Amaury de Montfort, Empress Matilda, Fulk of Anjou, King Henry I of England, King Stephen of England, The White Ship, Usurper, William Adelin, William Clito
From the Emperor’s Desk: The succession of King Stephen of England will take several entries to tell the complete history.
Henry I of England’s succession plans were thrown into chaos by the sinking of the White Ship on November 25, 1120. Henry had left the port of Barfleur for England in the early evening, leaving his eldest son and heir, William Adelin, and many of the younger members of the court to follow on that night in a separate vessel, the White Ship.
William and his party had remained drinking on the shore until after dark, confident that in a fast ship and on the still sea the delay would have no real effect. Consequently, it was the middle of the night when the drunken helmsman rammed the ship into a rock in the bay.
The crew and passengers could not lever the ship off the rock, or prevent the ship from filling with water.
William Adelin got into a small boat and could have escaped but turned back to try to rescue his half-sister, Matilda, when he heard her cries for help. His boat was swamped by others trying to save themselves, and William drowned along with them.
According to Orderic Vitalis, Berold (Beroldus or Berout), a butcher from Rouen, was the sole survivor of the shipwreck by clinging to the rock. The chronicler further wrote that when Thomas FitzStephen came to the surface after the sinking and learned that William Adelin had not survived, he let himself drown rather than face the king.
Henry of Huntingdon, speaking of the disaster, wrote that William, “instead of wearing embroidered robes…floated naked in the waves, and instead of ascending a lofty throne…found his grave at the bottom of the sea.” William’s wife, Matilda, was on another ship at the time of the wreck.
When the ship sank, as many as 300 people were killed, with only one survivor, a butcher from Rouen. Henry’s court was initially too scared to report William’s death to the King. When he was finally told, he collapsed with grief.
The disaster left Henry with no legitimate son, his various nephews now the closest possible male heirs. Henry announced he would take a new wife, Adeliza of Louvain, opening up the prospect of a new royal son, and the two were married at Windsor Castle in January 1121.
Henry appears to have chosen her because she was attractive and came from a prestigious noble line. Adeliza seems to have been fond of Henry and joined him in his travels, probably to maximise the chances of her conceiving a child.
The White Ship disaster initiated fresh conflict in Wales, where the drowning of Richard, 1st Earl of Chester, encouraged a rebellion led by Maredudd ap Bleddyn. Henry intervened in North Wales that summer with an army and, although he was hit by a Welsh arrow, the campaign reaffirmed royal power across the region.
Henry’s alliance with Anjou – which had been based on his son William marrying Fulk’s daughter Matilda – began to disintegrate. Fulk returned from the Levant and demanded that Henry return Matilda and her dowry, a range of estates and fortifications in Maine.
Matilda left for Anjou, but Henry argued that the dowry had in fact originally belonged to him before it came into the possession of Fulk, and so declined to hand the estates back to Anjou.
Fulk married his daughter Sibylla to William Clito, and granted them Maine. Once again, conflict broke out, as Amaury de Montfort allied himself with Fulk and led a revolt along the Norman-Anjou border in 1123. Amaury was joined by several other Norman barons, headed by Waleran de Beaumont, one of the sons of Henry’s old ally, Robert of Meulan.