By Peter Konieczny
It was perhaps the worst maritime disaster of the Middle Ages, not just because it cost 300 lives, but because one of them was the heir to the Anglo-Norman Empire. One scholar has a theory that the sinking of the White Ship on the night of November 25, 1120 was not a tragic accident, rather a case of mass murder.
In the year 1120, King Henry I was at the peak of his power. He had taken control of both England and Normandy having defeated and imprisoned his brother Robert Curthose, and crushed several rebellious barons. He had also succeeded in convincing the French king to acknowledge that his son, William the Atheling, would succeed him as Duke of Normandy.
King Henry had at least a dozen children, but only two were with his wife Matilda of Scotland, a daughter also named Matilda and a son named William. The rest of his children were born to his mistresses, although Henry treated his illegitimate sons and daughters very well and gave them important positions in his government. William, as his only legitimate son, stood to inherit his kingdom. With the recent agreement between Henry and the French king, and the marriage of William with the eldest daughter of Count Fulk V of Anjou a year earlier, it now seemed that his son would face no obstacles in inheriting the Anglo-Norman empire.
In November of 1120, King Henry and his party (including his son) were preparing to sail from Normandy to England. Henry had often crossed the English Channel although such a trip was not always easy or safe (see William the Conqueror and the Channel Crossing of 1066). A fleet was assembled at the Norman port of Barfleur and on November 25th the winds became right to make the trip. It was then that a man named Thomas FitzStephen approached the King, saying to him, “I have a vessel which is aptly called the White Ship, excellently fitted out and ready for the royal service.”
He added that his grandfather Airard had served Henry’s father, William I, in carrying the Norman Duke across the Channel when he invaded England back in 1066. Now, Thomas wanted to gain similar accolades with his newly built ship.
Henry replied, “Your request meets my approval. I have indeed chosen a fine ship for myself and will not change it; but I entrust to you my sons William and Richard, whom I love as my own life, and many nobles of my realm.”
As the King set sail, his son William and others began to board the White Ship – it seems that many young noble men and women took this opportunity to travel without the stern gaze of Henry. Among those who got on the ship were two of William’s half-siblings – Richard and Matilda. One report suggests that close to 300 people were on board, including fifty crew who manned the oars.
Soon wine was being handed out freely, with the passengers and crew indulging themselves. At this point, a few people decided to get off the boat, as, according to the chronicler Orderic Vitalis, “they realized that there was too great a crowd of wild and headstrong young men on board.” This included Stephen of Blois, who said he was too sick from diarrhoea to make the trip.
Orderic Vitalis notes that “priests came there with other ministers carrying holy water to bless them, they laughed and drove them away with abuse and guffaws.” Instead, William and the other passengers called upon the ship’s captain, Thomas, to depart and see if the ship was fast enough to catch up with the King’s boat.
It was now just before midnight. Orderic explains what happens next:
At length he gave the signal to put to sea. Then the rowers made haste to take up their oars and, in high spirits because they knew nothing of what lay ahead, put the rest of the equipment ready and made the ship lean forward and race through the sea. As the drunken oarsmen were rowing with all their might, and the luckless helmsman paid scant attention to steering the ship though he sea, the port side of the White Ship struck violently against a huge rock, which was uncovered each day as the tide ebbed and covered once more at high tide. Two planks were shattered and, terrible to relate, the ship capsized without warning. Everyone cried out at once in their great peril, but the water pouring into the boat soon drowned their cries and all alike perished.
The scene must have been horrific. Hundreds of people had been thrown into the water, and very few of them would know how to swim. Although the waters were reportedly calm, it would have been a very dark night (the moon was less than a quarter full on that date). People on the shore and even in Henry’s own boat could hear the sounds of people screaming, but they did not where it was coming from.
According to one report William the Atheling was able to climb aboard a small boat and almost got away, but when he heard his half-sister Matilda crying out for help he ordered the ship to go back. As the desperate people clambered to get on board, the small ship was swamped and sank.
As the dying screams subsided, there was two people left hanging onto the mast of the White Ship – a young noble named Geoffrey of Laigle and a butcher from Rouen named Berold. Thomas, the ship’s captain, came to the surface, and said to the pair, “The king’s son – what has become of him?” When they told the captain of the prince’s fate, Thomas replied, “It is vain for me to go on living” before slipping back into the sea.
During the night the young Geoffrey could not hang on any longer. He went into the water, leaving only Berold alive. In the morning rescue arrived when local fishermen came onto the scene. For years afterwards the butcher would tell the story of how he was the only survivor of the White Ship disaster.
Over the next few days a few bodies found there way ashore, but William the Atheling was never found. Back in England, rumours spread of the disaster, but no one wanted to tell the King. Finally, a young boy was sent to Henry and revealed what had happened. The King was overcome and wept for his children and followers who had died.
Many chroniclers would explain the sinking of the White Ship was an accident, caused by the drunkenness of the passengers and crew – it was just God’s will for the sinful behaviour of those aboard. However, one scholar has a different theory. Victoria Chandler, who taught at Georgia College until her death in 1999, wrote the article “The Wreck of the White Ship: A Mass Murder Revealed?” in which she suggests that it was possible that someone deliberately steered the boat into the rocks outside of Harfleur. She examines who had the motive for committing the act and finds some interesting evidence.
One obvious suspect would be Stephen of Blois, partly because he left the ship just before it launched, and partly because eventually he would be the one to get the most benefit from the tragedy. King Henry I would have no future legitimate male heir. When he died in 1135 his daughter Matilda was supposed to become the next ruler, but Stephen managed to get the support from the Anglo-Norman nobles and become King. However, Chandler dismisses this motive, as even with the death of William the Atheling it would have been very unlikely that Stephen would have a claim to the throne, and that King Henry, who was a prolific father, had still many years to have more children.
Instead, Chandler finds that another man stood to make great gains from the disaster: Ranulf Meschin. He was a nephew of the Richard, Earl of Chester, one of the most important nobles in the Anglo-Norman realm. Earl Richard was aboard the White Ship, as well as several other family members. If they would all die, Ranulf Meschin would be able to claim this inheritance.
Ranulf was on board King Henry’s ship when it left Harfluer. Chandler writes:
Ranulf would have needed a co-conspirator on the shore and he had a good one. Among those who, like Stephen [of Blois], disembarked before the ship sailed, was William of Roumare, son of Roger fitz Gerald and Lucy of Bolingbroke. After his father died during William’s childhood, his mother had married as her third husband – Ranulf Meschin. Perhaps William and his stepfather saw which passengers were boarding which ships that November day and realized they had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a chance to acquire the earldom of Chester and, as a bonus, to confuse the royal succession, creating a situation for the future in which the holder of such a massive lordship could be a kingmaker.
However, a third person was needed – “an agent on board who could have arranged for the rowers to be drunk and easily misdirected. The identity of this accomplice is provided, with extreme subtlety, by the chronicler Orderic Vitalis. Among those on his list of victims was William of Pirou [a royal steward], who was in fact alive until at least 1123. How could have Orderic have made such a mistake? Or was it a mistake? Could he have been trying to draw his readers’ attention to Pirou? Was Pirou on board the ship when it set sail and found a way to leave it without direction?”
We know that William of Pirou was alive because he appeared as a royal witness to a document on January 7, 1121, a document also signed by Ranulf Meschin. Two years later, Pirou is noted as leaving Portsmouth for Normandy – his name disappears from history afterwards.
Chandler concludes: “How wonderfully convenient it is that the twelfth century has provided us with the very model of the modern murder mystery, even down to the final conclusion that the butler did it. Actually it was the steward, but there is no need to quibble. Probably the most intriguing aspect of the study is that, with the exception of a couple of points of conjecture and interpretation, the whole story is true.”
Chandler, Victoria, “The Wreck of the White Ship: A Mass Murder Revealed?”, The Final argument. The imprint of violence on society in medieval and early modern Europe, eds. Kagay, Donald J., and Villalon, L. J. Andrew (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1998)
Green, Judith A., Henry I: King of England and Duke of Normandy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
Vitalis, Orderic, The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, ed. Chibnall, M. (Oxford, 1969-80)