White Ship

The White Ship (French: la Blanche-Nef, Latin documents Latin: Candida navis) was a vessel that sank in the English Channel near the Normandy coast off Barfleur, on 25 November 1120. Only one of those aboard survived.[1] Those who drowned included William Adelin, the only legitimate son and heir of King Henry I of England, his half-sister Matilda, his half-brother Richard and also Richard d'Avranches, 2nd Earl of Chester. William Adelin's death led to a succession crisis and a period of civil war in England known as the Anarchy.

The White Ship sinking
Name: The White Ship
Out of service: 25 November 1120
Fate: Struck a submerged rock off Barfleur, Normandy
Status: Wreck
General characteristics
Class and type: Sailing ship
Installed power: Square Sails
Propulsion: Wind and oars


The White Ship was a newly refitted vessel captained by Thomas FitzStephen (Thomas filz Estienne), whose father Stephen FitzAirard (Estienne filz Airard) had been captain of the ship Mora for William the Conqueror when he invaded England in 1066.[2] Thomas offered his ship to Henry I of England to use it to return to England from Barfleur in Normandy.[3] Henry had already made other arrangements, but allowed many in his retinue 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.[3] According to chronicler Orderic Vitalis, the crew asked William Adelin for wine and he supplied it to them in great abundance.[3] 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.[4]

The ship's captain, Thomas FitzStephen, was ordered by the revellers to overtake the king's ship, which had already sailed.[4] 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.[4] 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.[4] According to Orderic Vitalis, Berold (Beroldus or Berout), a butcher from Rouen, was the sole survivor of the shipwreck by clinging to the rock. 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.[5]

One legend holds that the ship was doomed because priests were not allowed to board it in the customary manner.[lower-alpha 1] For a complete list of those who did or did not travel on the White Ship, see Victims of the White Ship disaster.


A direct result of William Adelin's death was the period known as the Anarchy. The White Ship disaster had left Henry I with only one legitimate child, a second daughter named Matilda. Although Henry I had forced his barons to swear an oath to support Matilda as his heir on several occasions, a woman had never ruled in England in her own right. Matilda was also unpopular because she was married to Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou, a traditional enemy of England's Norman nobles. Upon Henry's death in 1135, the English barons were reluctant to accept Matilda as queen regnant.

One of Henry I's male relatives, Stephen of Blois, the king's nephew by his sister Adela, usurped Matilda as well as his older brothers William and Theobald to become king. Stephen had allegedly planned to travel on the White Ship but had disembarked just before it sailed;[3] Orderic Vitalis attributes this to a sudden bout of diarrhoea.

After Henry I's death, Matilda and her husband Geoffrey of Anjou, the founder of the Plantagenet dynasty, launched a long and devastating war against Stephen and his allies for control of the English throne. The Anarchy dragged from 1135 to 1153 with devastating effect, especially in southern England.

Contemporary historian William of Malmesbury wrote:

No ship that ever sailed brought England such disaster, none was so well known the wide world over. There perished then with William the king's other son Richard, born to him before his accession by a woman of the country, a high-spirited youth, whose devotion had earned his father's love; Richard earl of Chester and his brother Othuel, the guardian and tutor of the king's son; the king's daughter the countess of Perche, and his niece, Theobald's sister, the countess of Chester; besides all the choicest knights and chaplains of the court, and the nobles' sons who were candidates for knighthood, for they had hastened to from all sides to join him, as I have said, expecting no small gain in reputation if they could show the king's son some sport or do him some service.[6]

Historical fiction

  • Reference to the sinking of the White Ship is made in Ken Follett's novel The Pillars of the Earth (1989) and its later game adaptation. The ship's sinking sets the stage for the entire background of the story, which is based on the subsequent civil war between Matilda (referred to as Maud in the novel) and Stephen. In Follett's novel, it is implied that the ship may have been sabotaged; this implication is seen in the TV adaptation (even going so far as to show William Adelin assassinated whilst on a lifeboat) and the video game adaptation.
  • It is also described in detail by Sharon Kay Penman in the historical novel When Christ and His Saints Slept (1994).
  • The sinking of the White Ship is briefly referenced in Glenn Cooper's novel The Tenth Chamber (2010).
  • The White Ship also sets the stage for the 2009 novel Hiobs Brüder (The Brothers of Job) by the German author Rebecca Gablé, which details the rise of Henry II of England, son of Empress Matilda.
  • The long conflict between Stephen and Matilda is important in the Brother Cadfael series. This 20-book set of mysteries, by Ellis Peters, has a 12th-century Benedictine monk as its protagonist. Depending on the book, the conflict is either very important or just serves as a backdrop to the plots. The sinking directly affects the outcome of the short story "A Light on the Road to Woodstock".
  • In the GURPS role-playing game Infinite Worlds setting, the Infinity Patrol that travels between parallel universes is opposed by another world with parachronic travel, Centrum. The point of historical divergence on Centrum is the survival of the White Ship, where William Adelin survives and his descendants lead an Anglo-French Empire that conquers the world. That empire is later decimated by a nuclear attack on the palace in 1902, leading to civil war and worldwide collapse, which brings about the rise there of the socialist technocratic meritocracy Centrum.


  • Felicia Hemans, "He Never Smiled Again", c. 1830[7]
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "The White Ship: a ballad"; first published 1881 in his collected Ballads and Sonnets.[8]
  • Edwin Arlington Robinson, "Ballad of a Ship", 1891[9]
  • Geoffrey Hill, "The White Ship". In his first book, For the Unfallen, 1959.
  • Franck K. Lehodey, "White Ship". A graphic novel, 2011.


  1. William of Nangis wrote that the White Ship sank because all the men aboard were sodomites. See: ’’Chron.’’ in Rolls series, ed. W. Stubbs (London, 1879), vol. 2, under A.D. 1120. which reflects the medieval belief that sin caused pestilence and disaster. See also: Codex Justinian, nov. 141. Another theory is expounded by 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). Her theory discusses the possibility of it being a mass murder.


  1. There are seven accounts of the disaster: Orderic Vitalis, Historia ecclesiastica 12.26 (ed. and trans. Chibnall, 1978, pp. 294–307); William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum 5.419 (ed. and trans. Mynors, Thomson, and Winterbottom, 1998, pp. 758–763); Simeon of Durham, Historia regum 100.199 (ed. T. Arnold, 1885, vol. 2, pp. 258–9); Eadmer, Historia nouorum in Anglia (ed. M. Rule, 1884, pp. 288–9), Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum 7.32 (ed. and trans. Greenway, 1996, pp. 466–7), Hugh the Chanter, History of the Church at York (ed. and trans. Johnson, 1990, pp. 164–5), Robert of Torigni, Gesta Normannorum ducum (ed. and trans. E. van Houts, 1995, vol. 2, pp. 216–19, 246–51, 274–7), and Wace, Roman de Rou, pt. iii, lines 10173–262 (ed. A. Holden, 1973, vol. 2, pp. 262–6).
  2. Elisabeth M.C, van Houts, 'The Ship List of William the Conqueror', Anglo-Norman Studies X: Proceedings of the Battle Conference 1987, ed. R. Allen Brown (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1988), pp. 172–73
  3. Judith A. Green, Henry I: King of England and Duke of Normandy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 165
  4. William M. Aird, Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy c. 1050–1134 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2008), p. 269
  5. The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis. 6. Marjorie Chibnall (ed. and trans.). Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1978. pp. 298–299. ISBN 978-0-19-822243-9.CS1 maint: others (link)
  6. Gesta regum Anglorum/The history of the English kings. R.A.B. Mynors, Rodney M. Thomson, Michael Winterbottom (eds. and trans.). Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1998. pp. 761–763. ISBN 0-19-820678-X.CS1 maint: others (link)
  7. "The Poetical Works of Mrs. Hemans : electronic version". University of California, British Women Romantic Poets Project. Archived from the original on 5 March 2016. Retrieved 31 May 2014.
  8. "Dante Gabriel Rossetti: "The White Ship: a ballad"". Rossettiarchive.org. Archived from the original on 28 June 2013. Retrieved 30 June 2013.
  9. "Edwin Arlington Robinson – Ballad of a Ship". Americanpoems.com. Archived from the original on 14 September 2016. Retrieved 31 July 2016.

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