On November 25th, 1120, following the
defeat of Robert Clito and Louis VI (the Fat) of France, Henry I and the English were returning
across the English Channel when "The White Ship" carrying
Henry's only ligitimate heir, the young warrior prince William, and some three hundred
other young triumphant revellers sank to leave only one survivor and drastically alter the course of England's history
plunging the country into civil war between Henry's daughter Maud or Matilda and his nephew
Henry and the royal party were offered passage across the
Channel on "the White Ship" but, the king
being reluctant to upset the arrangements already made for his own passage, suggested it would
be an excellent choice for his son and heir, Prince William.
Returning home after a triumphant campaign in Normandy, the prince and some three hundred young passengers
who accompanied him on the White Ship were in celebratory mood and wine was brought aboard the vessel in barrel-loads. Passengers and crew were soon quite intoxicated.
Among the revellers were the cream of the aristicracy; 140 knights, 18 noble-women, William's
half-brother Richard and half-sister Matilda, Countess of Perche, Stephen and Matilda of Blois and the nephew of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V, among others.
A number of the passengers may have sensed trouble and, like Stephen of Blois (already ill with diarrhoea), decided to leave the White Ship and arrange for a later passage.
It is interesting to ponder how the history of England would have progressed on the death of king Henry I in 1035 had Stephen who later claimed the English throne stayed aboard and drowned on the White Ship in 1120.
The revelries on board delayed the departure of the White Ship until after nightfall by which time the king and his forces had left the White Ship far behind them. With the young revellers eager to overtake the fleet and make landfall first, Prince William ordered the ship's master to order the oarsmen to make all possible haste into the darkness. As drunk as the rest of them, the ship's master complied and the vessel raced towards England.
Not far of the Normandy coast, the ship hit a rock smashing a gaping hole in the port side. The prince's bodyguards quickly took him off the stricken vessel and might have saved him had he not responded to his half-sister's calls for help and ordered the boat back to the ship. As the White Ship sank, more and more of the desperate passengers and crew attempted to clamber to safety aboard the royal dingy, capsizing and sinking it without a trace.
The only reputed survivor of the wreck was Berold, a Rouen butcher who had boarded the vessel to collect debts from the noble revellers.
Bodies of the victims such as the Earl of Chester, still dressed in their finery, continued to be washed up on the Normandy coast for many months after the disaster.
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