The White Ship: Lads on the Lash

The music throbbed in the air, as metal clad musicians, full of piercings and bling, struck power chords on their harps and lutes. They were set aboard a great ship with revellers drunkenly staggering around them. One group, just boarding, were your typical stag party lads. Wearing white t-shirts naming them “Baz”, and “Kev”, and “Matt the Wanker”. One in particular, the centre of this group, wore a shirt brandishing the title “The Royal Willie”, he wore a paper crown with a large penis dangling from it. This was the stag.

In the shadows of the dockside, looking back and scowling one more time, stood a former guest at this party. As he leaned against the wall, a loud bubbling was heard from his abdomen, he doubled over, and shat himself.

An hour later, William Adelin, son of King Henry I of England, and sole heir to the throne of England, was dead, along with almost two-hundred and fifty guests. The man with the tummy troubles was suddenly a lot closer to the crown of England.  

The Before

Henry I, King of the English had successfully put down another series of threats to the Duchy of Normandy, held by his son, and only heir, William Atheling. The celebrations were many after the final battle. Henry was offered transit across the channel, back to England, on the White Ship, recorded more broadly in the available texts as Candida Navis as most of the literate classes were writing in Latin at the time.

Side Note: Atheling is an old English term meaning “young noble”, usually used to denote important members of the royal family. What is noteworthy here is that William the Conqueror, Father of Henry and Grandfather of William Adelin, was not English, he was Norman. The use of this term to identify the conquerors grandson suggests to me that Henry did a pretty solid job of integrating with England, unlike his father he wasn’t seen as foreign.

The White Ship was newly refitted and considered to be one of the fastest ships available to the royal household. It was also piloted by the son of the man who piloted The Mora, the ship that carried William the Conqueror to the shores of England. However, Henry had already made other arrangements. His son, and the royal entourage however, gratefully accepted the offer. They didn’t set sail at the same time as the King, knowing they could easily make up any delay with the White Ship, instead preferring to keep the party going.

The ship was packed with drunken revellers, and their servants. Accounts vary but often range between 250 and 300 aboard when she set sail. One person who was not aboard was Stephen of Blois. Stephen stepped off of the ship, just before it set sail, due to bowel problems.

Stephen of Blois
Stephen was the son of a French nobleman, and maternal grandson of William the Conqueror. At the death of his father, he was sent to be educated at the court of his uncle, Henry I of England. He was treated very well and amassed huge wealth under the King. Later his marriage to Matilda of Boulogne enhanced his wealth and prestige further and he became one of the richest men in Europe.  

What happened next could easily be mistaken for a low budget remake of the movie Titanic. The White Ship set sail from Barfleur and almost immediately hit a rock. The crew were unable to stop the ship taking on water. The young prince was bundled into the one row-boat on board with a couple of his bondsmen. However, before they got very far William demanded they return to safe his half-sister Matilda. as the boat approached it was overrun by dozens of others, trying to save their own lives. The small boat capsized and broke up on the rocks, resulting in the death of the only legitimate heir of the English King. 

Side Note: If you were a woman in the tenth century, odds are your name was Matilda.

The After

Reportedly it took two days for anyone to inform the King of the death of his son. I would argue the man who took up the task was incredibly brave, insane or suicidal. His reaction was, as to be expected, one of intense sorrow. It should be noted that there were very few absolute requirements of a medieval king. One, near the top of the list, was to ensure a clean succession through legitimate heirs. Whilst Henry was prolific to an almost industrial standard, he only had two legitimate children. His daughter Matilda, and the now deceased William.

Side Note: I do wonder what happened to the poor bugger who was tasked with informing the King of the death of his son. Henry was not known for his moderate temperament.

Henry’s wife, Matilda, died in 1118, two years before the White Ship was wrecked. In those two years he had shown no inclination towards remarriage, and I find this fascinating. Henry, who later obtained the epithet “Beau Clerc” for his incredibly unmanly tendency to read, an organise things, and take an interest in law and diplomacy. Everything Henry did screamed foresight. As a King he, and his son, would have had access to the worlds best medical care, which of course in the twelfth century means they could still have died from a papercut. It astounds me that Henry felt that one heir was enough. I can however understand why, whilst he recognised all of his illegitimate children, he didn’t legitimise them. It was rare for a noble to recognise the results of his affairs, the affairs themselves being almost an expectation at the time. Henry seems to have recognised his issue and in doing so assuring security for his unofficial offspring and their mother. In most medieval cases, if you got pregnant by a king, you were on your own. He doesn’t appear to have engaged in rape or forced sexual contact, especially when compared to his contemporaries, however you have to ask how much freedom a woman had to decline the advances of a horny king at the time. In recognising his children, he seems to have treated women particularly well. However, his marriage to Matilda bought a peace with Scotland, which would only otherwise have been obtained through a huge amount of expense in life and gold. Legitimising children not born of Matilda could have jeopardised all of that.

Side Note: It may seem weird that the King of what could easily be considered a medieval superpower struggled to subdue Scotland, a small part of the same island. However, Ali Hood, from the Rex Factor Podcast, very accurately referred to Scotland as the medieval Afghanistan. Constantly at war but never conquered. Henry may have been able to take Scotland, but the cost would be such that he would never again be able to defend his borders. The Scottish themselves had little offensive ability, the geography complimented their tactics perfectly, this is why the Scottish never developed an empire. Henry’s best option was to secure peace through marriage.

William died in November 1120, by January 1121 Henry had remarried. I have this amazing visual of Henry, sat, downcast at a table when one of his advisors approaches him to describe the medieval equivalent of tinder. He’s swiping left though all of the eligible women in Europe until he gets to the sixteen year old Adeliza, daughter of the count of Louvain. Their relationship seems to be far less tender than his first marriage. Adeliza is never allowed far from his side. Little commentary is offered on the sexual interactions of these two however given the express purpose of the union appears to have been to pop out as many heirs as possible I would suggest they were “making the beast with two backs” fairly regularly. However, it was to no avail. We know that Henry was fertile prior to 1120, we also know that Adeliza after Henry has several children. Charles, Earl of Spencer, speculated in an interview recently that perhaps, in losing Matilda, whom it appears he cared for very deeply, and his sole heir and son William, within two years, he may have been subject to a depression impacting his sex drive or fertility. The marriage to Adeliza appears extremely uncomfortable for both of them.

Henry was left without option. The Norman laws of inheritance were quite complicated. The eldest son inherits everything the father inherited himself. Everything the man gained in his life could be divided up between his remaining sons. Women get nothing. However, this wasn’t always the case. In English (Saxon) law, women could hold almost equal station to men, almost. They could lead warbands, own land, petition for divorce, etc. Henry had one remaining legitimate child, but surely, she couldn’t rule, she was a woman!

Henry took, admittedly through desperation, the most progressive act you see in Norman, or Anjouvin, English History. He gathers his barons and requires them to swear fealty to his daughter, Matilda, Empress of the Holy Roman Empire and support her claim to the throne of England. The problem is that he married her off at a young age. She had spent little time at the English, or Norman, Court. Henry was asking his Barons to do something that had never been done before, for someone they had probably never even met. However, they all did it, every Baron swore allegiance to Empress Maud as the Heir to the Throne of England and the Duchy of Normandy.

Side Note: At this late stage “The Holy Roman Empire” had separated from the church, had no cultural ties to ancient Rome, and could barely be considered large enough to be a Kingdom, let alone an Empire.    

Needless to say, as soon as Henry had passed, many of the Barons decided they couldn’t have a woman on the throne and started searching for an alternative. There was one male, a direct descendant of The Conqueror, who might have a claim. There was just one problem; Stephen would be inheriting through his mother, who was … a woman!


This single event, the sinking of the White Ship, triggered one of the most significant crises in medieval history. Beyond that the ripples of these events can be seen in England, Europe and the wider world today.  

Conspiracy theories abound in relation to Stephen, who stepped off the White Ship at the last minute. An act which secured his succession to the throne. I love the idea that he was in the lower decks with his Black and Decker. However, this just doesn’t make sense to me. At the time of the sinking, he was entirely beyond the reach of inheritance because the King was still alive and believed fertile. The Norman laws of succession would not permit matrilineal inheritance. In addition to this, Stephen lost, family, friends, and critical political allies on the ship. Frankly there are also much easier ways to kill a person.

This is all supported by the incredible wealth he was gifted by Henry. It would be a politically suicidal move to elevate a potential rival to such a position of power. It just wasn’t considered he could ever have a claim to the throne. Stephen’s mother may have been the conquerors daughter, but she still made the very poor decision to be born a woman. An unforgivable crime in Norman society. However due to the Anarchy, in which nations went to war to support a woman’s right to the throne, a noble woman’s place in society is forever changed and I suspect without the Anarchy we wouldn’t have seen the later incredible queens and regents. Magnificent women who, whilst not sovereign, held as much power as any man, names like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Eleanor of Provence.

Side Note: Whilst every woman during this period appears to be called Matilda, in a couple of generations Eleanor is the top name in Europe.  

The sinking of one party boat full of lads in 1120, led to a succession crisis and the complete breakdown of law, order and government of England fifteen years later. The resulting conflict lasted for almost twenty years and isn’t referred to as a civil war because of the number of extrinsic forces called for support. After twenty years the body count would be incalculable, not just battlefield dead but those fallen to rampant crime and economic crisis. It was more a war of attrition, battling away until eventually one side would have no one left. However, if this wasn’t all worked out, with legal precedent and discourse, I do wonder how smooth the rise of Elizabeth I would have been four hundred years later.

Further Reading

If you find this subject or the period interesting, I can recommend the following.

Rex Factor Podcast – A podcast available on all platforms. Presented by Graham Duke and Ali Hood, they start by rating every Monarch of England from Alfred to Elizabeth II, with an episode for each ruler. They later move on to the rulers of Scotland and the Royal Consorts. Their episodes covering William Rufus, Henry I and Stephen are particularly interesting.  

The White Ship by Charles Spencer – the 9th Earl of Spencer admits he is not, formally a historian however he has a great interest in history. I found this book extremely useful. It holds the historical essentials but offers a narrative that allows us to consider the individuals, their motives and thoughts and feelings. Well worth a read.

Matilda of Scotland: A Study in Medieval Queens by Lois Huneycutt – An interesting review of the role of women at court with a particular focus on the woman who was used, more than any other as a pawn. Matilda of Scotland, wife of Henry I of England, married off to buy peace but also to give the English a queen descended from Alfred the Great. She was used to legitimise Henry’s rule. Despite all of this she appears to have remained a devoted and affectionate wife.

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