‘No ship ever brought so much misery to England’ said William of Malmesbury writing just a few short years after the tragic events of 25 November 1120. Centuries of historians agree with him.
It was a rock in the seas around Barfleur that changed the course of history forever. Here, back when William the Conqueror’s fourth son ruled England and Normandy, the future of these lands turned on a very fast ship, too much wine and the kindness of a brother.
On that crisp November day no-one could have foreseen the tragedy or guessed the anarchy that would follow.
A fortunate medieval monarch
King Henry I of England, his son and heir William Ætheling Duke of Normandy, their knights and entourages were in Barfleur preparing to return to England. The mood was joyful after a hard but successful few months quelling rebellion from the more quarrelsome Norman nobles and battling the land hungry King Louis VI of France.
An advantageous peace had been agreed with King Louis and King Henry was at this moment a most fortunate medieval monarch. William, just 17, had proved himself on the battlefield and would be a worthy heir.
William was not the only son of King Henry, but he was the only legitimate one. A medieval celebrity, this bold young man was travelling with dozens of knights, lords and ladies; many of them aristocratic Norman youth whose loyalty should ensure the Conqueror’s family held their power.
The fastest ship; Blanche-Nef
A new ship was in the harbour. Sleek, pale and faster than any craft in all the seas. Its captain Thomas FitzStephen claimed to be the son of Stephen FitzAirard who piloted the ship Mora that carried William the Conqueror in 1066. The captain offered his services to the King, who in good spirits declined the offer for himself but gave his beloved, indulged, son permission to sail the Blanche-Nef (White Ship) on its maiden voyage across the channel.
Now 51 and a widower the King was perhaps happy to avoid the raucous celebrations of his children and their friends. For with William were his half-brother Richard of Lincoln, half-sister Mathilde countess of Perche, and many cousins.
A royal assignment
The Blanche-Nef’s crew, delighted with their royal assignment praised William and asked him for something to drink. Medieval chronicler Orderic Vitalis reports “The prince gave orders that they should have three muids. No sooner was the wine delivered to them than they had a great drinking bout, and pledging their comrades in full cups, indulged too much and became intoxicated.”
It was evening by the time William and his entourage was ready to give up the delights of Barfleur and begin his journey home. As his companions piled onto the Blanche-Nef, two monks and some of the more sober nobles “left the vessel upon observing that it was overcrowded with riotous and headstrong youths” (Orderic). But around 140 knights, nobles and 18 ladies with their attendants stayed. William’s cousin young Stephen of Blois was suffering from diarrhoea and he left for shore with two men at arms.
The ship was lightly packed with King’s treasure and many casks of wine. By the time all the passengers were on board it was late at night, the skies were clear and stars shone above them.
‘too lively gaiety in cups of foamed wine’
Writing in 1840 Victor Godard-Faultrier paints a pretty picture of the scene:
“while its triangular sail began to take the wind, one hundred and fifty noble men of the first families of Normandy, Anjou and England were engaged in joyous words. All in brilliant costumes, their bodies adorned with narrow and trailing clothes of various colours, feet shod in boots with long straight and curved tips, a mode introduced to France by Foulques-Réchin. Animated by beautiful and frolicsome young women, they drew their too lively gaiety in cups of foamed wine and hypocras. One hundred and fifty vigorous rowers shared their excitement, and all together, their heads warm, climbed on the Blanche-Nef. The signal is given; some priests, wishing to bless the assembly by the torchlight of the orgy, were insulted and mocked.”
As the unblessed ship sailed away from Barfleur it’s noble, intoxicated passengers shouted to the fifty oarsmen to row as quickly to overtake King Henry’s ship. The captain, his good sense drowned in wine, encouraged his crew and the Blanche-Nef sped away.
Shipwreck! A sister in danger
The coast around Barfleur is infamous. For even the most experienced sailors, its strong currents, rocks and fast tidal stream will always be a challenge. The speeding White Ship managed half a mile through these obstacles before disaster.
Travelling at exhilarating speeds under a silver moon, the proud prince and his knights must have felt invincible. Then an appalling sound rent the air as the port side of the ship was caught on Quillebeuf reef. In seconds Blanche-Nef had capsized.
A single skiff was afloat. Its crew swiftly found William and started to row away. All around friends and comrades screamed and fell silent as the winter sea claimed them.
Through their cries William heard his sister Mathilde shouting from the sinking remains of the ship “My brother, do you abandon me? Prince William ordered the skiff to turn about, but as it reached Blanche-Nef the little boat was quickly overwhelmed by desperate survivors and capsized. Swept away under the waves, King Henry’s heir was never seen again.
Captain’s last words
Two men clung to a piece of the ships mast (or rock, depending on the chronicle); Goisfred the noble son of Gisleber de l’Aigle and Berold, a butcher from Rouen. Berold had come aboard in the hope of collecting debts owed to him by the noblemen only to be trapped on board as the ship sailed.
A third castaway clasping a piece of wood was flung near to them and asked desperately, what had become of the King’s son? It was Thomas, Blanche-Nef’s captain. Distraught on hearing the prince drowned he said “then it is terrible for me to live” and, letting go of the wreckage that kept him afloat, he sunk into the abyss.
Through that interminable night noble Goisfred in his fine, feeble clothing and Berold protected by his poor man’s sheepskin coat, hung on to the mast the only survivors. Before dawn the noble youth was exhausted and so cold he felt the cold no more.
Orderic wrote “The night was bitterly cold and frosty, so that the young Geoffrey, after severe sufferings from the severity of the weather, lost his powers of endurance, and commending his companion to God, fell into the sea and disappeared”.
Who can know Berold’s wild thoughts as Goisfred slipped away and Berold clung on, totally alone in the dark unforgiving sea.
The fishermen found Berold just alive at daybreak. Nearly 300 people lost their lives in the wreck of the Blanche-Nef. Treasure carried on the ship was salvaged, a few bodies washed up on Normandy’s shore, but not that of prince William, Duke of Normandy.
A small child breaks the kings heart
When the news reached England no-one was willing to tell King Henry that three of his children and so many courageous friends were dead. The medieval chronicles say a small child was instructed to cry in front of the King and when asked what was wrong, tell him the news.
Orderic records that ‘So sudden was the shock, and so severe his anguish, that he instantly fell to the ground, but being raised up by his friends, he was conducted to his chamber, and gave free course to the bitterness of his grief.’
Contemporary historian William of Malmesbury wrote:
No ship ever brought so much misery to England, none ever so widely celebrated throughout the world. Here also perished with William, Richard, another of the king’s sons, whom a woman of no rank had borne him before his accession; a youth of intrepidity and dear to his father from his obedience: Richard earl of Chester and his brother Otuell, the tutor and preceptor of the king’s son: the countess of Perche the king’s daughter, and his niece the countess of Chester, sister to Theobald: and indeed almost every person of consequence about court, whether knight, or chaplain, or young nobleman, training up to arms. For, as I have said, they eagerly hastened from all quarters, expecting no small addition to their reputation, if they could either amuse, or show their devotion to the young prince. The calamity was augmented by the difficulty of finding the bodies, which could not be discovered by the various persons who sought them along the shore; but delicate as they were, they became food for the monsters of the deep
King Henry never smiled again.
The view from England
Not everyone was sad for the loss of the Conqueror’s grandson, a proud youth who had been heard to say he would “yoke the English like oxen to the plough” if ever he should reign over them. In England, 12th century chronicler Henry of Huntingdon repeated the robust Anglo Saxon view that God’s hand was guiding a disaster they all saw coming:
‘When I observed the excessive state with which he was surrounded and his own pride, I said to myself “This prince so pandered is destined to be food for the fire!” He indeed from his proud eminence fixed his thoughts on his future kingdom but God said “Not so, unrighteous man, not so!”
‘And it came to pass that the head which should have worn a crown of gold, was rudely 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.’
Fighting for the throne
Widowed and without a son to secure his line, King Henry took a young wife in January 1121. His 18 year old bride was beautiful Adela of Louvain. They would have no children. In time Henry chose his legitimate daughter Matilda as heir and forced the barons to swear an oath accepting her future claim on the throne. They did so unwillingly; Matilda was married to Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou, a traditional enemy of Norman nobles.
When Henry died in 1135 England swiftly fell into chaos. Without a strong leader old grudges became battles and the country suffered as power struggles mattered more than crops. Matilda was in Anjou soon battling into Normandy to annex land, with mixed results.
Stephen of Blois, the young man who left the Blanche-Nef before it sailed from Barfleur, was in Boulogne and sailed to England with a small but powerful retinue of knights. A grandson of William the Conqueror, he had many supporters in England and was crowned King of England in December 1135.
Of course Matilda would not give up England easily. Her supporters were openly rebelling by 1138 and she led an invasion in 1139.
The country was plunged into years of conflict, a bloody civil war so terrible it would be remembered as The Anarchy.
The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy Vol. 4 by Orderic Vitalis 11th/12th century
Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon in the Letter to Walter 1084?-1155
Chronicle of the kings of England by William, of Malmesbury, ca. 1090-1143