900 Years on from the Sinking of the White Ship

By  Victoria Barlow, History, Level 3

As a history undergraduate student, I’m taught that it’s not good practice to question ‘what if this had happened instead’. The possibilities are endless. All we can definitively say for sure is what has actually taken place – but even then historians disagree. Setting aside academic procedure, I often wonder at past events that could have completely altered the course of history. Undeniably, the tragic sinking of the White Ship on 25th November 1120 was one such occurrence.

Now you may be thinking to yourselves ‘How can the sinking of a one ship have been so monumental in the shaping of history?’. Not even the Titanic, arguably the most famous sunken ship, had a profound impact on future events. Before I can explain why it was so monumental, I’ll paint a picture of what the political landscape looked like in the late 11th and early 12th centuries. After William the Conqueror defeated the Anglo-Saxon king Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the country was greatly divided. However, Henry I worked hard to heal the wounds and ensure a bright future for England, and in 1120 nothing seemed more certain. Henry’s son, William the Ӕtheling (the old English term to denote the heir to the throne) was reaching his maturity and was being prepped to become a great leader, and his recent marriage had brought peace between England and Anjou. Spirits were high as William was making a journey from France back to England.

Aboard the magnificent vessel on the night of the tragedy, some 200 of the Anglo-Norman young elite were taking advantage of the excellent wine they had stocked up. Setting off far later than intended from the port of Barfleur, with drunken sailors and the foolish notion of voyaging at high speeds, it is hardly surprising that the ship crashed into some rocks at the mouth of the very same harbour it had left only minutes before. Frantically, the crew tried to bail water from the ship but it was to no avail. The choppy late autumn sea plunged the passengers into the water. The luxurious garments of the nobility became unbearably heavy and dragged their wearers’ to the depths of the sea. The first priority had naturally been to get William safely back to the shore on a lifeboat, but sailing away from the carnage he ordered the tiny boat to return to save his half-sister: a fatal error. Desperate, the frantic victims swamped the boat and it too was submerged with water. There was only one survivor – a butcher who had clung to part of the wreckage; a large number of England’s young elite had been wiped out. Thus, William the Ӕtheling, and the security of England with him, drowned off the shore of France in one fateful night, beginning a winter that would last three decades.

William had been Henry I’s only legitimate son. He had no back-up plan, all his hopes had rested on the shoulders of his now deceased son, and despite his best efforts, he was unable to produce another. Two claimants vied for the English throne: Henry’s legitimate daughter Matilda – although the prospect of a female ruler was particularly unpalatable for the medieval nobility – and his nephew Stephen of Blois, who had fortuitously declined to voyage on the White Ship when he realised how unsafe the journey would be. Upon Henry’s death, Stephen seized the crown in an unsanctimonious fashion and civil war ensued. So began thirty years of anarchy that would finally result in Matilda’s son Henry II becoming king of England in 1154. Prior to the sinking of the White Ship, England had been set to witness of period of great prosperity, it would be intriguing to know what advancements would have been achieved.

It’s extraordinary how one event can change the course of the history. What might have been if the ship had held back till the morning, or if William had arrived safely at the harbour? What if there had been no civil war to devastate England? What kind of dynasty would William have been at the helm of? 900 years on, perhaps it would be a stretch to argue that if the White Ship hadn’t sunk that there could be major differences to life in England today, but what if…?


Jones, Dan. ‘Part I – Age of Shipwreck (1120-1154)’, in The Plantagenets: The Kings who made England ( London, 2012), 1-41

Image from British Library, Royal MS 20 A.ii, fol. 6v. https://bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=royal_ms_20_a_ii_f006v,
Public domain