The White Ship

England's worst maritime disaster took place 900 years ago.
Henry I of England. An Illustration from Cassell's History of England, published 1902.
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This article first appeared in The London Magazine.

It is precisely nine centuries since the worst maritime disaster – which doubles as one of the greatest royal catastrophes – in English history. The 900th anniversary of the sinking of the White Ship fell on 25 November this year. The greatest twelfth century English historian, William of Malmesbury, wrote: ‘No Ship that ever sailed brought England such Disaster,’ and that assessment of the scale of the tragedy, remarkably, stands to this day.

It was the passenger list of the White Ship that made its loss so uniquely awful. Apart from Henry I’s only legitimate son, William Ætheling, it included two of the king’s natural children, the cream of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy (including eighteen ladies with the rank of countess or above), several of the great generals who had finally brought England complete victory over France, as well as the bureaucrats who controlled Henry’s strict, effective, royal governance.

All of Henry’s achievements – in his two decades on the throne to this point, he had brought peace and security to England, established the Exchequer to oversee the Crown’s revenue, and trounced Louis VI (the girth of the French king resulted in his being known as ‘Louis the Fat’) – had been accomplished with one thing in mind: handing on a secure inheritance to William Ætheling, his heir. But this plan was shattered when the White Ship was wrecked, off the Norman harbour of Barfleur.

Only one man – perhaps the humblest passenger aboard – survived the violent end of the White Ship: he was Berold, a butcher from Rouen who found a place aboard in order to pursue high-ranking debtors as they set off for England. The medieval butcher thus became eyewitness to one of history’s most terrible events.

The White Ship was propelled by oarsmen rendered drunk by the inebriated passengers, who had plied the crew with huge quantities of wine. The ship left Barfleur at a fierce pace, a little before midnight on 25 November 1120. The sea was calm, the wind set fair, but the captain – another whose brain was addled by alcohol – dropped the mainsail too soon; before he was clear of the rocky coast. The helmsman, clearly  confused by the rare speed of his vessel, and also drunk, miscalculated, and steered the White Ship into the great danger a mile out at sea: the Quillebœuf Rock. This giant, jagged, menace was hidden at high tide and now claimed its greatest victim.

The Quillebœuf staved in the White Ship’s wooden planks. Water started pouring in even faster after the crew tried to push the vessel clear again, with their long pikes. This simply opened up the gash in the ship’s side even more.

Those aboard began to cascade into the frozen water, gasping in shock at the cold. In an age when almost nobody could swim, and when the sea was a mysterious place believed to be filled with terrifying creatures, the sound of panic rang out in the frigid air. ‘The worst thing I can remember were the screams,’ Titanic survivor Eva Hart recalled of that famous sinking, 800 years after the White Ship’s fatal voyage. Hart noted that they were so awful as to be impossible to describe. It must have been the same for those witnessing the final cries of those who drowned in the water off Barfleur – the ghastly din of despair, from those being tugged at, with increasing insistence, by Death.

There was just one small lifeboat on the White Ship. The royal bodyguards commandeered it, and bundled William Ætheling aboard, intent on rowing the royal heir to safety. But as they made for shore, the prince heard one shout that rang out above the others. It came from his half-sister, Margaret, Countess of Perche. She pleaded with her brother to turn back to save her, while also insulting him for being so despicable as to leave her to drown.

The prince ordered his men to steer the lifeboat back to the stricken ship, to retrieve her. But this was a disastrous decision. Those struggling for life in the water threw their arms up over the sides of the small boat and tried to clamber aboard. There were so many, Berold would recall, that their weight took the lifeboat down, along with the prince. The butcher was found by fishermen the following morning, drifting on a piece of broken mast, just conscious and able to tell of what he had seen.

Nobody rushed to inform the king: Henry I was known to be utterly ruthless, and at the same time he famously adored his children. William the Conqueror’s youngest son, Henry had risen from the relative obscurity  of being a royal younger son, to becoming king of England and Duke of  Normandy, as his father had once been. Henry had seized the English crown in August 1100, leaving his elder brother William Rufus to stiffen in death on the floor of the New Forest – the victim of a stray arrow on a hunting trip.

Meanwhile, six years later, he had attacked his eldest brother, Robert Curthose, at Tinchebray in Normandy. Curthose was defeated, captured and committed to prison in Cardiff Castle, where he remained for the remainder of his life, eventually writing poetry and learning Welsh.

Henry, meanwhile, had proved to be a force to be reckoned with. Insistent that the nation’s coins were his personal property, and that adulterating them equated to treason, he promised dire consequences for those minters who abused his confidence. Those found guilty of tampering with the coins’ quality were dealt with viciously: they were castrated, and their right hands were lopped off.

Eventually one of the king’s nephews persuaded a page boy to tell Henry I of the terrible news. Henry bellowed in disbelief, before falling to the floor, screaming. It is said he never smiled again, during the final fifteen years of his reign. Certainly, in the aftermath of the loss of the White Ship – and of the king’s dreams and aspirations – the court was plunged into gloom.

It was a period of such profound mourning that many in the royal orbit found time to reflect: on their own mortality, on their past conduct, and on their most profound beliefs.

Rahere was one of these. He was one of many who had ‘risen from the dust’, as a contemporary chronicler termed it, to become prominent in the royal court. The king believed in promoting people because of their ability, rather than merely acknowledging their bloodlines. Rahere had become a royal favourite because of his ready wit, which tended to be risqué, and because he had a gift for laying on enjoyable musical and theatrical diversions.

Accepting that such entertainments – and his earthy brand of humour – had no place in a court weathering the most appalling shock, Rahere looked at his options, and his personal priorities, and decided to take stock of his vacuous life while embarking on a pilgrimage to Rome.

His chosen destination lay outside that city, in a marshland area known as the Three Fountains. It was here that St Paul was believed to have  been beheaded at Nero’s command, more than a millennium earlier. While honouring the martyr there, Rahere was struck down with malaria. Fearing for his life, he made an oath to God that he would build a hospital for the poor if spared death.

Gradually he recovered. As his health improved, he had a vision. In it, a winged animal seized him in its talons and made as if to hurl him into an infinite chasm. But, just in time, the Apostle St Bartholomew stepped in to save him. St Bartholomew said that the price for his rescue was simple: Rahere must build a religious house to his glory, in ‘Smoothfield’ (now Smithfield), a suburb of London.

When Rahere returned to England Henry I gave permission for the priory and hospital to be built on the marshy land of Smithfield, next to ‘The Elms’, a dry spot where condemned men swung from the gallows. Rahere became St Bartholomew’s first prior. Money was quickly raised, and both buildings began to take shape in 1123.

Henry I’s rule (1100-1135) saw much building in and around London: his first wife, Matilda of Scotland (mother of the heir, William Ætheling, who perished in the White Ship, and daughter of the king who killed the real-life Macbeth), had a saintly streak. In 1101, soon after becoming queen, she built a leper hospital in St Giles-in-the-Fields, which was then on the road between London and Tyburn. She shocked her relatives by tending the open sores of the lepers there, and by kissing their lesions.

Matilda also built the first public loos in London, and had a bathhouse constructed for the poor. She received her own income, derived from the busy part of commercial London that still remembers her in its name today – ‘Queenhithe’. She used some of this money to construct bridges around the capital: one over the River Mole, at Cobham, to the southwest; and two at Stratford, to the east, near a spot on the River Lea where she like to bathe.

The larger of these two bridges had a single arch that was new to early twelfth century England. It became known as ‘Stratford-le-Bow’, because, as it was said at the time, ‘the bridge was arched, like unto a bow’.

The other was named Chanelse (now ‘Channelsea’) Bridge. This pair of  bridges was linked by a gravel road. The queen saw to the perpetual care of this route between her creations by endowing the Abbess of Barking  with some manors and a mill: the income from these would, she hoped, forever keep the road in good order.

But the greatest monuments in London to Henry I’s rule remain St Bartholomew’s Church and St Bart’s Hospital. The hospital is the oldest one in England still to be functioning, that stands on its original site. The Church you see today is all that remains from a mightier structure, but Rahere’s tomb lies in this surviving part: a fine reminder of the good that come from a tragedy of such enormity that it led to the end of the Norman dynasty.

For Henry I, father of twenty-two illegitimate children, was unable to sire another legitimate son. After his death came nineteen years of civil war so vicious that it would become known as ‘The Anarchy’. And after ‘The Anarchy’ came a change of royal family, the Plantagenets taking the helm for more than 300 years. All these astonishing, wide-reaching, consequences because the White Ship hit a rock, exactly 900 years ago.

Charles Spencer is the bestselling author of The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream.

This article first appeared in The London Magazine.