The White Ship Disaster Re-visited

As Professor Green has written:” The wreck of the White Ship was the worst personal and political disaster of Henry’s life.” (‘Henry I’, by Judith Green, CUP, 2009: page 164). In one fell swoop, Henry lost his only legitimate male heir, William Adelin, two other children and other close friends and companions.

On the night of 25th November 1120, Prince William the Adelin and his young companions had set sail on the ‘White Ship’, intending to cross the Channel. The White Ship met with disaster, being holed just off the coast of Normandy (Barfleur), resulting in the deaths of virtually all the passengers, including Prince William. The author of the contemporary Anglo/Saxon Chronicle lamented: “Their death was a double grief to their friends – one that they lost this life so suddenly, the other that the bodies of few of them were found anywhere afterwards.” (EHD, Volume II, page 196.) The contemporary historian, William of Malmesbury, went further: “No ship ever brought so much misery to England; none was ever so notorious in the history of the world.”(EHD, Volume II, page 323.) This latter judgement may come close to hyperbole; but it is not too far from the truth.

In my November 2011 Blog, I have already described the details of the White Ship disaster, including the series of chance factors that contributed to the shipwreck. The best account of the White Ship disaster is by Professor Green. (See her recent biography ‘Henry I’, pages 164 to 167.) In my November 2011 Blog, I analysed the impact of the White Ship disaster mainly from the viewpoint of King Henry II. The White Ship disaster was a chance event that paved the way for the ultimate accession to the English throne of Henry of Anjou. The White Ship disaster removed Prince William from the succession to the English Crown: Henry I’s only surviving legitimate heir was then his daughter, the Empress Matilda. The future Henry II was the eldest son of The Empress, so he had a legitimate claim to the Crown of England, a claim he was to realise in 1154. In this November 2012 Blog, I shall concentrate on the impact of the White Ship disaster on the reign of King Henry I.

The Impact of The White Ship Disaster on  the reign of King Henry I.

As explained in my previous blogs, Henry had gained the English Crown in August 1100 in exceptional circumstances. His brother, King William II, had died in a freak hunting accident in the New Forest, and Henry just ‘happened to be on the spot’. He effectively grabbed the throne in a royalist coup d’état; in the process out-manoeuvring his elder brother, Robert Curthouse, Duke of Normandy.

Although Henry I faced formidable opposition to his royal authority in England between 1100 and 1101, he managed to survive (see my July Blog). From then on, Henry ‘grew into his kingship’, and the first twenty years of his long reign were very successful.

(A) King Henry I’s Reign 1100 to 1120: Innovation and Success

(1) Re-Unification of England and Normandy.

After successfully scheming against Robert between 1100 and 1101, Henry took the offensive against Robert’s authority in Normandy by invading Normandy in 1106 (ironically with English soldiers). The result was Henry’s glorious success against Robert at the battle of Tinchebrai in 1106 (see my September 2012 Blog). Henry was now ruler of both England and Normandy. Henry’s authority as ruler of Normandy was confirmed in August 1119 in his defeat of the French King, Louis VI at the battle of Bremule (see my March 2012 Blog).

(2) Financial Reform

In about 1110, Henry and his financial advisors (such as Bishop Roger of Salisbury)  began to develop a system of financial accounting that led to the institution of  the Exchequer in the second decade of Henry’s reign (see my April 2012 Blog). This major financial innovation, together with the institution of the Pipe Rolls, was to literally transform the administration of English government in the 12th century and beyond.

(3) Legal Reforms.

Beginning in August 1100 with his Coronation Charter (see my August 2012 Blog), Henry I and his advisors (again including Bishop Roger) were to make important changes in the development of English Law, building on Anglo/Saxon foundations. Further notable legal innovations were enshrined in the 1115 ‘Leges Henrici Primi’, (see my October 2012 Blog) King Henry I fully deserves his sobriquet: ’The Lion of Justice’.  The key developments in the evolution of English Common Law occurred under King Henry II: the superstructure of English Common Law was erected in his reign (through the assizes). Even so, King Henry I’s reign laid the groundwork of English Common Law. Both were obviously necessary if English Common Law was to be successfully constructed.

(B) King Henry I’s Reign 1120 to 1135: Quiescence and Consolidation

It is a truism in History that it is often a mistake to try to categorise different parts of a ruler’s reign; and it is the case that in the second half of his reign (after 1120), Henry I still at times displayed his characteristic reforming zeal and drive.

For example, his determination to retain control of Normandy never wavered after 1120, as was demonstrated by continued military and diplomatic  successes against his traditional adversary, King Louis VI of France (such as Henry’s victory at the Battle of Bourgtheroulde in 1124). King Henry I also showed he had lost nothing of his  administrative skills by his dextrous political manoeuvrings between the varying clerical factions at the Council of Gloucester between 2nd and 4th February 1123 (see my February 2012 Blog). Henry I’s finances also remained ‘rock solid’. The Pipe Roll of 1130 indicated a very healthy recorded income for Henry of £24,550. Just as impressive, the Roll indicates that the total moneys actually paid into Henry’s Exchequer in 1130 were £22,900 (Henry I was clearly more efficient at cracking down on tax evasion than the present Government!)

Yet, it is probably true that the second part of King Henry I’s long reign was marked more by governmental consolidation than by political innovation. The reason for Henry’s relative political quiescence after 1120 almost certainly lies in the White Ship Disaster. The loss of Prince William, his son and legitimate heir, was a savage blow to Henry’s morale from which he never entirely recovered. This was particularly the case as William’s death closely followed the death of Henry’s Consort, Queen Edith Matilda, in May 1118.                              Barfleur itself held such painful memories of William’s death that Henry never again used that port to cross the Channel after 1120. At the same time, Prince William’s drowning in November 1120 transformed the royal ambitions of William Clito, son and heir of Henry I’s brother and rival, Robert Curthouse. William Clito was now the obvious male successor to King Henry as King of England and Duke of Normandy. King Henry’s energies after 1120 were therefore increasingly directed at combatting William Clito’s growing ambitions, especially for most of the 1120s. It was not until William Clito’s death in July 1128, that Henry I was freed from anxiety about the threat to his succession from that quarter. However, worry over William Clito’s threat to the English succession was then merely replaced after 1128 by concern about the succession of Henry’s sole surviving legitimate heir, the Empress Matilda. It is no wonder that dynastic worries took up an increasing proportion of King Henry’s energy after 1120; and such dynastic concerns were entirely the result of The White Ship disaster.

Conclusion.

In her outstanding recent biography of King Henry I, Professor Green asserts that: “The wreck of the White Ship was the turning point of Henry’s reign.” [Judith Green, ‘Henry I’, CUP, 2009, page 168] To that extent, a chance event affected the whole course of one reign, and probably also the entire course of the 12th Century.

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Filed under 12th Century England, Angevins, British Kings and Queens, Chance in History, Henry I, Medieval Normandy, Norman Kings, Normandy, Robert Curthose, White Ship disaster

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