William the Atheling (an Anglo-Saxon term meaning prince or of royal blood) was the only legitimate son of Henry I, King of England, son of William the Conqueror. Williams’s mother was Edith whose own father was Malcolm III King of the Scots and mother was St Margaret. St Margaret was the great Niece of Edward the Confessor. This made William a prince to represent the new Norman rulers but also the old Saxon dynasty of Wessex.
Henry’s only other child was Matilda who married Henry V the Holy Roman Emperor after which she was known as The Empress.
During Henry’s own reign he invested William as Duke of Normandy, this was to ensure his succession but also so that Henry could, himself, avoid paying homage to Louis VI of France. Henry saw Louis as his equal and did not want to demean himself by paying such homage and so offered William to do it instead.
This was unacceptable to Louis so while William was only 16 in 1119 he fought alongside his father at the battle of Bremule and they won a decisive victory. Louis eventually accepted William’s Homage.
After his mother Edith’s death, William was appointed regent of England during his father’s absence and a marriage was arranged for him with Matilda of Anjou. This was merely to secure the loyalty of Anjou which had been a long-time rival of the house of Normandy.
With such great heritage William could have gone on to create a great legacy but like so many before him he met a sad and untimely death.
The White ship was the newest and fastest vessel in the royal fleet. After spending the evening drinking until after dark with friends and crew William and his half-brother and sister boarded the vessel. It wasn’t long before the merry revellers egged on the captain to catch up with the king’s ship, seeing as this was the swiftest vessel in the fleet. Unfortunately the helmsman was half blind with drink and it was so dark the ship crashed, shortly after setting sail, into rocks. Unable to rescue the ship William was able to escape the stricken vessel by a small boat.
William would have escaped but for hearing the cries for help from his half-sister, Matilda Fitzroy. He ordered his boat to turn round but sadly there were too many men in the sea desperate for rescue and as they all tried to clamber aboard the small boat it capsized and drowned them all. Henry of Huntington recorded after the disaster that William
“Instead of wearing embroidered robes….floated naked on the waves and instead of ascending a lofty throne……found his grave at the bottom of the sea”
Henry I was devastated at the loss of his son and eventually appointed his legitimate daughter Matilda the heir to England. This in itself had great consequences for England and the throne for it was to ultimately lead to a long and bitter civil war.