The White Ship (French: la Blanche-Nef), a 12th-century vessel, sank in the English Channel near the Normandy coast off Barfleur, on 25 November 1120. Those drowned included William Adelin, the only legitimate son of King Henry I of England. William of Malmesbury wrote:
"Here also perished with William, Richard, another of the King's sons, whom a woman without rank had borne him, before his accession, a brave youth, and dear to his father from his obedience; Richard d'Avranches, second Earl of Chester, and his brother Otheur; Geoffrey Ridel; Walter of Everci; Geoffrey, archdeacon of Hereford; the Countess of Chester; the king's niece Lucia-Mahaut of Blois; and many others ... No ship ever brought so much misery to England."
Only one of those aboard survived.
The White Ship was a new vessel owned by Thomas FitzStephen, whose father Stephen had been sea captain for William the Conqueror when he invaded England in 1066. He offered to let Henry I of England use it to return to England from Barfleur in north-western France. Henry had already made travelling arrangements, but suggested that his son William Adelin travel on it instead.
But when the White Ship set off in the dark, its port side struck a submerged rock (this rock can still be seen from the cliffs of Barfleur), and the ship quickly capsized. The only known survivor was a butcher from Rouen. He was wearing thick ramskins that saved him from exposure, and was picked up by fishermen the next morning.
In his account of the disaster, chronicler Orderic Vitalis claimed 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.
The cause of the shipwreck remains uncertain. Various stories surrounding its loss feature a drinking binge by the crew and passengers (it is also suggested that the captain was dared to try to overtake the King's ship ahead of them), and mention that priests were not allowed on board to bless the ship in the customary manner. However, the English Channel is a notoriously treacherous stretch of water.
William of Nangis wrote that the White Ship sank because all the men aboard were sodomites, which reflects the medieval belief that "sin" caused pestilence and disaster.
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