Tonight’s History Mystery

On this November evening, around midnight, 902 years ago

The White Ship set sail from Barfleur carrying the heir of King Henry I of England, Wales and Normandy. The Anglo-Norman empire created by William the Conqueror necessitated frequent, often annual, travel across the English sea by the ruler and many of his entourage. That night, King Henry had already set sail for England on another ship, an hour or so ahead.

There were 300 young Norman nobles aboard The White Ship and wine was flowing for passengers and crew alike. It was a moonless night. Less than a mile from the shore, the newly-built ship struck a rock and swiftly sank. There was only one survivor – a butcher from Rouen – who clung to a broken plank.

King Henry lost his only legitimate son, 17-year-old William Adelin, in the wreck. Also aboard were two of the king’s illegitimate children, Richard and Mathilde, countess of Perche, the king’s niece, the Earl of Chester and many other nobles and friends. Some of the drowned washed ashore but the body of the prince was never found. Vestiges of the wreck were discovered by divers only last year. 

The disaster set off a succession crisis. The ageing king took a new wife but there were no more royal children. In desperation, King Henry made his barons swear an oath of allegiance to his daughter, Empress Maud, and named her as his successor. When Henry died, his nephew Stephen de Blois usurped the throne. Empress Maud and King Stephen fought a civil war, known as The Anarchy, which dragged on for years. When Stephen died, Maud’s son Henry II took the throne.

Was the sinking of The White Ship an accident or was it mass murder? There are unsolved mysteries about the wreck, with the most glaring being that Stephen de Blois was on the ship but disembarked shortly before it sailed. 

My historical fiction trilogy, Conquest, deals with The White Ship wreck and the following succession crisis. One of my characters, Sheriff Haith, sets about trying to solve the mystery. New editions of my trilogy will be published in the spring and can be preordered from Meanda Books. And don’t miss the Christmas sale of two of my other historical novels set in 10th and 11th century Europe.

Further down the coast from Barfleur, in contemporary Honfleur, The La Mora Association are currently working on recreating the vessel that William Adelin’s grandfather William the Conqueror used to cross the Channel in the 1066 invasion of England. La Mora was a Viking-type warship with a slender profile, which could sail up rivers and run aground on the shore. It was 34 m long, built from oak,  with a 150-square-metre sail, and could carry a crew of 70 people including 60 rowers. The ship and the accompanying invasion fleet are depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry (left). The recreation of the ship is part of a living history project, which will include an ambitious exhibition of the maritime history of Normandy. The original Bayeux Tapestry is on exhibition in Bayeux in France, and a replica can be seen at Reading Museum in the UK.

For more on The White Ship mystery see:

Charles Spencer, The White Ship, 2021.

Victoria Chandler, “The Wreck of the White Ship”, in The Final Argument: The Imprint of Violence on Society in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, edited by Donald J. Kagay and L.J. Andrew Villalon (1998). 

‘What Was The White Ship Disaster’History Hit

‘Death and Anarchy: The White Ship Disaster’, Reading Museum

‘Charles Spencer on The White Ship’, History Extra

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Susan says:

    I’ve never heard of the white ship, what a fascinating piece of history.

  2. Yes, fascinating, Tracey!

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