Earl Spencer in quest to find remains of White Ship

Earl Spencer’s quest to find sunken grave of Norman King’s ‘only heir’: Diana’s brother will send divers to scour White Ship wreck that sank off French coast in 1120 carrying the only legitimate son of Henry I … sparking civil war

  • The White Ship sank in 1120 on its way from Barfleur harbour to Southampton
  • It was carrying Henry I’s only legitimate son, 17-year-old William Aetheling
  • William ordered his guards to rescue his sister and their row boat capsized
  • He, along with his sister Margaret la Perche and 18 countesses lost their lives 

Historian Charles Spencer is sending divers to the wreck site of the White Ship, which sank 900 years ago with the only heir of King Henry I on board. 

The ship plummeted to the depths of the English Channel on November 25, 1120,  after hitting the notorious submerged Quillebœuf Rock, off the French coast.

Carrying Henry’s heir William Aethling and many other members of the Anglo-Norman nobility, it had only just left the coastal town of Barfleur, in Normandy, and had been bound for Southampton. 

Everyone on board – bar one lucky butcher – was killed, leading to a succession crisis and civil war in England.

Earl Spencer – who is also the brother of the late Princess Diana – released a much-praised book on the sinking last year.  

Now, in a tweet written from his official ‘bookshop’ account, the historian announced plans to explore the wreck site.

The tweet said divers would be searching for ‘surviving metalwork’, including nails and rivets.

Historian Charles Spencer is sending divers to the wreck site of the White Ship, which sank 900 years ago with the only heir of King Henry I on board 

Earl Spencer – who is also the brother of the late Princess Diana – released a much-praised book on the sinking last year 

King Henry I was the fourth son of William the Conqueror, who led the successful Norman invasion of Britain in 1066, in which English forces were defeated at the Battle of Hastings.

His son and only heir, William Aetheling, had embarked on the White Ship to follow his father from Normandy to England on the night of November 25 in 1120. 

On board with William were his siblings – Henry’s illegitimate son Richard of Lincoln and his illegitimate daughter Matilda FitzRoy – and many other nobles.

The tweet announcing the dive on the wreck site read: ‘We will be diving on the remains of The White Ship in early June. 

‘The Quillebœuf Rock, off the Norman coast, is where The White Ship foundered. 

‘It’s surviving metalwork – nails, rivets, etc – that we will be looking for. More details to follow.’

The ship plummeted to the depths of the English Channel on November 25, 1120, after hitting the notorious submerged Quillebœuf Rock, off the French coast. Carrying Henry’s heir William Aethling and many other members of the Anglo-Norman nobility, it had only just left the coastal town of Barfleur, in Normandy, and had been bound for Southampton. Pictured: A 1905 illustration showing Henry being informed about the death of his son

The tweet announcing the dive on the wreck site read: ‘We will be diving on the remains of The White Ship in early June. The Quillebœuf Rock, off the Norman coast, is where The White Ship foundered. ‘It’s surviving metalwork – nails, rivets, etc – that we will be looking for. More details to follow’

A spokesman for Earl Spencer said they could not yet share any no further detail on the plans because the dive date is ‘so far away’.   

Earl Spencer outlined in his book, titled The White Ship – Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream’ – how everyone on board had been drinking wine. 

With their drunkenness perhaps to blame, the ship hit the notorious Quilleboeuf rock shortly after leaving Barfleur harbour and its hull was ruptured.

The vessel quickly capsized and everyone on board was thrown in to the sea.

Although William had been bundled into the ship’s single longboat by his bodyguards, he fatefully ordered his men to turn the vessel around to save his beloved sister Matilda la Perche. 

The ship sank just a mile from Barfleur Harbour on November 25, 1120

The longboat was quickly swamped as the drowning members of the elite desperately tried to clamber aboard. 

The vessel then capsized, leading to the death of William, his sister and everyone else apart from a butcher from Rouen, named Berold.

It was his witness testimony which forms the basis of current knowledge about what happened. 

The White Ship – Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream was published last year

Earl Spencer explained in his book how the sinking and loss of life was not only a devastating personal tragedy for King Henry, but also for the wider Anglo-Norman ruling class.

As well as William and his brother and sister, 18 countesses drowned, along with numerous knights. 

Expanding on the gravity of the disaster, Earl Spencer previously tweeted in August: ‘Imagine the Titanic, but with the heir to the throne, his siblings, cousins, & many of the leading political & military men aboard. Only one man survived to tell the tale.’

The ship’s sinking was a disaster for England because it suddenly made the royal succession a dangerous uncertainty. 

Now that there was no clear male heir, Henry had to look to his legitimate daughter, who was also named Matilda.

However, one his death in 1135, Henry’s nephew Stephen took up arms against Matilda, prompting a near 20-year civil war which was known as The Anarchy. 

The conflict finally ended in 1153, shortly before Stephen died of a fever and Matilda’s son became King Henry II. 

The Norman King Henry I and what happened after his only legitimate son was killed in the White Ship disaster

Henry I (1068 – 1135) was the king who brutally ruled England from 1100 until his death. 

The fourth son of William the Conqueror, Henry seized the throne after his older brother, also called William, was killed. 

He married Matilda of Scotland and had two legitimate children – William Aetheling and Empress Matilda. 

Henry also had many illegitimate children which were believed to number more than 20. 

One of Henry’s first major acts was to defeat his other older brother Robert in battle.

Disputing Henry’s claim to the throne, Robert had invaded England in 1101. 

The campaign ended in a short-lived settlement which was followed by Henry’s invasion of the then Duchy of Normandy, in the north of modern-day France, in 1105. 

Henry I (1068 – 1135) was the king who brutally ruled England from 1100 until his death

Henry was then victorious over Robert in the Battle of Tinchebray. 

With the threat of rebellion and invasion near-constant, Henry’s rule was brutal. 

On his orders, a group of peasants had their feet cut off for foraging for firewood where they shouldn’t have been. 

Other criminals, including counterfeiters and rapists, had their right hands cut off and were castrated.

However, Henry has become known as the ‘Lion of Justice’ because law under him was said to all citizens equally. 

Law was upheld to such an extent that it was said a woman laden with gold could cross the country in safety. 

Henry also introduced several new institutions, including the royal exchequer – responsible for raising revenue – and justices who moved around the country to judge trials. 

However, Henry’s succession plans were thrown into crisis when his only legitimate son was killed in the White Ship disaster of 1120.

In the hope of having another son, Henry married for a second time but the union was childless. 

In response, he declared his daughter Empress Matilda his heir and married her off to Geoffrey of Anjou.

Henry’s succession plans were thrown into crisis when his only legitimate son was killed in the White Ship disaster of 1120

But after his death in 1135, Henry’s nephew Stephen of Blois, seized the throne. The act sparked the period of civil war in England and Normandy known as the Anarchy. 

The conflict led to the widespread breakdown in law and order and fierce fighting between Stephen’s forces and English barons, rebellious Welsh leaders and also Scottish invaders. 

Matilda invaded in 1139 with the help of her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester. 

The Empress controlled the south-west of England and much of the Thames Valley, while Stephen had rule over the south-east. 

The fighting mostly consisted of skirmishes launched from well-defended castles.

But Stephen’s authority collapsed when he was captured at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141. 

However, the war was to drag on for many more years after Robert of Gloucester was himself seized and the two parties agreed to swap captives. 

In 1148, the Empress returned to Normandy, which her husband Geoffrey V of Anjou had seized from Stephen’s forces.

She left the campaigning to her son Henry FitzEmpress. 

Stephen tried to have his eldest son, Eustace, recognised by the Catholic Church as the next King.

Henry FitzEmpress’s forces then re-invaded in 1153 but neither side had an appetite for more fighting. 

Stephen and Henry agreed a peace deal in which the younger man was recognised as his heir.

Stephen then died in 1154 and Henry became King Henry II. He then embarked on a long period of reconstruction of the war-ravaged country.         

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