Earl Spencer’s book The White Ship reveals how Henry I’s heir William drowned trying to save sister



by Charles Spencer (William Collins £25, 352 pp)

On a cold but clear November night in 1120, almost exactly 900 years ago, a ship sailed out of Barfleur harbour on the Normandy coast, bound for Southampton.

Everyone on board was cheerfully drunk but perfectly optimistic. 

The tide had turned and was with them, which was why they had waited until after dark to sail; and the wind was now in the south.

They had 50 oarsmen on board as well, and although there was only a thin new moon, it should have been an easy crossing in such calm seas, bringing them back to England within a few hours.

Some way ahead of them sailed the King of England himself, Henry I, fourth son of William the Conqueror. 

The White Ship sank in 1120 on its way from Barfleur harbour to Southampton It was carrying Henry I’s only legitimate son, 17-year-old William Aetheling

On the following ship, the Blanche-Nef — that is, the White Ship — was Henry’s only legitimate son, 17-year-old William Aetheling, heir to the throne of England as well as to the Dukedom of Normandy.

With his laddish encouragement, the crew as well as his cronies had been drinking hard all day.

Less than a mile out to sea, disaster struck: with drunkenness and over-confidence no doubt playing a large part, the vessel hit a notorious rock called the Quilleboeuf, and her clinker-built hull was instantly ruptured. 

Frigid waters poured into her breached hull, and the White Ship began to list badly.

A few on deck were thrown into the sea almost immediately, and as the ship groaned and finally rolled onto her side, many more followed. 

But at least the young Prince William was saved, bundled into the ship’s only longboat by his bodyguards and rowed towards the shore.

The ship’s mast remained free of the water for a time, though, and two men managed to climb it and hold on, wet through and hypothermic, but still conscious.

One was a nobleman called Geoffrey de l’Aigle, and the other a very determined butcher from Rouen called Berold.

The story of the ship's sinking is told by Charles Spencer, the brother of Princess Diana

The story of the ship’s sinking is told by Charles Spencer, the brother of Princess Diana

He had travelled 100 miles from his shop in pursuit of outstanding payments from aristocratic passengers, and had pushed on board the ship after them.

Now, shivering nobleman and butcher could only cling on helplessly as the flower of Anglo-Norman nobility flailed and died in the winter seas.

Few but fishermen could swim in those days. Among the drowning was Matilda la Perche, Prince William’s half-sister. And here the story takes on a tragic poignancy.

Realising that his beloved half-sister was in the water close by, William ordered his oarsmen to turn the boat round and rescue her. 

But as soon as they rowed back among the drowning, desperate hands reached out and people tried to clamber aboard. 

The boat was swamped and capsized, and William, Margaret and the others were lost.

Geoffrey de l’Aigle eventually slipped into the water. His last words were a blessing for Berold, who was the only survivor. It was from him that these astonishing details came. 

Spencer says that the loss of the White Ship was not only a devastating personal tragedy for Henry I, but also for the Anglo-Norman ruling class

Spencer says that the loss of the White Ship was not only a devastating personal tragedy for Henry I, but also for the Anglo-Norman ruling class

It is no exaggeration, says Charles Spencer (that is Earl Spencer, Diana’s brother), to say that the loss of the White Ship was not only a devastating personal tragedy for Henry I, but also for the Anglo-Norman ruling class: a staggering 18 countesses drowned that night, along with numerous celebrated Crusader knights.

It was also a disaster for England, making the succession suddenly a dangerous uncertainty. 

With no clear male heir, the kingdom faced that worst of outcomes, a power vacuum.

Henry I had plenty of illegitimate children — more than 20, it’s thought — being fond of women and, as King, pretty much having his pick. 

Rather than court ladies, though, it seems he preferred peasant girls, milkmaids and a pretty widow ‘of no rank’ called Ansfride, who lived in Berkshire.

All very well for him — but it didn’t produce a legitimate heir to replace William Aetheling and nor did a second marriage, which remained childless, so Henry named his daughter Matilda as his successor.

On his death in 1135, Henry’s charming but feckless nephew Stephen took up arms against her, leading to agonised civil war known as The Anarchy, the bloodiest conflict ‘that England has ever suffered.’

For nearly 20 years, Stephen and the ambitious and arrogant Matilda fought it out. 

It was a hellish time of siege and counter-siege, starvation and slaughter when, as the chroniclers said, it seemed to men that ‘Christ and his saints slept’.

People must have looked back with longing to the days of Henry I, a tough, sometimes brutal ruler who nevertheless kept order. 

Spencer gives many examples of this toughness, without which no ruler would survive long in the tumultuous early medieval world.

With your kingdom constantly beset by overmighty barons, riotous peasantry and threats of foreign invasion from all sides, a weak king was one who lost control and permitted disorder, while a good king was one who, by whatever means necessary, kept law and order.

 And Henry I’s deeds were atrocious. 

On his orders, one group of peasants had their feet cut off for foraging for firewood where they shouldn’t. Counterfeiters had their right hands cut off and were castrated — as were rapists.

THE WHITE SHIP by Charles Spencer (William Collins £25, 352 pp)

THE WHITE SHIP by Charles Spencer (William Collins £25, 352 pp)

Tough on crime as he was, Henry has gone down in history as The Lion of Justice. The law applied equally to ‘high and low’, and it was boasted that a girl laden with gold could cross the kingdom in perfect safety.

The Anarchy ended in 1153 just before Stephen died of a fever, and Matilda’s son became Henry II.

For those who see parallels today in countries where the only choice seems between a ruthless strongman in absolute power or bloody anarchy, there is much food for thought.

And as colourful and racy narrative history goes, this absolutely gallops. 

The White Ship whips through a hundred years of complex history, from the Norman Conquest to Henry II, in just under 300 pages.

At times you long for a little more detail, more evocation of sights, sounds and smells — though one happy aside will stay with me: Henry I’s saintly first wife Matilda, ‘Good Queen Maud,’ gave London ‘its first public lavatories’.

There have been many tragic shipwrecks in our history, from the Mary Rose to the Lusitania to the Titanic.  

But medieval historian William of Malmesbury was surely right, when he wrote of the Blanche-Nef that ‘No Ship that ever sailed brought England such Disaster.’