Henry Beauclerc, the youngest and last surviving son of William the Conqueror, served as King Henry I of England after the death of his older brother, William II, in 1100. Nineteen years into his reign, he and his only legitimate son, William the Atheling, celebrated a successful military campaign against Louis VI of France, and the marriage of the teenaged William to Matilda of Anjou, the daughter of a powerful French Count. They remained in Normandy for some time and, on November 25, 1020, Henry, William, and their respective entourages were prepared to return back to England.
Captain Thomas Fitz-Stephen, whose father personally piloted William the Conqueror across the English Channel during the invasion 54 years earlier, beseeched King Henry to allow him to ferry the royal retinue back to England upon his ship, called the Blanche Nef, or the White Ship, a fast, well-constructed, and recently refitted ship worthy of a monarch. Henry himself declined, having already made other arrangements for his travel home, but he instead accepted on behalf of his son William; the ship carrying the King therefore departed from the port city of Barfleur, Normandy, just before twilight on November 25, 2012. William, by then all of 17 years old, decided he wanted to stay in Barfleur and enjoy the festivities for a few hours longer and, in a bout of youthful indiscretion, further decided that he wanted the crew of the ship to enjoy the evening as well, and to that end he ordered that three barrels of wine be sent for them to drink as well.
The party continued as the ship departed. The prince's entourage included about 300 passengers, including 140 knights, and they all proceded to become seriously drunk; William's cousin, Stephen of Blois, was among those intended to be on the ship, but he declined at the last minute owing to a case of diarrhea. The crowd became increasingly rowdy as the ship departed for England in the dark of night. The drunken Prince called for the ship to overtake his father's vessel, and to that end, the crew rowed with reckless abandon while the festivities raged on. No one noticed the Catte-Raze, a submerged rock not far from the Norman coast, until the White Ship impaled itself upon it, punching a hole in the port side of the hull, and holding the ship fast.
Bedlam ensued. Crewmen, still drunk, raced to the gaping hole and attempted through torrents of seawater to extract the ship from the rock. Others rowed furiously backward, but still the vessel remained stuck. Many fell into the water in the chaos. A quick-thinking bodyguard rushed Prince William to a lifeboat, and put out to sea while the sea ultimately sundered the crippled ship and the White Ship began to break apart and sink. William was safely out to sea when he heard his illegitimate half-sister, Matilda of Peche, calling out to him by name and begging him not to abandon her. He commanded that his tiny skiff return to the wreckage to rescue her, and once it did, other passengers and crewmen, frantic and panicking as they floundered about in the water, swarmed and sank the Prince's craft.
In the end, only three men remained bobbing in the water. One was a butcher from Rouen named Berthould, who was only aboard in an attempt to collect a debt owed to him by some of the Prince's followers. As Berthould clung to the White Ship's mast, he caught the attention of Thomas Fitz-Stephen, the Captain, who wearily called out to him and asked the Prince's fate. Berthould, who had seen the events unfold, told Fitz-Stephen that the Prince had drowned, at which point the Captain lost all hope and let himself slip beneath the waves. A boy, Gilbert de Craigle, lasted for a while in the water, but when his strength failed and he too drowned, Berthould was the only one remaining. He climbed to the crow's nest and remained there, bobbing, until fishermen rescued him in the morning.
Besides William, numerous other members of the royal family perished aboard the White Ship: Matilda of Peche, the king's illegitimate daughter; Richard, his illegitimate son; Richard Earl of Chester, and his brother Outell, both nephews of the King; the countess of Chester, his niece; and most of the royal court. William's new wife was left a widow at the age of 12. For days, no one could bring themselves to tell him what became of his son and family, until Theobold de Blois conscripted a young, much-adored pageboy to break the news, at which point the King broke down, inconsolable. The loss of the only legitimate male heir also cast the nation into a dynastic crisis.
King Henry broke tradition and named his only remaining legitimate child, his daughter Matilda of Blois, as the heir to his kingdom. The English nobility, still chafing from dislike for the Norman dynasty, largely rejected the idea of being ruled by a woman. Ironically, it was Stephen de Blois, the King's nephew who missed the doomed trip due to his bout with diarrhea, who contested her appointment. When King Henry died in 1135, the forces of cousins Stephen and Matilda became embroiled in a civil war called the Anarchy, which lasted for 19 years. After Stephen's death in 1154, the crown passed, through mutual agreement, to Matilda's son, who became known as Henry II.
Links and sources:
"TheWreck of the White Ship", britannia.com, retrieved April 26, 2012.
Orderic Vitalis, Historia Ecclesiastica.
Strickland, Agnes, Lives of the Queens of England from the Norman Conquest, Lea and Blanchard, 1848.
William of Malmesbury, The History of the Kings of England, and Of His Own Times, Seeleys, 1854.