The White Ship Disaster

By James Turner

Family was of the utmost importance in shaping the identity, political affinity and horizons of twelfth century aristocrats. This was no less true for royals with the Norman and Angevin kings of England finding both their greatest supporters and ardent foes emerging from the ranks of their own family throughout the 12th century. This series looks at the lives and relationships of a category of people who due to the circumstances of their birth sat on the periphery of this vast and interconnected dynastic systems – the royal bastards.

The sinking of the White Ship in 1120 had far reaching repercussions for the Anglo-Norman hegemony, sparking a succession crisis and sowing the seeds of three decades of dynastic strife between the Conqueror’s grandchildren.


The disaster which naturally provoked much commentary from contemporary chronicles also illuminates the extent to which King Henry I’s numerous illegitimate children where interwoven into the fabric of the Anglo-Norman court. In late November of 1120 the Anglo-Norman royal court was in the process of crossing from Normandy to England via the port of Barfleur, a relatively routine but logistically tiresome task. During this transference, a day after the king embarked for England, the ship carrying his heir, William Aetheling was sunk after striking a rock shortly after leaving harbour.

Orderic Vitalis suggest the disaster was the natural result of the liberal and inadvisable distribution of wine to the ship’s crew although the ever-dour Henry of Huntingdon in his own account blames the disaster upon the illicit sexual behaviour of the court’s servants. The ships sinking led to the death of the Aetheling, as well as almost everyone else on board including much of the crème of the Anglo-Norman aristocratic youth. The only survivor of the shipwreck was a cook who managed to survive Titanic style by clinging onto a portion of the wreckage.

King Henry I and the White Ship – British Library MS Royal 20 A. ii, f. 6v.

The Aetheling

William Aetheling, as his father’s sole legitimate son had grown up in the firm expectation of inheriting the Crown. The term Aetheling was an Anglo-Saxon derived title meaning crown prince, fitting as William was through his mother Matilda of Scotland, a descendant of the royal house of Wessex and a great grandson of the formidable Edmund Ironsides.


Henry of Huntingdon describes the Aetheling, who he had met in person, as a supremely confident and splendid figure in magnificent attire who despite his lack of personal territories or access to substantial independent means, nevertheless featured as a central figure within the court. Henry of Huntingdon would be well informed in this matter, given that he had grown up in the household of Robert Bloet, Bishop of Lincoln who as a former royal clerk of William the Conqueror and member of the inner circles of both William Rufus and Henry I and was thus intimately connected to the Anglo Norman court. Of course, much of this praise may have been inflated by the chronicler to induce a rhetorical effect as it arrives in a section in which Henry is musing about the wheel of fortune and the danger of hubris. The archdeacon adding with benefit of hindsight that he had always believed William was a prince, so pampered, it was inevitable that he become, ‘food for the fire’.

Given the itinerant nature of the Anglo-Norman court which migrated almost constantly between various royal centres and localities within the Anglo-Norman realm, both as a means of more effectively disseminating its authority and to alleviate the considerable burden of sustaining itself in one area, its aristocratic membership was fluidic changing constantly as members came to create, reaffirm or mobilize connections within their networks of power and authority.

Within this rotating often overlapping royal sphere, the young emerging generation of the Anglo-Norman nobility formed a distinct sub-stratum which naturally crystallised around William Aetheling whose friendship it can easily be imagined would reap a huge amount of political utility and patronage upon his assumption of the throne. William of Malmesbury neatly explains the ambitions and demographic of the Prince’s retinue when he describes the White Ship as holding not only the elite of the court’s knights and chaplains but also the nobles’ sons who had flocked to join the prince, “expecting no small gain in reputation if they could show the King’s son some sport or do him some service.”


The White Ship then, at the time of its sinking, contained a large number of the upper echelon of Anglo-Norman aristocratic youth who had formed their own lively and distinctive group within both the royal court and the Anglo-Norman hegemony as a whole. Indeed, Orderic recounts that several members of the court seeking passage to England, such as a delegation of monks as well as the nobles Rabel de Tancarville and Willam de Roumare, decided not to embark upon the ship putt off by the overcrowding and the exuberant drinking of this youthful clique. Included amongst the young princes entourage were members of the upper tiers of Anglo-Norman society such as Earl Richard of Chester, his wife Louise, the King’s niece, the Prince’s tutor, the Archdeacon of Hereford, Gilbert Viscount of Exmes.

Detail of the wreck of the White Ship, British Library MS Cotton Claudius D. ii, f. 45v.

Matilda the Countess of Perche and Richard of Lincoln

Included seemingly naturally amongst these court luminaries were two of the Aetheling’s illegitimate half siblings, Matilda the Countess of Perche and Richard of Lincoln. That these royal bastards accompanied their legitimate brother while following their father’s court and were accepted members of not only the wider sub-strata of Anglo-Norman aristocratic youth but the princes inner circle is a strong indicator of the existence and vibrancy of a shared sense of family identity and of a personal affinity between William Aetheling and at least some of his illegitimate family members.

The existence of this sense of family loyalty and the recognition of a mutual stake within a shared dynastic enterprise is particularly interesting in the case of Matilda. Either as a result of some deepest fascination on the part of King Henry or simply a lack of royal creatively and its already established ubiquity within the Anglo-Norman world Matilda shared her name with, her paternal grandmother, her royal stepmother and most confusingly of all more than one sister. While the identity and circumstances of Matilda’s mother remain shrouded as are the details of her upbringing and early life, probably amongst the eldest of Henry’s stable of illegitimate children she was evidently born some time prior to his accession to the throne.


Matilda first emerged onto the political stage in 1107 when her royal father arranged her marriage to the celebrated crusader Rotrou, Count of Perche.  The county of Perche which held an important strategic role in securing Normandy’s border with the Il-de France and neighbouring polities had while nominally independent fallen under the shadow of Norman power. Indeed because of this Count Rotrou was amongst Henry’s first and most prominent supporters in his internecine conflict with his elder brother Duke Robert of Normandy. In contrast to King Alexander of Scotland the husband of Sybil, another illegitimate daughter of Henry I, for whom the hazy and ill-defined concept of Norman over-lordship posed substantial complexities signified and secured as it was through the creation of a family affinity through marriage the fortunes of Matilda’s husband were already entwined with the defence her father’s military and political interests.

That Countess Matilda remained a presence within the Anglo-Norman court and that she seemingly maintained a close bond with her royal family members more than a decade after her marriage and installation as the Countess of Perche suggests both a strong continuity of affinity and conception of familial identity even after the adoption of new signifiers of identity and interests which medieval aristocratic marriage entailed. The retention of connections to her paternal family may have been a result of the domineering presence of her mother-in-law, Beatrix de Ramerupt which may have hampered her assimilation and adoption of a new role. Indeed, Beatrix continued to be referred to in charters as the Countess of Perche, occasionally even assuming precedence over Matilda within those charters issued by her son.

However, it is just as possible that rather than seeking solace with her family that Matildas affinity was encouraged by her husband, who appears to have left Normandy infrequently and who had strong ties to the Reconquista movement in Spain, as a means of representing and protecting his interests within the Anglo-Norman court.

The account of the White Ship disaster and Matilda’s death presented within the Gesta Regum Anglorum, whose author William of Malmesbury may well have known the Countess who held lands nearby Malmesbury Abbey, provides another powerful example of familial affinity between Anglo-Norman royal bastards and their legitimate family members.  According to William, the Aetheling initially avoided the disaster by escaping on a boat but upon hearing the screams and pleas of his half-sister returned to the wreckage in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue her.


The nature of the disaster with its singular witness means that the account of William Atheling’s rescue attempt is almost certainly an invention of William of Malmesbury’s.  Although written a mere five years after the tragedy, it must have been one which would appear plausible and even to an extent gratifying to its recipients. That William of Malmesbury expected his readers and patrons to accept that the Aetheling’s death trying to save his sister was a noble act and that the Prince’s dedication to his half-sister was clearly not seen as strange to their contemporaries, suggests that she was a recognised and accepted member of the royal family with considerable and well known ties of affinity to her legitimate royal family members.

The second illegitimate child of Henry I onboard the White Ship was Richard of Lincoln, who William of Malmesbury’s account depicts as an active participant within the wider familial identity, describing him as a ‘high spirited youth whose devotion had earned his father’s love. Richard, who was born sometime around 1110 was in a situation similar to that of Henry of Huntingdon, placed by his father to be raised within the household of Bishop Robert of Lincoln, one of the Anglo-Norman realms pre-eminent secular bishops, an environment which provided him with both an excellent education and almost peerless access to the royal court.  Such a careful upbringing which mirrored that of his elder brother, Robert of Caen, suggests that Henry envisaged an active role for Richard in supporting the family’s dynastic enterprise and interests, a perquisite of which was inclusion within such an identity and an affinity with its legitimate members.

Despite his relative youth at the time of his death, Richard had already accompanied his father on a number of military campaigns including Henry’s campaign of 1119 against Louis VI which aimed to extricate Normandy from its theoretical status as a French vassal.  Richard evidently played an active role in the fighting, Orderic Vitalis stating that the royal bastard only narrowly avoided being taken captive by the enemy because of the intervention of another of the victims of the White Ship disaster, Ralph the Red.

Richard’s participation in his father’s campaigns displays the mobilisation of a sense of familial identity and affinity with his father while also demonstrating his acceptance as a member of this family by both Henry and the wider Anglo-Norman aristocratic community.  Indeed, Ralph the Red, a vassal of the Viscount of Bereutil may have been accompanying Richard during the campaign as a result of the King’s intentions to wed his illegitimate son to Amicia of Gael (d.1168), the daughter of Ralph Gael who had succeeded to the lordship of Bereutil after it was stripped from Richard’s brother-in-law, Eustace de Pacy. Amicia was her father’s only child and upon his death, her husband would inherit not only Bereutil but considerable estates elsewhere in eastern Normandy as well as in Britany.  While Richard died before the marriage occurred it is notable that Henry was willing to invest his illegitimate son with such temporal power and responsibility, suggesting the existence of considerable ties of affinity and trust between father and son.

Robert, Earl of Gloucester, with his wife Mabel FitzHamon in a 16th century drawing. Bodleian Library Manuscript / Wikimedia Commons

Robert of Gloucester

The acceptance of Richard and Matilda on the White Ship as members of the exclusive entourage of their legitimate half-brother as well as their careers and active engagement in promoting and defending the political and dynastic interest of the royal family displays the manner in which royal bastards were included within  court society and allowed to participate with a family identity under Henry I. This sense of family identity and inclusiveness not to mention the great political utility royal bastards represented to their legitimate family members can be further seen in the impact the sinking of the White Ship had upon the life of another of Henry I’s illegitimate children the future Robert of Gloucester. The almost certainly the eldest of the kings illegitimate sons the identity of Roberts mother is unknown and although it has been suggested that she was a member of the Gai family in Oxford  the timing of his birth and the adoption of Caen as an early toponym make it probable that she was Norman. Well educated and provisioned for by his father Robert was probably already married to Mabel Fitzhamon, the heiress to a wealthy lordship in the Welsh Marches, at the time of the White Ship disaster and the death of his legitimate half-brother.

Bereft of a legitimate male heir with the death of the Aetheling Henry I, a widower since 1118, acted quickly to stabilise his reign and secure power marrying Adeliza of Louvain in the hopes of fathering another legitimate son. Another step taken by the king in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy was the elevation of his eldest illegitimate son Robert to the newly created Earldom of Gloucester further supplementing his wife’s already substantial inherited holdings through gifts from the royal domain. Raised to the highest echelon of the aristocracy Henry transformed his son into a magnate with few equals no only insuring Robert became the de-facto leader of the Marcher lords responsible for securing the Welsh border and overseeing Norman expansion but was also equipped with the authority and resources to effectively support his father’s regime from within the aristocracy. In the coming years Robert functioned as his fathers’ right hand holding a number of vital administrative and military positions his presence and unswerving support a bulwark to a regime beset by border wars and a looming succession crisis.

Following his father’s death Robert played a key role in the dynastic conflicts to follow eventually emerging as the primary supporter of his legitimate half-sister the Empress Matilda his extensive political and military affinity forming the nucleus of her support within England. Robert was a true auxiliary family member, an illegitimate son allowed to participate within a broader family identity and affinity who at a time of severe dynastic crisis and was empowered with the means to more effectively protect their shared political and familial interests. If the tragedy of the White Ship robbed Henry I of his chosen heir and shook the foundations of his regime it also irrevocable changed the destiny of his eldest son.

This is the first in a series of articles known as A Bastard’s Lot: The Illegitimate Royal Children of 12th Century England, by James Turner. 

James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.


Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!