KING Henry I’s favourite child was William Adelin - his one legitimate son.

Henry doted on him. From the age of 12 the Barons of England swore allegiance to him jointly with his father. From the age of 15 Henry appointed him Regent of England during his frequent campaigns on the continent.

William did not only represent the line of Norman Kings, through his mother Matilda he was also a great-great-grandson of the Saxon King Edmund Ironside and a grandson of Malcolm Canmore, King of Scots.

His name “Adelin” was a variant of Ætheling, a term used in Anglo-Saxon England to designate Princes of the Royal Dynasty. So he personified the hopes for peaceful unification of the Norman and Saxon ruling classes.

Henry I was still Duke of Normandy and, in 1120, father and son travelled there to put down a rebellion, and invest 17-year-old William as Duke of Normandy.

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On their way back, they arrived at Barfleur, planning to cross to Southampton.

The White Ship was a newly-refitted vessel, captained by Thomas FitzStephen, and he offered it to the King. Henry declined, having made other arrangements. But William took the offer, with Henry’s illegitimate children Richard of Lincoln and Matilda FitzRoy, and about 300 people including many other nobles.

According to chronicler Orderic Vitalis, young William supplied wine to the occupants and crew “in great abundance”. Legend says, that so great was the drunken excess that ensued, that priests were not even allowed to board and bless the ship with holy water as was usual.

On November 25, 1120, the Captain was ordered by William to sail and try to overtake his father’s ship, which had already left.

tWhite Ship and rock.

Disembarking White Ship after striking the rock

The White Ship set off in the dark and very soon struck a submerged rock called Quillebœuf, a mile NE of Barfleur and quickly capsized.

William got into a small boat and could have escaped but he turned back to answer the cries of his sister. His boat was swamped by others and William drowned along with them.

It is said that FitzStephen came to the surface, learned that William had not survived, and let himself drown rather than face the King.

Berold, a butcher from Rouen was the sole survivor after being found clinging to a rock.

Henry had arrived safely In Southampton - but who would dare tell him the news?

Eventually, a young boy was sent to reveal the awful truth, upon which “the King fell on his face, tore at his beard and wept uncontrollably with grief”.

He was said never to have smiled again.

Williams boat overwhelmed.

William's boat overwhelmed

He founded St Denys Priory in about 1124 in memory of William.

All that remains is one ruined wall in Priory Road, an archway in the garden of Tudor House, and tiles in the Lady Chapel of St Denys’ Church.

The ship's sinking was a total disaster for England. Henry was left with one legitimate child, his daughter Matilda. She was named as his successor but a woman had never ruled England and her husband was Geoffrey Count of Anjou, an enemy of England's Norman nobles.

After Henry‘s death in 1135, Stephen de Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror and nephew of Henry, seized the throne.

Matilda and Geoffrey started a war to regain it known as ‘The Anarchy’, which devastated the country from 1135 to 1153.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle spoke of it as a time ‘when Christ and his angels slept’.

Henry in mourning.

Henry in mourning

But Stephen’s son died in 1153, and he was forced to recognise Matilda’s son Henry as his adopted son and successor.

This ended The Anarchy, and when Stephen died a year later, Henry became Henry II.

Earl Spencer released a best-selling book “The White Ship” in 2020 and joined experts from the Institute of Digital Archaeology in June 2021, when they dived on a site near Barfleur and found the remains of a vessel believed to be the White Ship.

He dramatically summarised the impact of the sinking: 'Imagine the Titanic, but with the heir to the throne, his siblings, cousins, & many of the leading political & military men aboard”.

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