White Ship Disaster

‘No ship ever brought so much misery to England’
William of Malmesbury.

When we think of important dates in medieval history, 25 November 1120 probably isn’t one that springs to mind. But for England this was, in many ways, a momentous day. Not only did this day witnesses the death of Prince William, heir to the throne, it also set the country on the road to its first and often forgotten, civil war…

The port of Barfleur

On 25 November 1120, King Henry I and his heir, Prince William, were in Normandy. Their purpose in France was to ensure peace in the duchy of Normandy and with this now achieved, were about to sail home.

On arrival at the port of Barfleur, Thomas FitzStephen, captain of the White Ship, approached Henry and offered his captaincy and use of his vessel. FitzStephen claimed that his father had been employed by William the Conqueror as his personal captain and had in fact taken the duke to England for the invasion of 1066. With such impressive credentials, Henry accepted his offer – not for himself but for his son. The deal was then sealed with few drinks which soon turned into a long day of partying. By the time they boarded the ship that evening, FitzStephen and the royal party were roaring drunk.

Barfleur harbour is notoriously difficult to navigate – even for the most experienced crews. Its strong current and fast, tidal stream, which still plague ships today, can make it extremely difficult for ships to safely enter and exit Barfleur. The White Ship had made it one half mile through these obstacles a submerged rock struck its port side causing the vessel to immediately capsize.


With only one known survivor from the White Ship Disaster, it is difficult to ascertain the full details of that fateful night (that lucky soul was a butcher from Rouen, saved by the warm ram-skins that he was wearing and rescued by three fishermen the next day). King Henry lost not only his son and heir, William, but also two of his illegitimate children, Richard and Matilda. FitzStephen managed to swim to the surface but chose to drown rather than tell the king of William’s death. That grim task was left to an unidentified young boy back in England.

On hearing the news, Henry broke down and fell to the floor. Widowed and in his early fifties, it seemed unlikely that Henry would ever produce another legitimate heir to replace William. If Henry could not guarantee the succession, he could guarantee the peace and stability of his kingdom. The scene was now set for Medieval Anarchy.

Kaye Jones

The Medieval Anarchy: History In An Hour, published by Harper Press, is available in various digital formats.

See also articles on the Empress Matilda and King Stephen.