The White Ship: A Booze Fuelled Disaster

White Ship Disaster
Image taken from The British Library, Royal MS 20 A II.
Details the White Ship.

Ever had a feeling that you have had a bit too much to drink? When the extra glass of wine seems like a great idea but the room begins to spin a little bit? When the impending doom of a hangover becomes more and more of a reality? Well, on the 25th of November 1120, in Barfleur Harbour, hangovers were the last thing on everyone’s minds. It was here that Prince William the Aetheling, the sole heir to the throne of England, named after his grandfather William the Conqueror, awaited his return to England alongside his father, King Henry I.

A young man at seventeen he was just recently married to Matilda, the daughter of Fulk V, the count of Anjou and the future king of Jerusalem. Weeks before the night of the 25th of November he was proclaimed the new duke of Normandy becoming one of the most important political figures of the age. He was also rich, doted upon and adored. One could say that things were going rather well for young William. He certainly thought so and was busy celebrating, surrounded by his family – his half brother Richard of Lincoln and half sister Matilda countess of Rouche- and the elite of the Anglo-Norman nobility.

The princes’ retinue were aboard a ship known simply as the ‘White Ship’. The ship was of course white, large and capable of carrying over a hundred passengers not including crew, and was richly ornate and decorative; a perfect fit for royal service. The owner of the ship was a man named Thomas Fitzstephen, who had petitioned King Henry for the great honour of bringing the royal party back home safe to English shores. Henry had acceded, entrusting Fitzstephen with the safety of the prince’s passage.

Safety however was the last thing on the mind of the prince and his merry revellers. William, the glittering jewel in the crown of England was drunk. His noble friends and family were drunk and lets not forget to mention the crew; they were drunk too in what can only be described as a veritable soup of drunkenness. At some point in the evening, the king’s ship left the harbour, fully expecting the White Ship to follow suit. However, the wine was flowing freely and celebrations kept the ship in the harbour well past the closing in of night. As was customary, priests arrived at the harbour to bless the ship with holy water on it’s journey as sea voyages were fraught with danger. However this time, the priests were mocked and jeered at by the drunken party, and left before completing the blessing. As the evening dragged on, those on-board became increasingly inebriated, culminating in the drunken idea that their ship could easily overtake that of the kings which had left hours before. The drunken crew and passengers prepared to set sail, determined to overtake the kings ship and reach England before king Henry.

As you have probably guessed; this did not end well, and no, they did not overtake King Henry’s ship. Mere minutes after setting sail and still in the harbour, the White Ship crashed amongst the rocks. The drunken crew leapt into action and realised that the main priority of course was to save Prince William, who by this point had clambered aboard a lifeboat with some friends and was being rowed back to shore. However, Prince William, blinded by love for his family, upon hearing the screams of his sister demanded the small dingy be turned around to save her. Upon approaching his sister, the lifeboat was swarmed by drowning people and overturned with both William and Matilda sadly drowning.

The only survivors of the White Ship disaster were a butcher from Rouen and Stephen of Blois, William the Aetheling’s cousin who had disembarked before the fateful departure, sensibly deciding that the crew were too drunk to be trusted. When King Henry found out that his son and heir had died, he was inconsolable with grief and the whole future of England was thrown into disarray. The death of William sparked the beginning of three decades of tumultuous history, culminating in one of Britian’s most successful, brutal, bloody and frankly confusing dynasties; The Plantagenets.

P.S. Don’t drink and try to sail a longship.


Dan Jones (2013) ‘The Plantagenets; The Kings Who Made England’ Harper and Collins

Frank Barlow (1999) ‘The Feudal Kingdom of Engalnd 1042-1216′ Longman

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