King Henry I achieves many great things during his life but written history is not kind to him. Rather than focus on his hard work to modernize the legal statutes of government into the ‘Charter of Liberties’ our popular history has gazed instead upon his colourful personal life. This is not really surprising though as he fathers over 20 illegitimate children. This focus is a shame as it means many people are unaware of the events in his life. One such example is the voyage of the ‘White Ship’ on the 25th November 1120.
The voyage comes about because Henry is King of England and much of France so he regularly has to cross the Channel. Before the journey a man called Thomas Fitzwilliam asks Henry I if he will board his new ship. Thomas pleads with him for his regal honour to join him and mentions that he is the son of the sea captain who took his father, William the Conqueror across the Channel back in 1066 for the invasion of England. Henry replies that he already has his own ship but that this new ship called the ‘White Ship’ is fit for his son and successor, William Adelin and his other son, Richard.
So it comes to pass that the King and his 300 strong retinue decide to cross the channel. The mood is one of joy and good spirits. King Henry I sets out first and his sons follow in the ‘White Ship’. Gradually though the crew with his sons become more and more drunk and the mood sours. Perhaps in some ways this is not surprising. Henry of Huntingdon said that William is ‘a prince so pampered’ that he seems ‘destined to be food for the fire.’ This explains why his men think little of insulting some ministers who have tried to bless the ship earlier on. It is in this atmosphere that a rather rash bet is decided upon. William and his men agree it will be fun to race up to the King’s ship and then overtake it.
With 50 eager oarsmen on board the ‘White Ship’ heaving with all their might they are able to surge forward. It is by now night-time and rather unwisely no one sees fit to check the route ahead. Suddenly there is an almighty bang as the ship hits a rock that has been hidden by the full tide. Immediately the ship capsizes and many drown as they do not know how to swim. Tragically their screams are heard in the King’s ship but no one thinks to question what they are. In fact many assume they are just shouts of revelry.
Only a few remain who can swim and survive the treacherously cold waters. Eventually the survivors dwindle down to only the Captain, Thomas Fitzwilliam, Berold of Rouen and Geoffrey a young man and son of Geoffrey of Laigle. Thomas asks for the king’s son and when he is told that he has died he rather forlornly despairs ‘it is vain for me to go on living’. He promptly gives up the struggle to keep his head above the water and lets his body sink beneath the waves. The bitterly cold night is also too much for Geoffrey and he also perishes.
By the next day only Berold the butcher of Rouen is alive. His good fortune owes much to the thick ram-skin coat he wears. By sheer good luck he is found by some fishermen the next day who he proceeds to recount the events to. Such news is sensational and travels fast but even though many barons know what has happened all are fearful of the King’s wrath and so say nothing to him even though he grows increasingly concerned by the absence of news regarding his sons’ arrival.
One baron, Count Theobold hears the news and after a while musing over the predicament that he faces he manages to come up with the following ruse. Since he can not muster the courage to tell the King directly, the following day he makes a young boy fall to the king’s feet and tell him. When Henry hears this appalling tragedy he falls to his feet in utter despair. His family and friends then help take him to his private quarters where he weeps inconsolably.
His reaction is a stark contrast with his image as a tough, uncompromising ruler. After all this is the very same man who has earlier fought with his brother for the English throne, imprisoned him and when he escapes and is recaptured, burnt out his eyes so as to stop any future attempts by him.
This event has big ramifications for the English throne. Namely it leaves his daughter Matilda as the heir to the throne. This is astonishing as in the Norman culture of this time women are routinely looked upon as inferior to men. That is not to say that Henry I does not try to have more children to create a male heir. Just two months later he marries Adeliza, a young woman. Unfortunately for him in one of those curious twists of fate he becomes infertile. We know this because he has no children with her and yet after his death she remarries and goes on to have seven of her own.
Matilda’s fate is also sealed by the ‘White Ship’. It is alleged that her great rival, Stephen of Blois, only remains as a contender for the throne by disembarking from the ‘White Ship’ due to a sudden bout of diarrhoea. This leads to one of the great what if questions in history. Had he not disembarked he would have died so would have left Matilda as the unchallenged ruler of England from 1135 onward instead of plunging England into a long drawn out and very violent civil war.