"delicate as they were, they became food for the monsters of the deep“ - The Sinking of the "White Ship" in 1120

25 November 1120 off Barfleur on the coast of Normandy, the “White Ship” ran onto a reef, drowning the English crown prince William Ætheling, four of his siblings and 300 others.

“When, therefore, it was now dark night, these imprudent youths, overwhelmed with liquor, launched the vessel from the shore. She flies swifter than the winged arrow, sweeping the rippling surface of the deep: but the carelessness of the intoxicated crew drove her on rock, which rose above the waves not far from shore ... delicate as they were, they became food for the  monsters of the deep“ (William of Malmesbury)

An illustration from an early 14th century chronicle, showing the sinking of the “White Ship” 

Crossing the English Channel in late autumn or even winter was never a pleasure. However, since William the Conqueror had broadened the territory ruled by the Normans to both sides of these waters, even royalty had to undertake the trip under these inclement circumstances every now and then. By the end of the 11th century, the ships used for that purpose had changed significantly from the longships used by William’s ancestors. While the vessels depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry still look like high-sided knarrs or drakars, adorned with the well-known prow beasts the Vikings famously used, a few decades later, a new type of ship began to assert itself in European waters, the so-called nef. The coat-of-arms of the historical Cinque Ports in Kent and Sussex shows their stylised versions as do depictions of crusader fleets, the Norman nef had a single mast with a first attempt of shrouds with ratlines, a characteristic castle on bow and stern and no oars, usually seaworthy enough, even for longer sea voyages, slow but with a high cargo capacity. Thus, In 1120, the Blanche Nef, the White Ship, was quite state-of-the art and with a length of more than 60’ big enough to house the group of 300 revellers in the port of Barfleur in Normandy, including the jeunesse dorée of Anglo-Norman aristocracy.

Joseph Martin Kronheim’s (1810–96) imagination of the disaster from “Pictures of English History“    

William Ætheling or Adelin, only legitimate son of Henry I, was born in 1103 and became Duke of Normandy 1115, he swore fealty to the King of France in Henry’s stead and his father had to fight a few skirmishes over the inheritance with Normandy’s neighbours, notably the King of France, but emerged victorious in the Battle of Brémule in 1119, married William to Matilda of Anjou to integrate the county into his continental alliance system and he and his court prepared to return to England in November 1120. William Ætheling and his friends must have had quite a farewell party in Barfleur, among them many sons and daughters of the Norman aristocracy. Confident that the Blanche Nef would overtake King Henry’s ship that left Barfleur early that day, the party continued until late in the night, the party-goers climbed on board, the crew joined in and the Blanche Nef put out to sea well after midnight, only to be steered on a rock by the drunken helmsman, two planks broke and the vessel quickly foundered. William could manage to climb on a boat, returned when he heard the cries of his dying half-sister Matilda, the boat was swamped quickly with other survivors and sank as well. The Blanche Nef’s captain, one Thomas FitzStephen, son of the captain of William the Conqueror’s flagship “Mora”, rather drowned than face the wrath of King Henry. Only one man escaped with his life, a butcher named Bérold. 

King Henry being devastated - image from a 14th century genealogy  

The finely dressed bodies of the drowned nobles were washed upon the shore for weeks afterwards and King Henry I was devastated. Besides the loss of his heir and four other of his 20 illegitimate children, Henry's dynastic and alliance plans were ruined. There was no legitimate successor left to the throne except his daughter Matilda. And until his death 15 years later from a surfeit of lampreys, no other heir was born. One man was prudent or sick enough to leave the Blanc Nef in that fateful night before she sailed, the king’s nephew Stephen of Blois, son of the Conqueror’s daughter Adela. He was crowned in 1135 but Matilda and her supporters contested his claim and plunged England and Normandy into a civil war, known as the Anarchy, lasting until Matilda’s son Henry Plantagenet was crowned as Henry II in 1154, the first of the Norman Angevin kings.

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