White Ship

The White Ship, a 12th century vessel, sank in the English Channel near the Normandy coast off Barfleur, on November 25, 1120. Those drowned included William Adelin, the only unquestionably legitimate son of King Henry I of England. Only one sailor survived.

William of Malmesbury wrote: "Here also perished with William, Richard, another of the King's [Henry I] sons, whom a women of no rank had borne him, before his accession, a brave youth, and dear to his father from his obedience; Richard d'Avranches, 2nd Earl of Chester, and his brother Otheur; Geoffrey Ridel; Walter of Everci; Geoffrey, archdeacon of Hereford; [Matilda] the Countess of Perche, the king's daughter; the Countess of Chester; the king's niece Lucia-Mahaut of Blois; and many others..."

The cause of the shipwreck remains unclear. Various stories surrounding its loss feature a drinking binge by the crew and passengers and mention that priests were not allowed on board to bless the ship in the customary manner. However, the Channel has often proven a notoriously treacherous stretch of water.

Stephen of Blois, King Henry's nephew, had allegedly disembarked just before the ship sailed. If so, his action appears ironic, since, as a direct result of William's death, Stephen would later usurp the English throne, resulting in the period known as the Anarchy.

The death of William Adelin in this shipwreck had enormous implications for the future of English history and English religion in particular. Great chaos followed the death of Henry I. The English barons were reluctant to accept Matilda as Queen Regnant. Stephen usurped the throne, as noted above. This awful controversy surrounding the succession was one of the reasons that King Henry VIII was reluctant to leave his crown in the 16th Century to a daughter. Thus, one of the root causes of the English Reformation can be traced back to this 1120 shipwreck.


  • 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)

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