English History’s Most Significant Shipwreck

November 2020

On the 900th anniversary of the shipwreck, Dr Sam Willis talks with Charles, Earl Spencer, about the White Ship disaster of 25 November 1120. The loss of the ship was one of the greatest disasters that England ever suffered and its repercussions changed English and European history forever. Henry I was sailing for England in triumph after years of fighting the French as the most formidable ruler in Europe. He landed home safely but the boat which followed a little later, upon which travelled some 300 passengers of the highest rank, including Henry’s only legitimate son, the cream of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy including eighteen women of the rank of countess, famous knights and courtiers, did not…

 

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    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, I’m Sam Willis, and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. It’s Wednesday 25th of November. This continues our series of excerpts from the logbook of the Whaler Swan of Hull from 1836. She’s trapped in the ice in the Davis Strait between Baffin Island and the west coast of Greenland. It’s been a relatively interesting week for the crew living most of their time in the freezing darkness.

    Whaler Swan

    20th November, light breezes from the northward with hazy weather. At noon shot a white fox from the ship. Began to burn our spare main top-gallant mast. Divine service between decks as usual. Thermometer 10 below zero. 25th November, light winds from the north, at noon the land bore south-southwest, distance 60 miles. The men employed in banking the ship side up with snow for the purpose of making it warmer. 11 am a bear came near enough so as to enable the men to get a shot at him, but being wounded but slightly he got away, after chasing him for five hours on the ice. The thermometer rose this day to eight above zero but towards night it fell as much below. Wind from the southward.

    Sam Willis

    Measurements taken today in that exact location show that the ice has formed there finally, but it did not come for a full month after the Swan was first trapped. The area in question is enormous, and the Arctic sea ice keeps the polar regions cool and helps moderate global climate. Hello everyone! Today being the 25th of November is the 900th anniversary of the most significant shipwreck in English history: the wreck of the White Ship. It’s one of the greatest disasters that England has ever suffered, its repercussions changed European and English history forever. So, today I’m going to get to the bottom of this fascinating story by talking with Earl Spencer, who has just written a book on that very subject. Charles Spencer is the younger brother of Diana, Princess of Wales and has made a name for himself recently as a historian, with books the ‘Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I’ and ‘To Catch A King: Charles II’s Great Escape’.

    Hi, Charles.

    Charles Spencer

    Hello, Sam.

    Sam Willis

    Well, thank you so much for talking to us today. What a story this is! It’s magnificent, isn’t it? I came across this story when I was a younger man writing a book about the Middle Ages and I couldn’t believe that it actually happened, and I couldn’t believe how important it was and yet how few people knew about it. How did you come across the story of the White Ship?

    Charles Spencer

    Yeah, well, I’m older than you Sam and I used to, one of my first history books as a child was called ‘Our Island Story’ which is a completely non-pc look at how Great Britain was between Boadicea and the death of Queen Victoria. But the whole chapter on Henry I was really about the White Ship. And it was gripping the idea that a dynasty could really be wrecked in one accident. And like you, I always assumed everyone knew about it. And then I went to give a talk actually at Leeds Castle for some historians, who are international visitors, and I realised when I bumped into this, talking about it because I wanted to tell them a bit about Empress Matilda one of the key figures in this story, that really none of them knew anything about it. A couple have heard of it, but none of them really appreciated quite how important it was. And that was it really, I thought, like you, I’m always surprised by what people do know and what they, more particularly, what they don’t know when you assume they know the same as you.

    Sam Willis

    Yeah, it is. It is a dangerous thing, assuming people know the same as you. I find it the other way around actually, people assume I know a great deal and I don’t, there’s nothing in my head at all. This story, so it starts with Henry I. He’s King and he’s had a bit of a struggle becoming King, hasn’t he?

    Charles Spencer

    Yes. Well, that you see, Henry I is one of those names from history of one of the Kings that I really do think should be better known to people nowadays. He’s just not very fashionable. I hadn’t appreciated until I researched this book that he was a son of the Conqueror and that he had a really brutally tough time because essentially his father on his deathbed, left England to William Rufus and reluctantly left Normandy to the eldest son, Robert Curthose. And Henry got nothing, he got some money which in those days, you know, if you’re part of a royal dynasty, what you really needed was a title and land and therefore power and he was very much at the mercy of his brothers for a long time. And then after that, it became slightly easier for him because he, he was an opportunist, really, he sees both his chances, one with the death of William Rufus and the other by conquering Normandy and taking that for himself. So, all in all, a man not to be trifled with really.

    Sam Willis

    Yeah. And the key thing to know about this story is he’d gone through a great deal to get into this situation: he’d won the throne and he had a son, and it was all kind of teed up to be okay. But this is where this story comes about.

    Charles Spencer

    That’s so true. You know, I think there’s an element without getting pretentious, there’s an element of sort of Greek tragedy about this, a man who started not with nothing, but was little in terms of royal power. And then I think you’re absolutely right, I think he spent the first 20 years of his reign, building up dynasty but also a legacy. And the legacy has pointed very much in one direction, which is his only legitimate son, William Adelin. Now, you know, Henry, first very fertile man, he had 22, perhaps more, perhaps a little less, but probably about 22 illegitimate children, but only one legitimate son. And that was, I suppose, not Henry’s mistake, but that was Henry’s chance in terms of forming this dynasty.

    Sam Willis

    So, he’s there in northern France, and he’s preparing to sail back to England. And it’s quite important why he’s in northern France, isn’t it? He’s just been doing some successful conquering of his own.

    Charles Spencer

    Yes. Henry’s great adversary through most of his reign was Louie VI of France a man of magnificent girth known as Louis the Fat. And eventually, after three and a half years of solid campaigning, Henry I has beaten the French in battle, and a decisive battle, at Bremule in 1119. And so now the King of France reluctantly has to agree to, really what the war was all about, which is recognising Henry’s only son, William, as the future Duke of Normandy. So yes, Henry’s coming to Barfleur in Normandy, the great sort of harbour for trips back to Southampton at the time, as a man who’s really in his mind settled everything, and everything really is embodied by his son.

    Sam Willis

    And it’s not just him waiting to board these ships to sail back to England: Henry, his son, and then there are these, there’s a huge crowd of aristocracy.

    Charles Spencer

    Yes. And you know what, one of the things I rather love about Henry is that he decided to really found a parallel bunch of powerful men. They said he raised people from the dust, it’s because he realized that he could get much more loyalty, and a lot less trouble from people who he promoted on their ability and loyalty to him. And a lot of them are on this ship too. It is amazing who was on this one ship, there’s the Earl of Chester, the most powerful aristocrat in England, and then a huge bevvy of very powerful men and women. There’s 18 women of the rank of countess and above, and a couple of the Royal illegitimate children, the natural children, and nephew and niece, and all sorts of intricately connected members of the Anglo-Norman flower of the aristocracy and a power.

    Sam Willis

    And so, you’ve got this essentially, hugely precious cargo: we know it wasn’t a very windy night, but then it all goes wrong. It’s the inexplicable nature of it is something that makes it such a mystery. I love the way that you start the book talking about a distant noise, just a sound, it really makes you think of the soundscape of the past, and how important that was. But it was a, you describe it as a shrill and short-lived sound like the distance squawk of a passing gull. And that was the moment where everything really had gotten very wrong, indeed. So, what happened between all of these wealthy people being on the quayside in Barfleur and then tragedy striking?

    Charles Spencer

    Well, eventually they the Royal party arrived in triumph, including the king, and a man steps forward and he declares himself the son of the Captain of William the Conqueror’s flagship in 1066. And demands the honour of taking the King back in triumph to England after his victories over the French. But Henry, I rather like Henry, he’s rather sort of pragmatic and not very flatterable, and he says no, he’s going to carry on in his normal ship however wonderful the White Ship is, and clearly, it was a splendid vessel, and you know, probably was white in some form, whether it was, you know, ash-lime sort of colour or whatever it was. Now, at that point, Henry decides, I think as a consolation to this crestfallen Captain, that he’ll let him bring his son William and these other incredibly important people, and indeed the Royal treasure chest, in the White Ship. Henry sets off at his normal pace in the early evening of 25th of November 1120, and he leaves his son with a lot of hangers-on, the son, William, was 17 years old, very impressionable, very flattered himself by the crew. And he sets about getting rip-roaringly drunk with his friends, and then they think it would be amusing to bring the crew in on this drinking as well. And it’s quite clear that pretty much everyone on board was drunk by the time they pushed off, a little before midnight that night. And that’s when things go very wrong. So, we do have an eyewitness of what happens after the crash into the rock. But what happens, I think, just logically, is that we know for sure that the 50 ore-men were particularly powerful on the White Ship, and they were being urged by the passengers to go as fast they could because they thought they could overtake the king’s vessel before it got Southampton, even though it had several hours head start. And at the same time, the Captain, who I assume was as drunk as everyone else, dropped the sail quite early. And a Barfleur is a fantastic place to build a ship, or even to take to harbour, but the one problem that Barfleur has, and people may have visited, it’s very pretty fishing village now, but it was the Cherbourg of its day or a busy busy port, it’s got a lot of rocks outside, and particularly one called the Quillebeuf Rock, which is hidden at high tide, but it’s a monster of a rock and that’s what took the White Ship down. The sail was dropped too soon, the rowers are going too fast, the helmsman wasn’t paying attention, and there’s this huge splitting sound, as one side of the vessel is staved in by the Quillebeuf Rock.

    Sam Willis

    And you mentioned we have the one eyewitness. He’s a really interesting character, isn’t he? I think we should say that we’ve got one eyewitness because everyone else died. That’s the scale of this tragedy.

    Charles Spencer

    There are 250 passengers and 50 crew, and they all die apart from initially two, look this is a time when people didn’t know how to swim, it was not a pastime, and people were terrified of the water. And apart from one or two people who were involved with retrieving nets, you can’t find anyone who can swim at this time. So also, it’s late November in the Channel, it’s freezing, and people die of cold-water shock as well. But one man, yes, who’s the most intriguing figure as you say, Berold, a butcher from Rouen, has pursued these wealthy and influential people onto the ship because he’s been concerned that they’re going to disappear across the Channel without settling all their debts with him, and he’s not going to have that. And, do you know Sam, I take the view that the reason he survived is partly because of his humble status because he’s not dressed in the furs and silks of his so-called social superiors. He’s clad in the offcuts of his trade, you know, goatskin, sheepskin, tunic. And I don’t know I’m not much of a scientist, but I did look into this, that those wools, those materials do have a heat bearing property if you get out of the water, and he did. He and this man called de l’Aigle, one of the great knights of Henry’s army, clamber onto a bit of broken mast, and they see everything unfurl around them. Now poor old de l’Aigle doesn’t make it through the night, he slips away with hypothermia and drops into the channel never to be seen again. But somehow, he must have been very tough Berold, despite what he was wearing, survives the whole night and is discovered by fishermen in the morning. And he has this extraordinary tale to tell, a tale of utter catastrophe.

    Sam Willis

    Yeah, and it’s interesting that it is a tale that seems to have had a significant twist in it because it’s clear that William at one point does get away, doesn’t he?

    Charles Spencer

    Yes, we know from Berold’s account, and I don’t know if we can assume that’s true or whether he was asked to make the prince look a little bit more noble in his death. But the story that has come down through the generations from Berold is that William was bundled into the wonderful rowing boat on the White Ship by his bodyguards, and they were heading safely to Barfleur and the coast, which was only a mile inland, a mile from the wreck. And at that stage, he heard the piercing voice of his half-sister, one of Henry I illegitimate daughters, Margarte of Perche, and she’s screaming a mixture of, you know, ‘please come and help me’, with a fair lashing of insult to, as to his manhood for leaving her to die there. And he’s persuaded, William in his safe boat, to order his little crew to turn around and go and retrieve her. And of course, you know, this is a, this comes to a sticky end because a lot of people who are thrashing around in the cold water, drowning, clamber onto this little rowing boat and take it down and the prince goes down with it. So, it is possible that the White Ship going down could have almost been forgotten to history, as long as the prince had survived, but it was his death that made it so terrible and the consequences so huge.

    Sam Willis

    And the scale of those consequences. So, let’s just move the focus from this scene of tragedy on the Quillebeuf Rock off Barfleur back to England. So, remember everyone that the White Ship is following in Henry, the king’s, wake: Henry’s landed in Southampton safely, he’s chipped off to somewhere in the New Forest doesn’t he, to merrily wait for everyone to arrive. But then no one comes.

    Charles Spencer

    And it’s very tough, you know. Think of the courtiers, so they learn very quickly about this appalling loss of life. And, you know, the chroniclers are very clear, there was almost nobody among the powerful who was still living who hadn’t lost either a relative or a close friend in the disaster, and these people decided they couldn’t, that nobody, wanted to tell Henry I. Now, Henry I had many qualities, but he was also a very fearsome, hardnosed man, and people were terrified of telling him, as well as he had the unusual attribute of really loving his children. And this was not necessarily a prerequisite for a monarch at this time. So, nobody wanted to tell him and eventually one of his nephews, one of the princes of Blois, decided that it had to be broken to him, this terrible news. And he didn’t want to do it, so he persuaded a page boy to go in and this little boy goes in, you can imagine the scene: The King has no idea he has been asking for a day or so where the others are, and this little boy goes in and blurts out this terrible news. And according to eyewitnesses there, the king bellowed and then fell down in shock. And, you know, there’s an awful sort of screaming, and he’s then led away to digest this news. And they say, obviously, with some artistic license that Henry I never smiled again. But what we do know is that he, although he remarried, within two months of the White Ship disaster, he was a widower at that time, he never had another legitimate male heir. And this was really the sort of terrible conundrum that he tried to deal with the remaining 15 years of his life.

    Sam Willis

    What happens to him, it’s a really interesting study in medieval grief, as well. He goes through a really interesting sort of almost a period of denial, where he sends people off around all the ports, doesn’t he, to try and find news ‘where is my son’, and they’re, meanwhile, they’re finding bodies floating around in France, just trying to identify the son and they can’t. I thought actually the identification of the victims was particularly interesting because of the finery of their clothes. It sounds like they weren’t dressed to go on a boat across the Channel in November: they were going to a party.

    Charles Spencer

    I think it was a party atmosphere. And do you know, it’s interesting, because, of course, you know, we have the ways of retrieving bodies in such situations and they didn’t. So, the few people who could swim were getting a fortune, being employed by wealthy people who had lost a family member, to dive along the coast and look for these bodies. So important to the medieval mind, of course, to have a Christian burial. But it was very, very difficult. It’s a tidal area, of course, and bodies were washed along the coast. Very, very few of them were found, but the ones that were, you’re quite right, were identified by their clothing – quite often because they’ve been in the water so long, and their facial features have disappeared. But I think it is such an extraordinary thing. But I think again, in the 17th century, I once wrote a biography of Prince Rupert, and he lost his brother Prince Morris in a storm and he never gave up. You know, when there is no body, you hope that somehow, they got swept away and even if they were captured by pirates or something, you could have the dream that somehow, they survived. It took a little time for the King to accept that there were, apart from Berol, the butcher, absolutely no survivors whatsoever.

    Sam Willis

    Yeah, so we’ve got this terrible situation where Henry the Kings managed to fight his way to power, he’s got one legitimate son, all sorts of illegitimate children. And then the son is taken from him in this tragedy, and this tees it up for how we can go on to explain that this is England’s most significant shipwreck, bar none, because of what happens next.

    Charles Spencer

    Yes, so actually, in itself the shipwreck wasn’t of course it was a catastrophe for those who had, who lost family members or even colleagues. But there was a possibility of it being reversed if the King could have remarried and had another son in that marriage. But I, look I don’t know why Henry had no more children, he married this girl who was chosen for her bloodline, but also her beauty. And she, we know because after Henry’s death, she remarried she had half a dozen children, there was no problem with her. And I wonder if Henry suffered from the grief whether there was some form of impotence or something, but something went wrong, and this man who had sired two dozen children, sired no more in the marriage. And I think after what half a dozen years of this, he began to realize that he may not be able to have more children. And he started to make plans and his plans settled on the shoulders of his one other legitimate child, the lost Prince William’s elder sister, Matilda. Who was by this stage a widow, she was the widow of the, what would become known as the Holy Roman Emperor, the Emperor Heinrich V, Henry V of Germany. And so, she was used as the future hopes for Henry and he made her marry one of the sons of the Count of Anjou (Anjou being a great enemy of Normandy, but useful for shoring up power). And so she married, really she married, a Plantagenet. And Henry managed to extract the oaths of all the bishops and barons, that they would acknowledge Matilda as his successor when he died. But that wasn’t to be the case at all. He died in 1135, famously from the cause given by William of Malmesbury was that the King had had a surfeit of lampreys, that he’d eaten this rather disgusting looking water animal to excess. But however, he really did die, he left this huge conundrum because the succession he had planned was totally ignored. And the one man who of great consequences who’d got off the White Ship, because the accounts vary, either he had stomach trouble, or he was laid low by drink. But anyway,

    Sam Willis

    This was a chap who never, had never, got on the first place. He kind of turned around didn’t he?

    Charles Spencer

    Yes. There’s an element of the movie Sliding Doors here, actually, because Stephen of Blois

    Sam Willis

    He has one foot, one foot on the deck on the boat, and then goes off doesn’t he?

    Charles Spencer

    It’s a lucky break for him. But it certainly changed history, because as the King’s nephew, he went across, as soon as he heard of Henry I death, and seized the throne of England. And actually, one of the things I learned from this, writing this book is how important it was to be really quick about it. When a king died rush, if you wanted it, rush for the throne as quickly as you could, because the process of Coronation, in a superstitious religious mindset, such as existed in the Middle Ages, removed the king into a different sphere, really, I mean, you were no longer somebody who wanted to be crowned, you actually had some sort of semi-divine property to you. And it was very difficult to get rid of somebody unless you killed them once they’d seize the throne.

    Sam Willis

    But Matilda’s fraction were not taking this lying down, were they?

    Charles Spencer

    No. Do you know at first there was sort of stunned disappointment, I think, and they mainly concentrated on getting stuck into Normandy and trying to hold on to the Dukedom there. But at the same time, when she came across, three years after Henry I death, she came across, and by that stage, King Stephen had shown himself to be, by all accounts say he was a very charming man, but he was quite a weak king, and haven’t got much of a plan, really. And so, she was a very popular centre, focus for resistance to the crown, and also have to be fair to Henry I, a lot of people still loved him and wanted to respect his legacy. And they eventually, with Matilda’s arrival in England, found the courage to stand up for her. And this resulted in a really appalling period of Civil War, which was known to the Victorians as The Anarchy, where law did completely breakdown and bloodshed was rife: there’s one monk who talked about bloodshed descending on the land. And it is one of those periods in English history where you really wouldn’t have wanted to live really.

    Sam Willis

    I suppose that’s where the story naturally comes to an end – all from this moment of maritime tragedy. Does it make you want to write more about shipwrecks?

    Charles Spencer

    I love shipwrecks! Do you know there’s so many shipwrecks in this story, Sam and of course, this is your, one of your areas of expertise. But when I look at the number of shipwrecks that impacted history at this time: so for instance, Harold who famously dies at the Battle of Hastings, you know, he falls into William the Conqueror his hands as a sort of semi prisoner before Edward the Confessor dies in 1066 and has to swear allegiance, or swear to recognize William the Conqueror as the heir to England, and then there’s another one where, in fact, the man that Henry, the woman that Henry I marries, who’s Matilda a princess of Scotland, she only ends up being born in Scotland because her mother is shipwrecked on the Scottish coast, and William Rufus loses an army on the way up to Scotland at sea. So it was really quite a common thing. And it makes you realize how terrifying the sea was to the medieval mind. But yeah, what a great story. I’m going diving, actually, in three weeks’ time off Barfleur with a very enthusiastic American who’s got a team of very brilliant minds from Oxford, and they’re convinced that they’ll find a part of the White Ship. I have explained that it was wooden, and it was 900 years ago, but they’re pretty sure that there’ll be some rivets, or you know, some nails, at least which will date back to that age. So, we’re gonna give it a go anyway.

    Sam Willis

    Well, that sounds fascinating. I’m sure there’ll be remains of a lot of other ships there.

    Charles Spencer

    Well, that’s the other thing I pointed out.

    Sam Willis

    Have they been to the English Channel in November? My goodness me!

    Charles Spencer

    Well, they tell me it’ll take four and a quarter-hour in a speedboat and I am thinking goodness!

    Sam Willis

    I’ll tell you what, best of luck indeed with that, and thank you very much indeed for talking to us today.

    Charles Spencer

    Thanks Sam. Great fun, thank you

    Sam Willis

    Well, thanks to Charles for that, I very much enjoyed that discussion. And to bring the medieval maritime world to life, I’ve been inspired to dig out a description of Southampton, made by Wace. He was a chronicler, a Norman poet, writing in the mid-12th century: ‘There the ships were gathered, and the troops assembled. You would have seen many ships being prepared: ships moored, ships anchored, ships beached, and ships launched, ships being pegged and nailed together. Cordage spread out; masts raised. Gangplanks put over the side and ships loaded helmets, shields holbrooks carried. Lance’s raised, horses led, knights and servants boarding and one friend calling out to another, they exchange many greetings, those who are staying behind and those departing. When all had gone aboard the ships, and they had the tide and a fair wind, then you would have seen anchors raised, cables hauled, shrouds tied down. Sailors clambering around on board, unfurling canvas and sails. Some strain at the windlass, others with the sail pin and tacking spa. Aft are the helmsmen, the best of the master steersman, each one is attentive to his navigation, at the rudder that steers the ship. Tiller forward if running to port, tiller back to starboard, in order to gather the wind into the sails, they breached the leech spars to the fore and fix them solidly into the leeches. There are some who pulled the buntlines and lower the yard slightly so that the ship may run more smoothly. They check the wind and the stars and trim their sails according to the breeze. They lashed the brails to the mast so that the wind does escape past it. They run under two reefs or three. Very bold, very gallant was he who first built a ship and set sail downwind seeking a country he didn’t see and ashore he didn’t know. Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed our episode. Now how can you help? Well do please share news of this podcast with your friends but the best thing you can do, of course, is to join the Society for Nautical Research who produced this podcast. You can find out how @snr.org.uk and you will get access to over a century of the most wonderful scholarship in maritime history, as well as other perks of membership, not least the annual dinner on board HMS Victory. Do you follow the Society on social media on Facebook or Twitter @nauticalhistory, and the podcast itself has its own Instagram page @Marinersmirrorpod. Thanks for listening guys.

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