The role of chance in History: The White Ship Disaster, 25th November 1120

It is Friday, 25th November 2011. Dusk is now falling late on in the afternoon, so perhaps it is fitting that I devote my November blog to a very sombre historical event. This is the wreck of the ‘White Ship’, which occurred exactly 891 years ago, just off the Normandy coast, on the night of 25th November 1120.  Although this tragic event happened just over twelve years before the birth of Henry II, the White Ship disaster had an important indirect impact on him. King Henry I’s son and heir, William Adelin* drowned in the shipwreck, thereby making Henry I’s only other legitimate child, his daughter Matilda, his heir. Henry II was the eldest child of Matilda and her husband Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, and Henry therefore had a legitimate claim to the English crown via his mother. However, if William Adelin had not drowned in the shipwreck, Henry would probably not have succeeded to the English crown, because William Adelin would have become king on Henry I’s death, and presumably then would have married and had legitimate heirs.

[* The title ‘Adelin’ was given to William, son and heir of King Henry I. The title is a variation on the Anglo-Saxon title, ‘Atheling’, which means ‘prince’ or ‘lord’.  It is especially appropriate to William, because his mother was an Anglo-Saxon princess, Queen Edith Matilda; and William himself was born in 1103 in Winchester, the seat of Anglo-Saxon government in Wessex.]

  1. It is always interesting to speculate In History what would have happened if something that did happen hadn’t happened; but such counter-factual analysis can become too complicated. Probably more significantly, the White Ship Disaster highlights the importance of chance in History: how fortune can materially alter the course of History. Perhaps then History does only consist of a series of unique events, as the late Sir Karl Popper so brilliantly argued in his book, ’The Poverty of Historicism’, published in 1957. The events of the White Ship Disaster seem to support this Popper thesis. The tragic drowning of William Adelin changed the course of 12th century English politics in at least two main ways: firstly, as already mentioned, it meant that Henry’s daughter Matilda was now King Henry I’s heir, thus making possible the ultimate succession of the Angevin dynasty in England. Secondly, the succession of Matilda would very likely be opposed by Henry I’s nephew, Stephen. In fact, Stephen took possession of the English throne when Henry I died in 1135, thereby precipitating a murderous civil war with the Angevin supporters which lasted on and off for most of Stephen’s reign.
  2. Not only was the White Ship Disaster a major chance event, but was itself also made up of  fluke events on that fateful 25th November 1120:-

(i)              The main party, led by King Henry I departed from Normandy in the early evening out of Barfleur; but young William Adelin, accompanied by other young nobles did not wish to sail with his elders.

(ii)            A major contemporary chronicler, William of Malmesbury, now takes up the story (historians regard him as intelligent and reliable). William and “his boon companions” decided to launch their vessel, ’The White Ship’, later on, when it was dark.

(iii)           The young aristocrats then aimed to overtake the adults’ ship, by rowing their vessel too fast in dangerous waters at night.

(iv)           There were also casks of wine aboard the White Ship. According to William of Malmesbury, “these rash youths [were] flushed with wine” (as were the crew). The drunken helmsman paid little or no attention to his steering, and in consequence, the White Ship was holed by a large rock, submerged by the high tide. The ship capsized, with predictably dire results.

[For a detailed assessment and description of the White Ship disaster, readers can consult Judith Green’s ‘Henry I: King of England and Duke of Normandy’ (CUP).]

  1. There are of course other chance events in History which clearly do change the course of History. An example for the later Middle Ages would be the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses in 1453/55. King Henry VI had appeared to be in a strong position early in 1453, after seeing off Richard of York’s challenge the previous year. Then, in the space of only two months (in July/August 1453) the Lancastrian Government was hit by ‘a triple whammy’ of three chance events, which, in combination precipitated the Wars of the Roses. These three events were:- open conflict between the Percy & Neville families at Heworth Green (York); the English loss of Gascony to France after their defeat at Castillon; and finally Henry VI’s nervous breakdown. An example of the decisive nature of chance events in modern history was the ‘double whammy’ of the death of German Foreign Minister Stresemann and the effects of the Wall Street Crash within two weeks of each other in October 1929. This dual disaster probably finished off the fragile Weimar Republic in Germany, thereby paving the way for the Nazi Regime.
  2. But perhaps one can take this ‘chance theory’ too far. Fifty years ago in 1961, a seminal work was published by The University of Cambridge and Penguin books, called ‘What is History’ by E. H. Carr. In this important book, beloved of all S Level History students, E.H. Carr vigorously rejected the role of contingency as an important factor in historical change. Of course, there is much in Carr’s theory of the relative significance of historical causes. To take the two historical events discussed above.
  • It could well be argued that the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses was influenced by longer term factors. One was economic weakness in mid-fifteenth century England, aggravated by Henry VI’s financial impoverishment of crown assets. Another factor was the political & military impact of Henry VI’s disastrous policies in France from about 1440 onwards. It could also be argued that Weimar Germany was fatally weakened at its in birth in 1919 by having to accept the Versailles Treaty, and also by having a system of proportional representation which made coalition government too unstable.
  1. So, how significant was the White Ship disaster in affecting 12th century English politics? It surely stands out as a critical factor. It indirectly made possible the later accession of King Henry II to the English crown, with all the vital developments that flowed from his accession in 1154. It may be that the White Ship disaster is the exception that proves E. H. Carr’s rule; but it is also the case that the maritime catastrophe of 25th November 1120 demonstrates the plausibility of Karl Popper’s arguments. To adapt a well-known adage: ’You pays your geld (or scutage), and you makes your choice.’
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1 Comment

Filed under Angevins, British Kings and Queens, Chance in History, E H Carr, Henry I, Henry II, Historical philosophy, History, Karl Popper, Medieval History, Medieval Normandy, Wars of the Roses, White Ship disaster

One response to “The role of chance in History: The White Ship Disaster, 25th November 1120

  1. khayinza. dr

    I find the medieval historu really interestng and am amazed and intruiged by canning manipulation and sometimes cruelty of the earls knighbts etc and also the poverty of the citizenry

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