Several of my children’s ancestors were among the hundreds who perished in the sinking of the White Ship off Barfleur, France in 1120.
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.
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.
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.
- Academia.edu; http://www.academia.edu/773095/Henry_of_Huntingdon_in_his_time_1135_and_place_between_Lincoln_and_the_royal_court_; accessed November 16, 2012.
- Wikipedia.org; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Ship; accessed November 16, 2012.
- History.knoji.com; http://history.knoji.com/the-white-ship-disaster-of-1120-le-blanche-nef/; accessed November 16, 2012.
photo credit: Wikipedia.org