The Impact of the White Ship Disaster of 1120

The Impact of the White Ship Disaster of 1120

By Harriet O’Connor-James

There can be no doubt that the sinking of the White ship had a colossal impact on English history and was a decisive point in the legacy of the Norman kings.

Most chroniclers agree that the catastrophe of 1120 was devastating, with William of Malmesbury commenting ‘no ship that ever sailed brought England such disaster, none was so well known the wide world over’. One of the most obvious impacts of the disaster was the death of King Henry’s son, William Æthling, the only legitimate male heir to the throne. William’s death resulted in the succession crisis starting in 1120 and ultimately ending in 1153-54 with King Stephen and the future King Henry II agreeing that on Stephen’s death he would take the throne.

Although this is one of the most recognisable effects of the White ship disaster, it has been studied extensively, leaving other impacts from the tragedy in the background. William’s death had many consequences but there were other results from the disaster, as the ship was carrying around three hundred people it is unlikely, that although the most well-known death was William’s, that no one else’s had any impact on history. It could be argued that England suffered the most from the White ship disaster, however the ramifications stretched far and caused more problems further afield.

One area of the White ship disaster that has been neglected is the death of Richard, Earl of Chester, who inherited his title from his father Hugh d’Avranches who had led the Normans to great victories over the Welsh in Gwynedd, Powys and later Deheubarth near the Chester border. The county was a key component for the Norman conquest of Wales and had been made an important political boundary on the Welsh border by King William I as it granted the Normans a route into northern Wales. This use of supremacy over the Welsh continued into Henry’s reign as Davies saysHenry’s influence in Wales was greatly enhanced by the exercise of his powers as feudal overlord of the Norman barons’.

Richard was a great ally of Henry’s, not only did he gain his title of earl in 1101, but he was also a committed royalist who had been raised in Henry’s court after his father’s death and later given an advantageous marriage to Matilda of Blois. Orderic Vitalis praises him saying ‘Richard, a most handsome boy… was universally beloved. He married Matilda… and sad to relate the two perished together in the shipwreck of the White ship’.

Richard’s role as earl of Chester was to ultimately keep the northern Welsh kings under Henry’s rule and to make sure the border was secure. Richard, like his father, led several successful campaigns against the Welsh, most significant were his with King Alexander I of Scotland. Richard’s death presented the Welsh with an opportunity to abolish the Norman’s entrance into northern Wales and secure it for themselves, and in 1121 the Welsh marched on Chester and took advantage of the earl’s death. The Symeonis Dunelmensis Opera et Collectarea reads ‘The sons of the Welsh king heard about the drowning of Richard Earl of Chester and set fire to two castles, killing many. Some places of the county were heavily plundered’.

The attack was led by Maredudd ap Bleddyn with three of Cadwgan ap Bleddyn’s sons. Although rebellions by the Welsh were not uncommon, they were usually dealt with swiftly by the respective earls but as Richard’s death was the catalyst, Henry may have felt the need to make an example of this rebellion. Henry led a substantial army into north Wales in June 1121, and although the king’s army was attacked by a group of archers with Henry himself being hit, it could have been a bloody battle but Henry demanded his army settled and arranged a meeting with Maredudd. The negotiations ended with Henry leaving Wales with gifts and hostages paid by the Welsh prince, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says ‘they came to terms with him according to the kings wishes’ and Hollister comments that the king’s discussions with the Welsh would often end in Henry’s favour and after the rebellion of 1121 Henry never needed to return to Wales.

However, this was not the only impact the White ship disaster would have on the Normans hold of Wales. As Henry was able to keep the Welsh relatively under control even gaining the upper hand in negotiations, when he died in 1135 the Welsh saw the void of the succession crisis as another opportunity to rebel, Lloyd says ‘everywhere the foreign yoke was cast off, the power of the new settlers was dauntlessly challenged, and a new spirit of daring and independence seemed to have seized the whole Welsh race’. The civil war in England, a direct consequence of the White ship disaster, led to other areas of the kingdom being neglected.

If William Æthling had succeeded to the throne as planned, it is unlikely the Welsh would have had the opportunity or resources to gain land and increase raids on surrounding areas. Moore argues that Madog, son of Maredudd ap Bleddyn and his dynasty took full advantage of the disruption in England caused by the civil war to ‘extend his dominions as far as the Fyrnwy, and to strengthen his control over an area which stretched from Arwystli to near Chester, making raids against Caus in 1137, Bromfield in 1140 and Oswestry in 1149’ and Iorwerth Goch, his brother, also regularly raided English towns and was potentially responsible for looting Chester.

Within just one month a war had broken out in south Wales, with much land being taken back from the Normans at a rapid rate. Carr agrees with Moore and continues that the civil war meant that Welsh rulers were able to recover their lands without much trouble as the English nobility were distracted by the initial crisis in succession and in just under a year after Henry’s death the majority of Deheubarth was recaptured by the Welsh. It could be considered fortunate for the Normans that Madog was content with consolidating land and not willing to push his boundaries further, otherwise England could have been faced with a Welsh invasion.

Although Carr does state that they used the political struggle to their advantage, he also debates that they were also very skilled and planned in their attacks, with him complimenting the Welsh on their ‘particularly fortunate’ chose of leaders throughout the era. This could potentially indicate that even without the disaster, the Welsh would have become more aggressive with their attacks but it seems highly unlikely they would have been as successful. It is clear that both Richard and William’s deaths gave the leaders of the Welsh the ability to gain back territory and attack parts of England, causing much damage to the surrounding areas. Although the battles with the Welsh were far from over for the next couple of centuries and the English would eventually take back control over most of Wales, this period of time was one of victory for the people of Wales and would have severely damaged the Normans plans. This impact of the White ship disaster is often overlooked, however it is evident that Norman England suffered a direct blow from the Welsh with the possible threat of an attempted conquest and this would not have happened if the White ship had returned safely.

Once Henry was aware of William perishing at sea, he immediately knew he needed to find a new successor. As his first wife, Matilda, had died two years previously, he was quick to find a new spouse and hopeful to produce a new heir. William of Malmesbury tells us that the only reason Henry considered a new wife was due to the problem of succession saying King Henry ‘abandoned the celibate life on which he had been intent since Matilda’s death, looking impatiently for fresh heirs from a new wife’. Political alliances were always useful to a monarch, however after the White ship disaster Henry needed to repair the damage by securing his line and throne with treaties from forces that could jeopardise that.

Henry acted quickly and just two months after William’s death he married Adela, the daughter of the Duke of Louvain. The attraction of Henry to Adela was apparently due to her beauty as Henry of Huntington says it was ‘on account of her beauty’ and although Henry was desperate for a new heir he knew the White ship disaster meant his newly acquired lands in France were at risk. The marriage to Adela, according to Bartlett was far more politically orientated, he argues that Henry was more interested in being allies with Adela’s father who held the title of Duke of Lower Lotharingia and was an ally of King Henry’s son-in-law, emperor Henry V. This gave Henry an advantage over several strong enemies, the Count of Flanders, Fulk V of Anjou and the King of France, Louis VII. The relationship between Henry and France had been a turbulent one, with times of uneasy peace and the constant threat of battle. Henry marrying Adela gave both England and Normandy an ally against the French king and his allies. The danger for Henry, after William Æthling was killed in the White ship disaster, was that without an heir the nobility would change sides to William Clito, his biggest rival. The connection with the Duke of Louvain strengthened Henry’s rule after a devastating blow from the tragedy.

Another reason Henry’s marriage to Adela was so important is due to friction between him and Count Fulk V, of Anjou. William married Fulk’s daughter in 1119 which they hoped would have created a lasting peace in the form of a future king of England that was descended from both families. This is significant as both the king and count had spent many years fighting over who was entitled to the county of Maine and in 1113, while both William and Matilda were in their infancy, the negotiation of marriage was made as William of Malmesbury says ‘he was betrothed to a daughter of Fulk count of Anjou, when she was scarcely of marriageable age, and he yet a boy, and had her to wife’. Henry was taking a risk offering his only legitimate male heir as a husband to his enemy’s daughter but it shows how desperate he was for the disputes to end. Green says it ‘is an indication of the importance of detaching Fulk from his alliance with Louis… it was a price worth paying, as it opened up the possibility of recovering Maine’.

Maine had been at the root of many of the clashes between king and count, and with the threat of an alliance between the French king and Fulk it, to an extent, secured not only Henry’s lands in France but also England as a whole. When William and Matilda finally married the conditions of the betrothal were considerable for both sides but never the less beneficial, William received the lordship of Maine as part of Matilda’s dowry and while Fulk was away in Jerusalem, he entrusted Anjou to his new son-in-law.

However, as a consequence of the White ship wreckage the alliance broke down and friction between the two sides was perhaps worse than before. Fulk requested not only his daughter return to Anjou but that Henry would give the county of Maine back. The king was not prepared to relinquish Maine back to Fulk and refused with Malmesbury saying the ‘dowry put an edge on his resentment against the king, for after his son’s death the king kept it in England’. Fulk not only planned to wage war on Henry but he re-joined King Louis VI in his campaign for William Clito to become king of England by giving his other daughter, Sybil, in marriage to Clito. This is a considerable impact of the disaster, the marriage between Sybil and William Clito caused much disruption to Henry and posed a serious threat as Fulk granted Clito the county of Maine with Arid arguing that this caused a portion of the Norman barons to defy Henry and follow William Clito’s campaign for the English throne. This was a serious problem for Henry, one he would not have had to face if it had not been for the death of William Æthling.

Although most attention of the aftermath of the White ship disaster is dedicated to the political crises, there were other more subtle, impacts which affected England. As William was Henry’s son he was naturally extremely distraught on the news of his death. However, one could say that it is often forgotten that Henry, not only lost one son but also another ‘son Richard, born to him before his accession by a woman of the country, a high spirited youth, whose devotion had earned his father’s love… the king’s daughter the countess of Perche, and his niece, Theobald’s sister, the countess of Chester’ and as previously mentioned the earl of Chester, who Henry had brought up since a young age. The king would have had to grieve, not only for the loss of an heir but many family members including some of his children. A more positive impact of the disaster is that Henry, through his grief, heavily restored the great abbey of Reading. Only a year after the accident and according to Hollister it seems Henry was very involved in the running of the abbey.

Reading Abbey was extremely well regarded for its religious practices. Henry endowed the abbey with many honours, Green says ‘every privilege which the king could give, including that of a mint and a moneyer at Reading’ this indicates that Henry took great care of the abbey and went to every extreme he could. Hollister suggests this was because Henry regarded the abbey as a monument to not only his predecessors but William Æthling and lost love ones. Although the White ship wreck was a disaster, it would appear that through that Henry created a historical abbey known for its beauty and admired for its religious practices.

Although the consequences of 1120 were crippling for the line of succession it could be argued that other than the reign of William Æthling the dynasty carried on, to an extent, without disruption. As the marriage alliance between William and Matilda was broken without any children to continue the line due to the abrupt end there was no heir to continue what would have been the start of a new dynasty connecting England and Anjou. However, as Empress Matilda, King Henry’s eldest legitimate daughter, would eventually marry another offspring of Count Fulk’s, Geoffrey Plantagenet and together they would have Henry II.

It could be argued that, regardless of the succession crisis the Angevin Empire would have begun anyway and that the most popular impact of the White ship disaster was short lived and indeed a ‘blip’ in English history. It was Henry’s wish for his line to continue and for his heir, even though it ended up being Matilda instead of William, to create ties with Anjou and future direct descendants from him to become king, which did happen in 1154 with the start of Henry II’s reign. Although the impact of the Anarchy cannot be downplayed and we cannot speculate if William and Matilda would have had children and if they had, if they would have even been fitting rulers, there is an argument that the intentional order was restored with King Henry II being crowned and starting the Angevin empire.

In conclusion, the White ship disaster was a catalyst for many devastating events which would shape the twelfth century and beyond. It is clear that the impacts not only affected England and the succession but also caused detrimental issues in Wales, Maine and Anjou. Although the White ship is not as famous as the events that followed it, it was a pivotal and defining moment in the history of not only England but Europe. However, without the disaster the Angevin dynasty, therefore the medieval period and beyond, would have been incredibly different. The White ship disasters impacts on the history of this era is immeasurable.

Watch the video: The White Ship Disaster 1120 (January 2022).