The White Ship Disaster of 1120 ( Le Blanche Nef )

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The White Ship disaster of 1120. le blanche nef. The port of Barfleur.Captain Thomas Fitzstephen. English channel. Normandy coast. The rock Quilleboeff. Berold the butcher from Rouen. William of Adelin, Prince William died in the White Ship Disaster. Prin

In November 1120, Norman king of England Henry I's triumph by gaining the French King, Louis XI, to agree to securing the long disputed lands of the Grand Duchy of Normandy to pass into the hands of his son upon his death, was to culminate in one of the worst shipping disasters in Britain's royal history.

During the night of the 25th of November, the Royal Court of Henry I had been making merry in the Normandy port of Barfleur in France, owing to the king having secured the lands of Normandy to pass into the hands of his only legitimate son and heir Prince William.

As the party which consisted of 140 English and French noblemen and 18 women of English and French high birth, began to make their way to the harbour in order to set sail for England,the royal prince William had been eager to use the services of the ship La Blanche Nef (  the White Ship) a high - tec, state of the art, single sailed vessel, which was newly berthed at the port of Barfleur. His father, ever ready to indulge his son, made provision with the ship's captain Thomas FitzStephen to accommodate his son and his party of friends.

Upon hearing this, Captain FitzStephen was more than honoured to have his craft be used by such an important and noble group, even though it was becoming late and the weather was stormy.

In order to keep up the party atmosphere, the 17 year old prince, had casks of wine transported onto the ship in order to keep his guests happy during their 70 mile journey back to Portsmouth..

It has also been recorded that a group of clerics came aboard ship in order to bless the craft, as it was its maiden voyage, but apparantly the drunken revellers had them evicted. All this led to the ship lagging behind the king's royal fleet, which had left some half an hour before them. 


 Image courtesy of Mauhieu Tetard, wikimedia commons.


Rumour has it that the young prince, eager to impress his father in his inebriated state, asked the captain to overtake the King's ship.

Under normal circumstances the ship's captain would have headed south, then north west in order to sail safely to Portsmouth, a trip that was navigated in this way in order to avoid the many rocks off the Barfleur coast.

The trip was one often undertaken by the Norman royals of the day, and provided the ship's captain was experienced with the local waters, one that was not considered dangerous, even though the English Channel is notorious for it's erratic waves and sudden storms.

However, the captain, who it has been said was as drunk as his passengers, agreed to the prince's request and travelled due north in order to overtake the royal fleet, an act that would cost the lives of 300 people, decimate the French and English nobility of the day and cause 14 years of civil war upon the shores of England. 



One and a half miles out of port, the White Ship hit a rock, the Quilleboeff, capsizing the ship and sinking it within minutes.

Of the 160 nobles, fifty oarsmen and 90 other high born passengers aboard the ship that night, only one man survived, a butcher from Rouen by the name of Berold, who was only aboard in order to chase up a debt owed to him by one of the passengers.

The account of the tragedy as told by Berold is the only account that historians have of the nautical disaster.

Berold survived, experts say, because of his weight. He was by all accounts a rather well fed gentleman who wore clothes appropriate for a chilly Autumn night in November. After the vessel broke up, Berold caught hold of a piece of floating wood from the ship and clung on to it in the icy waters for over ten hours, a feat that was only possible due to his well padded frame and sensible clothing, unlike the skinny, young noblemen and noblewomen dressed in their fine robes of silk and satin, who would have perished from the cold sea very quickly.

Unlike Berold, who was quite sober, most of the royal party, including the ship's captain, were all as drunk as skunks, making most of them incapable of swimming or having the ability to look for ways of saving themselves.

Berold later reported that the quick thinking actions of the Prince's bodyguard, nearly resulted in Prince William being saved, by way of the bodyguard securing a lifeboat, bundling the young price into it and attempting to row back to shore, but William could not bear the screams of his friends and half brothers and sisters, so he urged the bodyguard to go back and try to save as many as they could. Reluctantly the bodyguard rowed back to the scene of the disaster, which resulted in the ensueing panic overturning the prince's lifeboat and causing both him and his bodyguard to drown.

Apparantly the screams of the doomed passengers were said to be heard both on the shore at Barfleur and on the boats of the King's fleet up ahead, but it was just thought that the noise was of drunken revellers having a good time, which resulted in no one going out to sea in order to look for any of the stricken passengers.

It has been recorded that the finely dressed bodies of the nobility were being washed up on the beaches of Normandy for weeks afterwards.

On hearing of the disaster King Henry I was said to have fainted at the loss of so many of his children - ( although William was his only legal heir the king had over 20 illegitimate children, 4 of which were onboard the White Ship)  - and the loss of so many of his barons and lords along with their ladies.

Because of William's untimely death, the crown of England, by rights, should have passed to King Henry's daughter the Empress Matilda, a fact that the king was led to believe and the people of England were happy to accept. However, upon the death of King Henry I in 1135, the Norman's  decided that they did not want a woman on their throne, resulting in the crown being offered to the former king's nephew, Stephen of Bloise.The ensueing anger of this act resulted in a period of time known as the Anarchy, which initiated 14 years of civil war, which only ended with the signing of the Treaty of Wallingford in 1153, a document signed by the de facto King Stephen relinquishing his own son as the heir to the throne, in favour of the Empress Matilda's son, Henry Plantaganet. 



The disaster at the time had the same affect upon the people of France and England, as the RMS Titanic disaster on the 14th of April 1912, a ship that was also a cutting edge, state of the art vessel, also on it's maiden voyage, which hit an iceberg in the north Atlantic Ocean causing the deaths of 1,517 people.

However, the disaster actually bears more of a similarity to the Marchioness pleasure boat disaster on the 20th of August 1989, on the River Thames in London, which also had a majority of young passengers onboard who were wearing their party finery at a birthday celebration, which was struck by the dredging vessel  Bowbelle, resulting in the deaths of 51 of it's young passengers.

There have been several diving expeditions in the area down the ages, but little has been found of the wreck of the White Ship, the bodies of any of it's passengers that didn't wash ashore or the jewels that the nobility would have been wearing at the time. Certainly the body of the young prince has never been found.

                                         SOME OF THE WHITE SHIP CASUALTIES.

There does not seem to be a comprehensive list of who was onboard the ill fated White Ship on the night of the 25th of November 1120. The royal chroniclers of the day would have most probably written the role of honour in Latin or Norman French, but I did manage to find 19 names during the research of this article.

William of Adelin, son of King Henry I and heir to the English throne. -  English.

Matilda, Countess of Perche, illegitimate daughter of King Henry I.  - French.

Richard of Lincoln, illegitimate son of King Henry I. -  English.

Ottuel, Illegitimate half brother of the 2nd Earl of Chester. -  English.

Hugh of Moulins, nobleman. - French.

Robert Mauduit, nobleman. - French.

Walter of Everci, nobleman. -  French.

Richard d'Avranches, 2nd Earl of Chester, nobleman. - English.

Lucia Mahout, wife of the 2nd Earl of Chester. - French.

Outhrer d'Avranches, cousin of the 2nd Earl of Chester. - English.

Matilda of Blois, cousin of Prince William. - German.

Othver, Prince William's tutor.  - English.

William Pirou, the king's steward. - French.

Geoffrey Ridel, Lord of the Judiciary, nobleman.  - English.

Geoffrey, Archdeacon of Hereford. -  English.

Godfrey de l'Aigle, knight. - English.

Richard Anskill, son and heir of a Berkshire landowner. - English.

Captain Thomas FitzStephen, ship's captain. -  English.

William Grandmesnil, nobleman - French.



                                                           © D.B.Bellamy.October, 2010.


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