Category: King Henry I

The sinking of the White Ship.

Several of my children’s ancestors were among the hundreds who perished in the sinking of the White Ship off Barfleur, France in 1120.
The sinking of the White Ship

Depiction of the sinking of the White Ship.

During my years of researching the medieval ancestry of Mark and our children, I’ve noticed a recurring theme. Several of the ancestors were casualties of the disastrous shipwreck of the “White Ship”. Although there were actually closer to 300 passengers aboard, I was only able to locate a list of twenty of the casualties. It is well known though that the ship was loaded with nobles and contemporaries of King Henry I, of England.

Henry I, King of England

Henry I, King of England

The “White Ship” was a new, state of the art vessel under command of Thomas FitzStephen. His father had been Stephen FitzAirard, captain of the ship “Mora” under William the Conqueror during his invasion of England in 1066. Captain FitzStephen offered transport to England on his ship to Henry I for his return to England, but since the King had already made other arrangements, he declined. King Henry did, however, arrange for his son, William “Aetheling” Adelin and two of his illegitimate children to sail on the ship.

The familiar account of the events leading up to the sinking as delivered by the known sole survivor state that all aboard had been drinking and partying liberally and by the time they set sail, most on board were very drunk. It is interesting to note that there are conflicting accounts of survivors. Based upon the “Orderic Vitalis”, some believe there were two survivors, the butcher and Geoffrey de l’Aigle.

Amidst the drunken revelry described by the survivor, a challenge was issued to the Captain to overtake the King’s own ship, which had set sail earlier. Upon setting off, the White Ship struck a hidden rock in the shallow waters of the channel, quickly capsizing and sinking.

Etienne de Blois

Stephen of Blois, King of England

Those on shore saw what was occurring and sent a boat out to get William “Aetheling” Adelin, the King’s son, who was on his way back to shore when he heard his half-sister Matilda du Perche cry out for help and had the boat return to assist. Unfortunately, there were several scrambling to get on board the small boat, causing it to be swamped and to sink. William drowned right along with his half-sister and all the other unfortunate passengers. The common belief through the centuries has been that the Captain, Thomas FitzStephen, upon hearing of William Adelin’s drowning, just surrendered to the waters and drowned rather than take such terrible news back to the King.

As a result of Prince William’s death, King Henry named his only remaining legitimate child, his daughter Matilda, to be heiress to the throne. He forced the noblemen to swear to support Matilda, who was unpopular because she was married to Geoffrey V, Comte d’Anjou who had been an enemy of the Norman nobility. When the noblemen refused to support Matilda after the death of King Henry I, they turned to the King’s nephew, Etienne de Blois and named him King. Etienne de Blois had originally planned to travel on the “White Ship” as well and had even boarded her, but had to leave before the ship’s departure because he became ill with diarrhea.

Mathilde and her husband initiated war against Etienne and his followers to gain the English throne, as her father had wished. This period of civil war known as “The Anarchy” spanned almost two decades from 1135 to 1153 and became a pivotal time in the history of England, resulting in the end of Norman rule.

The closest ancestor to my children who played a part in the story of the “White Ship” disaster was:

  • Etienne de Blois, King of England. He was the 31st great grandfather to my children.

The known casualties from among the approximately 300 on board, listed in order of the closeness of relationship to our children (if any) include:

  • William the Atheling, son of King Henry I and heir to the English throne – 26th great granduncle to my children.
  • Mathilde du Perche, Countess of Perche, illegitimate daughter of King Henry I – 26th great grandaunt.
  • Richard of Lincoln, illegitimate son of King Henry I – 26th great granduncle.
  • Godfrey de l’Aigle, knight. – 28th great granduncle (brother to Engenulf)
  • Engenulf de l’Aigle, brother to Godfrey – 28th great granduncle
  • Mathilde de Blois, sister to Stephen de Blois, King of England and wife of Richard d’Avranches – 31st great grandaunt
  • Robert Mauduit, nobleman. – 31st great granduncle
  • Richard d’Avranches, 2nd Earl of Chester, nobleman. – 1st cousin 31 times removed
  • Outher d’Avranches, brother of Richard, Earl of Chester. – 1st cousin, 31 times removed
  • Geoffrey Riddell, Lord of the Judiciary, nobleman.  – 2nd cousin 30 times removed
  • Ottuel, Illegitimate half brother of the 2nd Earl of Chester.
  • Hugh of Moulins, nobleman.
  • Walter of Everci, nobleman.
  • Lucia Mahout, wife of the 2nd Earl of Chester.
  • Othver, Prince William’s tutor.
  • William Pirou, the king’s steward.
  • Geoffrey, Archdeacon of Hereford.
  • Richard Anskill, son and heir of a Berkshire landowner.
  • Captain Thomas FitzStephen, ship’s captain.
  • William Grandmesnil, nobleman.


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Wenzel I and Boleslav “der Grausame, the Cruel”

Wenzel I, Duke of the Bohemians, by Peter Parler

Wenzel I, Duke of the Bohemians (Good King Wenceslaus), by Peter Parler.

One thing I realized very quickly after starting to research my family’s genealogy is that not all of our ancestors are ‘nice’ guys or gals. Wenzel I and Boleslave “der Grausame, the Cruel” is only one of many I have found, and I’m sure I’ll find more.

In this post, I describe my children’s 33rd great grandfather, Boleslav “der Grausame” or “the Cruel”, Duke of the Bohemians.

Boleslav, the dear boy, was the brother of Wenzel I, Duke of the Bohemians, most commonly known in our day as “Good King Wenceslaus” of the age old Christmas carol.  These two are just another example of two brothers who grow up to be the epitome of ‘good’ (Wenzel) and ‘evil’ (Boleslav).

Wenzel and Boleslav were sons of Vratislav I, Duke of the Bohemians and his wife Drahomira. They were raised at a time of religious upheaval, their own father being Christian and their mother being the daughter of a pagan chief. She was, however, baptised at the time of her marriage to Vratislav. Vratislav was killed in battle in 1921 at the rather young age of 33.

Statue of King Wenceslaus

Statue of Wenzel I, Duke of the Bohemians.

Wenzel, born about 907, although the oldest of the two boys, was only 14 when he succeeded his father upon his death. He was raised as a Christian thereafter by his grandmother, Saint Ludmila and was known as a humble, pious and intelligent young man. Ludmila was soon forced to seek sanctuary near Beroun at Tetin Castle as a result of a dispute with her daughter-in-law, Wenzel and Boleslav’s mother. This did not prove safe for Ludmila though, as her daughter-in-law Drahomira, furious at her loss of control of her son, had Ludmila strangled on September 15, 921 at Tetin.

St. Veit

St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague.

Interior of St. Vitus.

St. Vitus interior.

At about 18 years of age, Wenzel began controlling government and had his mother exiled. He founded St. Veit, Prague Castle in Prague. This still exists today as St. Vitus Cathedral.

Although at one time his father had been allied with Duke Arnulf of Bavaria, Duke Arnulf had since formed an alliance with King Henry I “the Fowler” and they joined forces to attack and force Wenzel to resume paying a tribute that had been assessed first in 895. Henry I had needed the tribute to pay tribute himself to the Magyars in 926. Another reason for the attack may have been an alliance formed between Bohemia, the Magyars and the Polabian Slavs.

Assassination of Saint Wenzels I.

Assassination of Wenzel I, Duke of the Bohemians in 935.

A group of nobles allied with Wenzel’s brother Boleslav after a quarrel between the brothers, plotting to kill Wenzel. Not suspecting a thing, Wenzel attended the feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian upon Boleslav’s invitation on September 28, 935 and three allies of Boleslav’s, Tira, Hněvsa and Čsta murdered him on his way to church, clearing the way for Boleslav to succeed as Duke of the Bohemians. Wenzel was buried at St. Veit.

Soon considered a martyr and saint, a cult of Wenzel arose in Bohemia and England. Within a few decades of his death, there were four biographies of Wenzel published and they had great influence on the perception of the ‘rex justus’ or ‘righteous king’. The common belief was that his power arose from great piety.

Boleslav became known as “der Grausame” or “the Cruel” as a result of his participation in the plot to kill his brother. His governance was a period of hostile relations with the empire until Otto I, King of Germany, forced him to pay tribute fourteen years later.

The Bohemians helped King Otto defeat the Hungarians at Lechfeld in 955, and later they crossed the Carpathian mountains and occupied Krakow and Silesia. In 965, Duke Boleslav formed an alliance with Mieszko I,  Prince of Poland. Their alliance was confirmed by Mieszko’s marriage to Dobrawa, Boleslav’s daughter.

Duke Boleslav supported the rebellion of Heinrich II, Duke of Bavaria, against Emperor Otto II. Once Emperor Otto had confiscated the duke’s territories, Heinrich II fled for refuge with Duke Boleslav in Bohemia. Boleslaw had married a woman named Biagota and died in 967.


Foundation for Medieval Genealogy;;