The White Ship Disaster

On November 25, 1120 the newly refitted vessel the White Ship captained by Thomas FitzStephen White Ship sank in the English Channel near the Normandy coast off Barfleur. Only one of those aboard survived. William Adelin, the only legitimate son and heir of King Henry I of England, his half-sister Matilda, and his half-brother Richard would be one of many to drown. Adelin’s death would lead to a succession crisis and a period of civil war in England known as the Anarchy.

FitzStephen offered his ship to Henry I of England to use to return to England from Barfleur in Normandy. Henry had already made other arrangements, but allowed many in his party to take the White Ship, including his heir, William Adelin; his illegitimate son Richard of Lincoln; his illegitimate daughter Matilda FitzRoy, Countess of Perche; and many other nobles. According to chronicler Orderic Vitalis, the crew asked William Adelin for wine and he supplied it to them in great abundance. By the time the ship was ready to leave there were about 300 people on board although some had disembarked due to the excessive drinking before the ship sailed.

FitzStephen, was ordered by the revellers to overtake the king’s ship, which had already sailed. The White Ship was fast, of the best construction and had recently been fitted with new materials, which made the captain and crew confident they could reach England first. But when it set off in the dark, its port side struck a submerged rock called Quillebœuf, and the ship quickly capsized. William Adelin got into a small boat and could have escaped but turned back to try to rescue his half-sister, Matilda, when he heard her cries for help. His boat was swamped by others trying to save themselves, and William drowned along with them. According to Orderic Vitalis, only two survived by clinging to the rock that night. One was Berold (Beroldus or Berout), a butcher from Rouen; the second eventually drowned, Geoffrey, the son of Gilbert of Laigle. The chronicler further wrote that when Thomas FitzStephen came to the surface after the sinking and learned that William Adelin had not survived, he let himself drown rather than face the King. One legend holds that the ship was doomed because priests were not allowed to board it in the customary manner.

Approximately 250, including servants and marines. Of these, 140 were knights or noblemen and 18 were noblewomen. Over the next few days a few bodies found there way ashore, but William’s body was never found.

Adela