Origins of the Anarchy: The White Ship Disaster

This month on Some Sources Say we’re exploring the Anarchy, a civil war that tore the fabric of England apart. As recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “wherever the land was tilled, the earth bore no corn, for the land was all ruined with such deeds; and they said openly that Christ slept, and his saints. Such, and more than we know how to say, we suffered nineteen years for our sins”. The anarchy began on the death of King Henry I in 1135, when his heir Matilda was usurped by her cousin Stephen of Blois. For nineteen years these two foes fought for the English crown to the detriment of its citizens. To understand the origins of the Anarchy though, we have to look further back to the year 1120 and the White Ship disaster.

The Sinking of the White Ship

Matilda was not Henry I’s only child. Henry had married Matilda of Scotland (daughter of the famed St Margaret) in 1100 and alongside Matilda they also had a son William. These were Henry’s only legitimate children though (he had at least 25 illegitimate children) and the lack of a legitimate male ‘spare’ was to become a reoccurring issue throughout the years for the English royal family. As William and Matilda grew up, it was never expected that Matilda would become heir to the throne. Although women technically could inherit the throne in England it had never happened before. When Matilda was still very young, she was married to the Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich V and moved to his domains. As the only legitimate son, William was raised to be king and a lot was riding on him. In 1119 he married Mahaut of Anjou; with any children they were to have further securing the English succession. William was his father’s pride and joy but, on the 25th November 1120, tragedy struck which caused the succession crisis that eventually led to the Anarchy 15 years later.

Henry I, Matilda of Scotland, Empress Matilda and William.

Henry, William and many other key nobles were in Barfleur, Normandy (coincidentally where Henry’s father William the Conqueror’s fleet had sailed from in the 1066 Conquest) and were preparing to return to England. There were two ships, and Henry alongside his daughter-in-law and others took the first ship and set sail. The rest of the courtiers in the area proceeded to get incredibly raucous and drunk with the heir to the throne William among them. The wild party took a deadly turn when it was decided to set sail that evening. It’s estimated 300 people (a mixture of crew, nobles and servants) boarded the second boat, a newer ship, called Blanche-Nef aka the White Ship. One of the key players in the Anarchy Stephen of Blois was there but disembarked before the ship set sail, an action that as we’re about to see saved his life.

As the ship took off, it was dark and cold and the crew were in no fit state to be sailing. The partiers on the ship were the crème de la crème of Anglo-Norman society and wanted to try and overtake Henry’s ship which had already set sail. They didn’t get far as the ship hit a rock which led to it sinking taking the life of nearly everyone on board. Contemporary chronicler Orderic Vitalis wrote how “the passengers and crew raised cries of distress, but their mouths were soon stopped by the swelling waves, and all perished together”. Henry’s beloved heir William so nearly survived this tragedy, but as he was being taken back to the harbour on a smaller vessel, he heard his half-sister Matilda the Countess of Perche shouting for help and tried to return to save her. In the process other panicked victims tried to board the smaller vessel leading to it sinking taking William with them. It’s hard to imagine the fear and anguish they would have felt in their last moments, the only survivor of the White Ship was a butcher from Rouen.   

This catastrophe had massive ramifications on a personal and political level.

King Henry I and the sinking White Ship

On the personal level many people lost loved ones, “their death was to their friends a two-fold pain: one, that they so suddenly lost life, and the other that few of their bodies were found afterwards”. Henry alone lost not only his heir but also two of his other children and his niece. After learning of what had happened it’s said that Henry never smiled again. On a political level there was now a succession crisis, and although no one knew it then, the stage was being set for the Anarchy.

“No ship was ever productive of so much misery. None was ever so notorious in the history of the world” – contemporary historian William of Malmesbury

What are your thoughts on the White Ship disaster? I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments section below. Stay tuned next week as we explore the Anarchy itself.

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: The Authentic Voices of England From the Time of Julius Caesar to the Coronation of Henry II. Translated and Collated by Anne Savage.

Kings & Queens: The Story of Britain’s Monarchs from Pre-Roman Times to Today by Richard Cavendish and Pip Leahy

Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir

Oxford DNB: William [William Ætheling, William Adelinus, William Adelingus] by J. F. A. Mason

Oxford DNB:  Henry I by C. Warren Hollister

Oxford DNB: Stephen by Edmund King

Oxford DNB: Adela, Countess of Blois by Lois L. Huneycutt

Reading Museum: Death and the Anarchy: The White Ship Disaster

Wikipedia: The Anarchy, Barfleur, Victims of the White Ship Disaster, The White Ship Disaster


6 responses to “Origins of the Anarchy: The White Ship Disaster”

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    […] meant her cause was entirely lost. Her eldest son Henry was growing up fast, a perfect heir to his grandfather’s throne. Whilst Matilda had been fighting in England, her husband Geoffrey Count of Anjou had been […]


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    […] succession. This coronation was quite sensible when you consider Henry’s younger years and the civil war that engulfed them.  However, because of his argument with Thomas he got somebody else to […]


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    […] Normandy in 1150, a significant position in Western Christendom and a title held by his grandfather Henry I and great-grandfather William the Conqueror before him. Sadly, Geoffrey died unexpectedly the next […]


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    […] the succession is understandable when you consider his youth and his mother Empress Matilda’s fight for the […]


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