The year 1120 saw one of the most significant shipwrecks in English history; a tragedy that cost the lives of the flower of English nobility and would eventually plunge the nation into two decades of chaos and misrule – a period that has become known as The Anarchy. The heir to the throne of England and hundreds of scions of noble families perished when the White Ship, one of the most advanced vessels of the time, was lost with all hands. Its wreck and the potentially priceless cargo (in terms of historical and material value) it carried have never been located.
Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, England was ruled by the Dukes of Normandy. As overlords of two lands divided by the English Channel, it was routine for the Norman kings of England to shuttle back and forth between their dominions as they sought to preserve their territories on the Continent and in Britain. In 1120, Henry I, third of the Norman kings of England and youngest son of William the Conqueror, had been forced to travel to Normandy to confront the King of France, Louis VI. Accompanying him was his heir and only legitimate son, 17-yearold William.
Henry had successfully resolved his dispute with Louis, gaining recognition for his son as the de facto Duke of Normandy, and was returning to England via the Norman port of Barfleur. The mood of the party was festive, especially since young William was habitually accompanied by a kind of ‘youth court’ – a youthful mirror version of his father’s court, which included many of the most important heirs and offspring of the noble houses of England and Normandy. With the party were his own half-brother and sister – Henry I was the most prolific father of illegitimate children in the history of the English monarchy. Despite this, William was his only legitimate son (one of only two legitimate children), and was therefore absolutely central to Henry’s dynastic ambitions.
On 25 November Henry was preparing to embark at Barfleur when he was approached by Thomas FitzStephen, master of the Blanche Nef, or White Ship, a fine new vessel of the highest specifications. FitzStephen’s father Airard had captained the Mora, the flagship of William the Conqueror’s invasion fleet, and now he himself begged for the honour of bearing the Conqueror’s son across the Channel in his splendid ship. Henry declined, as his own travel arrangements were already well in hand, but suggested that FitzStephen could carry his son, William, and his court. Henry boarded his own ship and departed not long afterwards, safely making the passage back to England.
Meanwhile William and his companions were feasting and drinking prodigiously, and their own departure was delayed while all the available casks of wine in port were loaded onto the White Ship. Once aboard, the partying continued, with the captain and crew apparently joining in. The company grew so inebriated that when a party of clerics led by the Bishop of Coutance arrived they were driven off with howls of derision. At least one of the passengers disembarked at this time: Stephen of Blois – possibly as a result of an attack of diarrhoea, or possibly because of an attack of common sense given the carryings on. It was a decision that would have fateful consequences.
By the time the White Ship was ready to depart everyone aboard was roaring drunk and night had fallen. On board were around 300 people, including 140 noblemen and at least 18 noblewomen. In relative terms, the Channel crossing was not especially dangerous – Henry had done it many times, while his father had made the crossing 17 times as king. But in the 12th century naval technology was still crude, and any sea journey was dangerous, particularly with a drunken crew, captain and pilot. To make matters worse, young William was keen to catch up with his father and get home first, and insisted that FitzStephen take the quickest route home.
This was to prove fatal. The correct route to take out of Barfleur harbour was to the south, avoiding dangerous shoals, after which the vessel would swing north towards England. The ship’s drunken pilot tried to cut corners by heading directly north, but succeeded only in driving the ship onto a rock called the Quilleboeuf, about 2.4 kilometres (1.5 miles) out of the harbour.
The ship began to sink, but all was not lost for William. He was quickly hustled aboard the only ‘lifeboat’, but as he was rowed to safety he heard the piteous cries of his half-sister, Matilda, Countess of Peche, imploring him not to abandon her. William ordered the boat to turn back, but as it neared the sinking ship it was overwhelmed by the number of people who tried to climb aboard and it too was lost.
This at least was the tale told by a butcher of Rouen named Berthold, who had only gone aboard to chase up a debt. He clung to one of the masts that projected above the waves, and was rescued the next morning. He was the sole survivor: few people of that era could swim, and in the dark, amidst the waves and strong currents, a watery grave was inevitable. When the news reached England none of the barons or high officers of the court dared to tell the king; it was left to a child to tell him the terrible tidings. It is said that he fainted away, and that he never smiled again.
The impact on the world of power politics in north-western Europe must have been tremendous, not to mention the personal toll on bereaved parents.
The disaster has been likened to the sinking of the Titanic, which carried many rich and important people and had a colossal impact on Edwardian Britain.
For 12th-century England the sinking of the White Ship was to have grim consequences. Despite his extra-marital fecundity, Henry was unable to produce another legitimate male heir. Although he forced his barons to swear allegiance to his legitimate daughter, also called Matilda, the idea of a female ruler simply would not wash with the medieval mindset. When Henry died in 1135 most of the English barons promptly ignored their oaths and acclaimed Stephen of Blois, Matilda’s cousin and the same man who had so fortuitously stepped off the White Ship before it sailed to disaster, as king. Matilda was able to rally some support and attempted to reclaim the crown, plunging the country into nearly 20 years of civil war. It was a lawless and unstable time, when, in the memorable words of the contemporary Peterborough Chronicle, ‘Crist and alle his sayntes slept.’
I wrote a series of novels set at the time of the Anarchy, Hearts and Crowns, Fatal Truths and Sinful Passions. However, the excerpt below, from Sweet Taste of Love, details the loss of Caedmon and Agneta FitzRam, two of my most beloved characters, in the White Ship Disaster.
The Narrow Sea,
25th day of November, 1120 A.D.
The doomed vessel splintered on the jagged rocks of Quilleboeuf, tossing screaming revellers into the snarling sea. Caedmon grabbed Agneta when he felt the first shuddering groan of the floundering ship, but she was torn from his arms as they plunged into the dark, frigid depths.
“Agneta!” he shouted as he surfaced, gasping for air, tasting salt. “Agneta!”
Heads bobbed, arms flailed, people screamed in the seething darkness, but where was his wife? A cold wave swamped him and something struck the back of his head. He had a fleeting recollection of the bloody battlefield at Alnwick where he had been severely wounded thirty years before. Agneta had rescued him, nursed him back to health.
Dazed and panting for breath, he groped for whatever had hit him and clung to it. It was part of the broken ship.
“Agneta!” he shouted again, shoving his hair off his face, peering into the darkness. She must not die alone.
He recognised her choking cough. Her illness had robbed her of breath before this. “Agneta!”
He caught sight of her just before her head disappeared beneath the waves. Clinging to the wreckage, he struck out with one arm. Fewer heads were visible now, many drunken victims claimed by the sea.
He exclaimed with relief when she struggled back to the surface. Where had she found the strength? Willing his numbed legs to kick, he threw one arm around her ribs and dragged her to the wreckage. The heavy winter cloak twisted around her frail body worked against him. Her hair covered her face and she shivered uncontrollably.
She took in great gulps of air. “I want to die with you, Caedmon. I’m—cold!”
He held her tightly, smoothing back her hair, but every wave forced the now grey strands over her face.
He tried to keep his fear for her out of his voice as his numbed hands sought to free the ties of her cloak from around her neck. “Hold tightly to me and the wreckage.”
She clamped a death grip on his shoulders, gasping for breath. “Caedmon—we are going—to die!”
Another swell hit them. He coughed, the salt stinging his nose. “No, we are not! Hold on to me! I have you. I’ll never—let you go.”
Cold seeped into his bones. How long could he hold on? With a last desperate surge of strength, he clenched his jaw and forced Agneta against the wreckage. He covered her body, locking his arms around the wood. Lungs afire, his legs would no longer tread water.
They drifted, clinging to the flimsy piece of splintered wood. The current carried them away from the rock where La Blanche Nef had run aground. Soon there was only silence. He prayed they were being carried to shore, but had no sense of how long they had drifted. The salt water blurred his vision.
“Agneta! Stay awake. We will—be rescued.”
“I cannot, Caedmon—I’m freezing. I want to sleep.”
“No! Talk to me! Stay awake.”
“I love you—Caedmon—there’s no better place to die—than in your arms. Hold me. Hold me fast. Death has stalked me for many a month.”
Her words tore at his heart, but she was right. Better to die together. There would be no rescue. He thought of his children and bade them a silent farewell, heartbroken that he would never see them again. He had done his best to be a good father, to set them on the right path. Agneta had, after six years, finally insisted on making the long journey to Saxony to meet her son-by-marriage and Blythe’s three children. She had seen for herself how happy their daughter was with Dieter. Praise be to God he and Agneta had taken their children’s place on this voyage home.
His sons and daughter had given up the coveted chance to sail aboard the luxurious White Ship with the other young people, knowing their mother was unwell. It was an uncharacteristic self-sacrifice on the part of his wilful daughter that had saved their lives. Ragna had talked of nothing else but accompanying the Crown Prince and his retinue. Aidan, Edwin and Ragna would not die with the hundreds of other doomed noblemen and women aboard the Aetheling’s famed vessel. They were safely aboard an older, less comfortable longboat.
The knowledge brought him peace. He and Agneta had lived long, happy lives. It was fitting they should die instead of their children. He prayed the captain of their ship was not a drunken sot like the White Ship’s commander. He’d had a bad feeling about the voyage from the moment they had embarked.
Caedmon wondered fleetingly if the heir to the English throne had been lost. Last he had seen of William, he was frantically trying to haul people into the only lifeboat. Pray God he had survived. King Henry would be devastated at the loss of his only son. And what of England, if the succession were put in jeopardy?
That could not be Caedmon’s concern now. He thanked God he and Agneta would die together. He would not have lived long without her. “I love you, Agneta. Thank you for the love and passion we have shared.”
She pressed her cold lips to his, loosened her grip on his shoulders and put her arms around his neck. “Caedmon.”
“Agneta,” he rasped in reply, drifting into sleep. When he awoke, his beloved had slipped from life. He kissed her. “Even in death you are beautiful, my Agneta.”
He tipped his head back to look at the stars, then let go of the debris. He had come close to drowning twice before, once in the River Dee and again in the Balkans during the Crusade. It was meant to be. Holding Agneta to his body for the last time, he allowed the icy waters to carry them to the resurrection in which they firmly believed.