captain became reckless and dared to try to overtake the King's ship once outside the harbour walls. It is also told that priests were not allowed on board to bless the ship in the customary manner.[2]


A direct result of William Adelin's death was the period known as the Anarchy. The White Ship disaster had left Henry I with only one legitimate child, a second daughter named Matilda. Although Henry I had forced his barons to swear an oath to support Matilda as his heir on several occasions, a woman had never ruled in England in her own right. Matilda was also unpopular because she was married to Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou, a traditional enemy of England's Norman nobles. Upon Henry's death in 1135, the English barons were reluctant to accept Matilda as queen Regnant.

One of Henry I's male relatives, Stephen of Blois, the king's nephew by his sister Adela, usurped Matilda as well as his older brothers William and Theobald to become king. Stephen had allegedly planned to travel on the White Ship but had disembarked just before it sailed;[2] Orderic Vitalis attributes this to a sudden bout of diarrhea.[2]

After Henry I's death, Matilda and her husband Geoffrey of Anjou, the founder of the Plantagenet dynasty, launched a long and devastating war against Stephen and his allies for control of the English throne. The Anarchy dragged from 1135 to 1153 with devastating effect, especially in southern England.

Contemporary historian William of Malmesbury wrote:

"Here also perished with William, Richard, another of the King's sons, whom a woman without rank had borne him, before his accession, a brave youth, and dear to his father from his obedience; Richard d'Avranches, second Earl of Chester, and his brother Otheur; Geoffrey Ridel; Walter of Everci; Geoffrey, archdeacon of Hereford; the Countess of Chester; the king's niece Lucia-Mahaut of Blois; and many others ... No ship ever brought so much misery to England."[7]

Historical fiction

  • The sinking of the White Ship is referenced in Ken Follett's novel The Pillars of the Earth (1989). The ship's sinking sets the stage for the entire background of the story, which is based on the subsequent civil war between Matilda (referred to as Maud in the novel) and Stephen. In Follett's novel, it is implied that the ship may have been sabotaged; this implication is seen in the TV adaptation, even going so far as to show William Adelin assassinated whilst on a lifeboat. This is a literary interpretation that goes beyond the facts that are known.
  • It is also described in detail by Sharon Kay Penman in the historical novel When Christ and His Saints Slept (1994).
  • The sinking of the White Ship is briefly referenced in Glenn Cooper's novel The Tenth Chamber (2010).
  • The White Ship also sets the stage for the novel Hiobs Brüder (de) (The Brothers of Job) by the German author Rebecca Gablé, which details the rise of Henry II of England, son of Empress Matilda.
  • The long conflict between Stephen and Matilda is important in the Brother Cadfael series. This 20-book set of mysteries, by Ellis Peters, has a 12th-century Benedictine monk as its protagonist. Depending on the book, the conflict is either very important or just serves as a backdrop to the plots. The sinking directly affects the outcome of the short story A Light on the Road to Woodstock.
  • In the GURPS role-playing game Infinite Worlds setting, the Infinity Patrol that travels between parallel universes is opposed by another world with parachronic travel, Centrum. The point of historical divergence on Centrum is the survival of the White Ship, where William Adelin survives and his descendents lead an Anglo-French Empire that conquers the world. That empire is later decimated by a nuclear attack on the palace in 1902, leading to civil war and worldwide collapse, which brings about the rise there of the socialist technocratic meritocracy Centrum.


  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "The White Ship: a ballad"; first published 1881 in his collected Ballads and Sonnets.[8]
  • Geoffrey Hill, "The White Ship". In his first book, For the Unfallen, 1959.
  • Felicia Hemans, "He Never Smiled Again", c. 1830 [9]


  1. ^ William of Malmesbury stated one rustic survived while Orderic Vitalis identified two survivors, a butcher and a Geoffrey, the son of Gilbert de l'Aigle. Compare: J.A. Guiles, William of Malmesbury's Chronicle of the Kings of England (London: George Bell and Sons, 1904), p. 456, and Ordericus Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy, Trans. Thomas Forester, Vol IV (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1856), p. 35.
  2. ^ William of Nangis wrote that the White Ship sank because all the men aboard were sodomites. See: ’’Chron.’’ in Rolls series, ed. W. Stubbs (London, 1879), vol. 2, under A.D. 1120. which reflects the medieval belief that sin caused pestilence and disaster. See also: Codex Justinian, nov. 141. Another theory is expounded by Victoria Chandler, "The Wreck of the White Ship", in The final argument : the imprint of violence on society in medieval and early modern Europe, edited by Donald J. Kagay and L.J. Andrew Villalon (1998). Her theory discusses the possibility of it being a mass murder.


  1. ^ Elisabeth M.C, van Houts, 'The Ship List of William the Conqueror', Anglo-Norman Studies X: Proceedings of the Battle Conference 1987, ed. R. Allen Brown (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1988), pp. 172-73
  2. ^ a b c d e Judith A. Green, Henry I: King of England and Duke of Normandy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 165
  3. ^ a b c d William M. Aird, Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy c. 1050–1134 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2008), p. 269
  4. ^ J.A. Guiles, William of Malmesbury's Chronicle of the Kings of England (London: George Bell and Sons, 1904), p. 455
  5. ^ Ordericus Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy, Trans. Thomas Forester, Vol IV (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1856), p. 35
  6. ^ Ordericus Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy, Trans. Thomas Forester, Vol IV (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1856), p. 36
  7. ^ J.A. Guiles, William of Malmesbury's Chronicle of the Kings of England" (London: George Bell and Sons, 1904), p. 456
  8. ^ """Dante Gabriel Rossetti: "The White Ship: a ballad. Retrieved 2013-06-30. 
  9. ^ "The Poetical Works of Mrs. Hemans : electronic version.". University of California, British Women Romantic Poets Project. Retrieved 2014-05-31. 

External links

  • The Wreck of the White Ship on

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