The Atheling and the Tragedy of the White Ship

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William the Atheling

In the late summer of 1103 England’s queen, Matilda of Scotland, gave birth to a son. Named after his grandfather, William the Conqueror, the young prince would be known to history as William the Ætheling. He is one of those historical figures who resides in the shadows, more famous for his death than his all-too-short life as the heir to England’s throne.

William’s father, Henry, was a younger son of William the Conqueror. When his father had died in 1087, the patrimony of England and Normandy was divided between Henry’s older brothers;  the eldest, Robert Curthose, inherited Normandy while William II Rufus became King of England. It was intended that Henry would go into the church or maybe inherit their mother’s lands. However, the little brother seems to have set his sights on greater things and, as a result, was distrusted by William, who kept him close to home, so he could not cause any mischief.

On 2nd August, 1100, while out hunting in the New Forest, William was struck by a stray arrow and killed. Some say it was planned, others that it was an accident; I guess we’ll never know for sure…

Henry, however, did not waste the opportunity. With his older brother Robert still on his way back from Crusading in the Holy Land, Henry seized the initiative, the treasury and the kingdom; he was crowned at Westminster Abbey just 3 days after his brother’s death. Within months Henry had found himself a bride with impeccable parentage. Matilda had been born Edith of Scotland and was the daughter of Malcolm III, King of Scots. Through her mother, St Margaret, she was the great-granddaughter of Edmund II Ironside, Saxon king of England. She changed her name on marrying Henry, as Edith was considered ‘too Saxon’ a name for Norman tastes.

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Matilda of Scotland

Henry and Matilda were married in November 1100 and within 3 years were the proud parents of 2 children. Their daughter, Adelaide, was born in 1102; she would adopt the name Matilda on her marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V, and would be known to history as the Empress Matilda (or Maude). Although some historians suggest they were twins, it is most likely that Matilda’s younger brother, William, was born in 1103; a message of congratulations was sent to Henry I by Pope Paschal II on 23rd November of that year.

The soubriquet of Ætheling is attributed to chronicler Oderic Vitalis and harks back to Saxon times as a title given to the king’s designated heir. According to William of Malmesbury, William, with a Saxon mother and Norman father, represented the hope of reconciliation between the conquered and conquerors of England.

Although the king and queen had only 2 children – a 3rd, Richard, is thought to have died young – the king had numerous illegitimate offspring by various women, several of whom were raised alongside his legitimate children. William and a number of his illegitimate brothers, including Robert, Earl of Gloucester,  were tutored by Otuel (or Othuer) Fitzearl, natural son of Hugh, Earl of Chester. Fitzearl had been made castellan of the Tower of London and so it is likely that the prince and his brothers were frequently in residence there, in order ton pursue their education.

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William’s sister, Adelaide; Empress Matilda

According to William of Malmesbury, William was trained for his future role ‘with fond hope and immense care’. In 1108, while their father was away in Normandy, William and his sister were entrusted to the spiritual care of Anselm, the revered Archbishop of Canterbury.

In 1110 William’s sister, Adelaide/Matilda, left for Germany; she was to continue her education at the court of her future husband, but would not be married until January 1114, just before her 12th birthday. William was still only 6 years old when his sister left; Matilda was 8. It’s sad to think the young siblings would never meet again.

Following his sister’s departure, William’s education continued apace. By 1113, aged just 10, William began to attest royal documents. While still only 9, in February of that year, William was betrothed, at Alençon, to Alice (who changed her name to Matilda on her marriage), the daughter of Fulk V, count of Anjou and Maine. The betrothal formed part of his father’s wider diplomacy, which had also included his sister’s marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor.

Henry I spent the early part of his reign fighting against his brother, Robert Curthose, and, later, Robert’s son, William Clito, trying to secure a smooth succession for William. Robert had been decisively defeated at Tinchebrai in 1106 and  spent his remaining years – until his death in 1134 – a prisoner of his brother. Henry subsequently claimed Normandy for the English crown, but William Clito was still a thorn in his side. Clito was supported by the French king, Louis VI; who used him as a counter to Henry’s attempts to conquer Maine.

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Henry I

In 1115, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Henry arranged for the Norman barons to do homage and swear fealty to William, in an attempt to counter the claims of William Clito. A similar ceremony was arranged in England in 1116, for all the great men and barons of England to swear fealty to William as the king’s heir. The Hyde Chronicle referred to William as ‘rex Norman-Angllorum, ut putabatur futurus’ (assumed to be the future king of the Norman-English).

On 1st May 1118 William’s mother, Queen Matilda, died at Westminster and was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. We do not know how the young prince felt at the loss of his mother – he was 15 at the time. However, it is from this point that William took on more responsibility, acting as regent whenever the king was away in Normandy.

In December 1118 Henry’s troops defeated the Angevins, under Fulk of Anjou, at Alençon. To counteract the defeat, William and Matilda were married, with the Count settling Maine on them as their marriage gift, thus deserting the cause of the French king. Inevitably, war with Louis VI followed.

On 20 August 1119, 16-year-old William was with his father at the Battle of Brémule. Henry won the fight against the forces of Louis VI of France and William Clito. During the battle, William had captured the palfrey of his cousin, William Clito, which he chivalrously returned at the end of the battle.

In the same year William witnessed a charter at Rouen, in which he was described as ‘dei gratia, rex designatus’ (by the grace of God, king designate). And continuing his education in diplomacy, in November 1119, William accompanied his father to a meeting with Pope Calixtus II, (William’s 2nd cousin once removed).

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Louis VI of France

At the turn of the year, it must have seemed to Henry that his dynasty – and the future of England – was secure in the hands of his son; at the age of 16 he was experienced in warfare and diplomacy and married to 12-year-old Matilda, who brought with her the county of Maine as her marriage portion (and the promise of Anjou should her father die whilst on Crusade).

In 1120 peace was finally achieved with France, with William being created Duke of Normandy by his father, and paying homage for the duchy to King Louis; a precedent that would be used  by future English kings, in order to avoid a king paying homage to a fellow king for part of his holdings. William, in turn, then received the homage of the Norman barons. Accompanied by his father, wife and several of his half brothers and sisters, it must have been a time of great rejoicing and festivities.

Indeed, when the large party prepared to cross the Channel, to return to England, it seems several of them were still celebrating. While Henry made the crossing in his own ship, taking with him several nobles and his daughter-in-law, the prince took the offer of a newly built ship, the Blanche Nef – or White Ship – which its owner, Thomas Fitzstephen, claimed would guarantee a swift, safe passage. William the Ætheling was accompanied by many of the young nobles of the great families of England, including his half-sister, Matilda, and half-brother, Richard of Lincoln.

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The Sinking of the White Ship

Most of the passengers and crew were still drunk from celebrating when the ship finally left the harbour of Barfleur, in the dark, on the evening of 25th November, 1120. Oderic Vitalis described the scene:

At length he gave the signal to put to sea. Then the rowers made haste to take up their oars and, in high spirits because they knew nothing of what lay ahead, put the rest of the equipment ready and made the ship lean forward and race through the sea. As the drunken oarsmen were rowing with all their might, and the luckless helmsman paid scant attention to steering the ship though he sea, the port side of the White Ship struck violently against a huge rock, which was uncovered each day as the tide ebbed and covered once more at high tide. Two planks were shattered and, terrible to relate, the ship capsized without warning. Everyone cried out at once in their great peril, but the water pouring into the boat soon drowned their cries and all alike perished.¹

William was ushered into a small boat and was being rowed to safety when he is said to have heard the cries of his half-sister, Matilda. The prince insisted on rowing to her aid, but the little boat was overwhelmed by those trying to make it to safety, and capsized, taking everyone with it.

William the Ætheling was 17-years-old.

With only one survivor, a butcher from Rouen, over 300 souls were lost – drowned – and only a handful of bodies were ever recovered. With the sinking of the White Ship Henry I lost his son, England and Normandy lost their next ruler.

Young Matilda had lost her husband. They had no children. Matilda had made the crossing of the Channel with the King, rather than her husband, and sometime after the disaster she returned to her father’s court. In 1121 Matilda became a nun, eventually becoming abbess of the convent at Fontevrault. She died in 1158.

With the uncertainty that followed, Louis VI renewed his support of William Clito, who continued to be a thorn in Henry I’s side until his death fighting in Flanders in 1128. Henry himself, in the hope of producing another son, married  again in 1121; to Adeliza of Louvain. Unfortunately, the marriage proved childless and Henry spent the final years of his reign trying to secure the throne for his daughter, Matilda. Matilda had returned to Henry’s court following the death of her husband in 1125 and was married again,  in 1128, to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, in the hope that the union would strengthen her claim to the throne.

In the end, however, despite the fact Henry had made the barons of England swear fealty to Matilda as his successor Henry’s nephew, Stephen, claimed the throne on the old king’s death in 1135; thus ushering in 20 years of warfare, an era which became known as The Anarchy.

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Chapter house of Reading Abbey

William’s death was a tragedy, not only on a national scale, but also a personal one, for Henry I. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the disaster was ‘a double grief: first that they lost their lives so swiftly; second that few of their bodies were found afterwards’. The young prince’s body was never recovered, leaving no monument to his life, save for Reading Abbey, established as a priory – and later an abbey – in 1121 by Henry I ‘for the salvation of my soul and that of king William my father and king William my brother and William my son and queen Matilda my mother and queen Matilda my wife and all of my predecessors and successors.’

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Footnote: ¹Vitalis, Oderic, The Ecclesiastical History of Oderic Vitalis.

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Sources: oxforddnb.com; Oderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis; Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Robert Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings; David Williamson, Brewer’s British Royalty; the History Today Companion to British History; Dan Jones, the Plantagenets; englishmonarchs.co.uk; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens; Alison Weir, Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy; medievalilsts.net; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

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©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly

15 thoughts on “The Atheling and the Tragedy of the White Ship

  1. Frank Springer 25/04/2016 / 09:54

    It has been very interesting to read these fine details of my wife’s family….Lady Kay Gordon-Huntley Springer. Light shown on one’s past shines brightly on one’s future path. Frank Springer

    Like

    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 25/04/2016 / 11:22

      Thank you Frank. That’s lovely. I’m very happy you found the article so interesting. Best wishes, Sharon. 🙂

      Like

  2. bowmanauthor 25/04/2016 / 22:28

    Profound and a part of history I had not delved into. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

  3. Whitney Gibson 20/08/2016 / 17:15

    Thank you for sharing a historical event that I have often heard about in my love affair with royal history, but never before had I read of this much detail. This was very interesting & informative. To think that William heard his sister crying out for help but he was unable to assist her must have been heart-wrenching, then he himself drowned. Very sad, the entire event.

    Like

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