25 November 1120: The White Ship Disaster or How the Wine and Bout of Diarrhea Changed the Course of History.

There would have been no Henry the Young King had one Thomas, son of Stephen stayed where he was in those closing days of November 1120. Instead he went to the Young Henry’s great-grandfather, Henry I who was about to depart from Barfleur, Normandy to England, to ask the king for his father’s position. Stephen son of Airard had carried the king’s father, William of Normandy [the Conqueror] in his ship in 1066 and might have been the master of the Mora, the ship that William had received as a gift from his wife, Matilda of Flanders. Thomas, too was a master of a fine vessel, the White Ship [Blanche Nef]. He offered to take the king across the Channel, but Henry had already made arrangements for himself. Still he wanted to do something for Thomas and decided to entrust his son and heir, William Atheling* to his care.

There would have been no Henry the Young King had the afore-said Thomas stayed sober instead of letting himself and whole of his crew get drunk with prince William’s wine. To make things even worse, together with the passengers, they laughed down and mocked the clerks who arrived to bless those about to embark. It seems that by this very act they sealed their fate. Sea travel in the 12th century was known for its perils and it was customary to secure God’s protection before the voyage.

There would have been no Henry the Young King had Thomas’s helmsman, intoxicated as all the others, not directed the ship straight onto the submerged rock(s)- “the rocks which are called Chaterase” (Roger of Howden)- drowning all those who were on board, all together three hundred people, prince William among them.

… the head which should have worn a crown of gold, was suddenly dashed against the rocks; instead of wearing embroidered robes, he floated naked in the waves; and instead of ascending a lofty throne, he found his grave in the bellies of fishes at the bottom of the sea…

Together with the prince perished his half-brother, Richard, king Henry’s bastard son, “one whom we admired for his talents, and from whom we expected great things” Henry of Huntingdon writes in his letter to Walter. “…he too was dashed on the rocks in the same ship, when no wind ruffled the sea, and, being plunged in its depths, met with a sudden death.” Also William’s half-sister, Matilda Countess of Perche, and Richard, earl of Chester, the only son of earl Hugh “perished, while still young, in the same ship, and shared the same burial” (Henry of Huntigdon, Letter to Walter), and Ottuel, his half- brother, the Prince’s pedagogues. To sum up, the cream of the young Anglo-Norman aristocracy was drowned that day, and “very many of the king’s household… and with them a countless multitude of very incomparable folk besides” (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). The more sensible passengers had not embarked the ship, Stephen of Blois, king Henry’s nephew among them. He suffered an attack of diarrhea and chose to stay ashore. It is interesting to speculate: had he accompanied his cousin and drowned with him, England might have avoided the disastrous civil war that went down in history as the Anarchy.

As for William Atheling, “this prince, so pampered” that he was “destined to be food for the fire”, on that cold night in late November he became food for fishes (Henry of Huntigdon) and “a cruel feast for monsters of the deep” (William of Malmesbury). The ecclesiastical chroniclers have taken for granted that the terrible nature of William’s death must have been God’s punishment. For which sin? In answering the question they were unanimous: the offense that came straight to their monkish minds was young William and his companions’ scornful treatment of the clerks in the harbour. God did not delay in punishing those who had trespassed.

… Behold the terrible vengeance of God! Sudden death swallowed them up unshriven, though there was no wind and the sea was calm!... (Henry of Huntingdon, p.249)

With his son’s head dashed against the rocks, Henry I’s dynastic schemes were dashed too. From now on there would be but one thought troubling the king: who would succeed to the throne? William was his sole legitimate male heir, the one who was to rule both England and Normandy. Of mixed Anglo-Norman blood- his mother Edith-Matilda of Scotland had been a  true Anglo-Saxon princess, the descendant of the old Wessex ruling house** - he was the linchpin of his father’s plans. Being notorious for his out-of-wedlock activities and constant violating of his marital vows, Henry I, the father of more than twenty bastard children, had been able to produce only two legitimate children in the eight years of his marriage to Edith-Matilda, the Good Queen. These were Matilda ( b. 1102) and William (b. 1103). The latter’s untimely death in the White Ship disaster and his father’s subsequent failure to produce a legitimate male heir from his second marriage led to the succession crisis and the nineteen years of the darkest period in the history of medieval England, the Anarchy. But before it happened the old king had done everything he could to secure the throne for his lineage. In 1127 he had made his barons swear allegiance to his daughter, Matilda and recognize her as their future queen. Unfortunately, no sooner had Henry died [on 1 December 1135] than his nephew, afore-mentioned Stephen, seized the opportunity and the crown. During Stephen’s reign the barons felt free to run their estates like small independent kingdoms, something quite easy with civil war in progress. Yes, the civil war broke out in 1139 when Matilda landed in England to win back what she considered rightfully hers. Throughout the ‘nineteen long winters the land was all undone and darkened with such deeds, and men said openly that Christ and his angels slept’. Matilda fought tooth and nail to secure the future of her lineage and in the end she won. Her eldest son, Henry of Anjou, Henry the Young King’s father ascended the throne in 1154. One year later her second grandson, Henry was born in London on 28th of February. In fifteen years he would become the first and only English king crown in his father’s lifetime and… this is when the story really begins.

* Atheling- the Anglo-Saxon term used to describe a person of noble birth, usually a member of the ruling family and a potential successor to kingship. Young William was called Atheling to underline his Anglo-Saxon roots, and highlight his mixed Anglo-Norman origin crucial for   his future reign over both England and Normandy.

** Edith’s mother, Margaret [later St Margaret] was the daughter of Edward ‘the Exile’, son of Edmund Ironside. She married king Malcolm III of Scotland in 1070. Edith, born in 1080, was the couple’s fifth child and their first daughter.


William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the Kings of England. Translated by J. A. Giles. Internet Archive of Northeastern University Libraries.
The Chronicle of Henry of Huntigdon. Translated and edited by Thomas Forester. Internet Archive of Northeastern University Libraries.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Online Medieval and Classical Library
The Annals of Roger de Hoveden  trans. by Henry T. Riley. Internet Archive of Northeastern University Libraries.
Henry I. King of England and Duke of Normandy by Judith A. Green
Robert Curthose Duke of Normandy (c.1050-1134) by William M. Aird
Death of Kings: Royal Death in Medieval England by Michael Evans
The Kings and Queens of Scotland by Richard Oram
Queens Consort. England’s Medieval Queens by Lisa Hilton
Historical Dictionary of the British Monarchy by Kenneth J. Panton
Life in the Castle in Medieval England by John Burke


  1. there are so many 'if onlys....' in history. They make for interesting discussions.

    1. Indeed, Arenje! I keep wondering what would have happened had the White Ship not sunk in November 1120. With all probability the Young King would have been just the second son of the king William III's [no need to wait for William of Orange to come:-)] nephew, providing that his grandmother had married Count Geoffrey le Bel. With her brother safeguarded on the throne, there would have been no need for her to make the Angevin alliance.

      Thank you for paying a visit to our Lesser Land ;-)

    2. Kasia, your English is very good indeed! I've been looking at some Polish comments on Facebook (I'm American but of Polish descent, and know a tiny bit of Polish as my grandparents spoke it sometimes, but not enough to write anything in it), and their translator is absolutely awful. I found this article via Facebook as it was shared to the British Medieval History group there.

      I actually never knew about Stephen's attack of diarrhea! Interesting historical tidbit and it does open up the speculation as to what would've happened later on, had he boarded the White Ship as he was supposed to do. Now I'm trying to think if there was anyone else who would've had the audacity to claim the English throne after Henry Is death!

  2. Thanks for a fascinating article.

    With Nano over, I'll need to read up on posts of several blogs. :-)

  3. I love the title of this post. :) :) The White Ship disaster really is one of those great 'what if?' moments, isn't it?

  4. Gabrielle and Kathryn, thank you for your comments:-)

    Hope the title is not too.... daring. I simply couldn't resist temptation :-) It sounds so catchy, at least to me :-)

  5. Informative and entertaining article, thank you.

  6. I never understood the diarrhoea story; it hadn't stopped Stephen from leaving on the King's ship

    1. I thought Henry's ship left earlier than the White Ship?

    2. http://www.medievalists.net/2013/05/21/was-the-white-ship-disaster-mass-murder/

      This article on the subject states:

      William and the other passengers called upon the ship's captain, Thomas, to depart and see if the ship was fast enough to catch up to the King's boat.

    3. Yes, Henry's ship left before the White Ship, so the king learned about his children's death when already in England (we all remember how everyone was too scared to tell him of the tragic loss). Sorry, Keir, I have just read your comment, thanks to the report about Scarlet's comments which I have just found in my inbox :-)


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