The White Ship Sinks
The 25th of November 1120 AD
The sinking of the Titanic is something most of us know about, thanks in part to feature films; but far more significant historically was the loss of the so-called White Ship in 1120, and with it William Adelin the only legitimate son of Henry I along with several young courtiers of great promise.
Beyond the very basic facts nothing is known about why the tragedy occurred, leading to the growth of myths and conjecture. Henry had been offered passage aboard a new ship from Barfleur in his Norman possessions to England; that ship was the White Ship, owned by Thomas FitzStephen, son of the man whose vessel carried William the Conqueror to invade England. Henry had committed to another captain already, but suggested his beloved son William should take advantage of the offer.
Henry’s nephew Stephen was also due to sail on the White Ship, but a stomach upset kept him from leaving Normandy at the last minute. This has led to suspicions that Stephen - for whom William’s death proved very convenient - was somehow behind sabotage of the vessel which sank just off the coast. The more prosaic explanation of the sinking is that it hit a partially submerged rock, perhaps with the crew and passengers drunk – William was a well known reveller – disregarding danger in attempting to catch the King’s ship for the hell of it.
King Henry, legend has it, never smiled again after the loss of his heir. The consequences were equally tragic for England and Normandy: Henry pushed his barons to accept Matilda his daughter as his heiress; but Stephen usurped the throne on Henry’s death. England was torn into anarchy by the lengthy conflict between their parties.
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