Embarrassing Succession Crises In History: The Twelfth-Century Titanic -The Toast

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white shipI can’t help but feel bad for everyone from History; they’re dead, to start with, and then after their deaths the rest of us just sit around in our warm, cozy, alive bodies criticizing them. And it’s quite easy to criticize them! They are, after all, merely dead, while I am forever and gloriously Alive. Were our positions reversed, I have no doubt they would gladly stuff me with cholera and watch me die in childbirth, so I will feel no compunction about gently mocking the avoidably drowned.

Were you aware that England was once rocked by a crisis of succession due to the fact that pretty much the entire royal family drowned off the coast of Normandy? Embarrassingly close to the coast of Normandy? (The rock that hit the ship is visible from the shore at Barfleur, that’s how embarrassingly close they were to shore.)

I don’t wish to mock someone simply for having the bad fortune to die in the Middle Ages, because they are more to be pitied than censured, but there’s something particularly insulting about drowning in someone’s commute. It’s embarrassing to have drowned in the Channel, unless you were at Dunkirk or are one of those amazingly resilient old ladies who fling themselves across it every spring. There’s a train there now!

An aside — there are a handful of people, Victoria Chandler chief amongst them, who have suggested that the sinking of the White Ship was an act of deliberate sabotage and murder. I do not truck with these folk; I find their evidence to be fairly thin (also, the idea that someone would try to sabotage a ship’s passage by getting everyone drunk and hoping for the best seems like sloppy assassination best practices). But I thought you should know about it.

Anyhow! The Middle Ages! Europe! Drowned noblemen! The big problem, of course, is that pretty much no one in Europe during the Middle Ages knew how to swim (THIS IS AN ARGUABLE POINT, please go argue about it here). Where were you going to learn to swim? The Thames? That’s where the trash goes. So boats, yes, swimming, probably not, which almost certainly has a lot to do with why sailors were so superstitious, because the ocean might as well have been full of poison.

So King Henry, returning to England after some successful warring in France, is offered the use of the White Ship across the Channel by Thomas FitzStephen. King Henry already has a ship; King Henry declines but suggests that his son and heir William use it.

Which is actually fairly smart, keeping the prince and the king on separate ships so they can’t drown together! But oh God, do you know who else went on the White Ship? Everybody. Think of a person England needed, and they were on that ship. A partial list:

  • William Adelin, heir to the English throne
  • his half-brother Richard FitzRoy of Lincoln
  • his half-sister Matilda FitzHenry, Countess of Perche (sometimes called Marie de Mortagne)
  • Richard d’Avranches, second Earl of Chester
  • his brother Otheur or Othuel d’Avranches, governor of the King’s sons
  • the Countess of Chester, Mathilda or Lucia-Mahaut of Blois, the King’s neice
  • Geoffrey Ridel, Royal Justice, Son-in-law of Hugh, Earl of Chester
  • William Bigod, Steward of the household of King Henry
  • Ivo II de Grandmesnil
  • William Grandmesnil (a brother of Ivo II de Grandmesnil)
  • William of Rhuddlan (son of Robert)
  • Hugh of Moulins
  • Walter of Everci
  • Geoffrey, archdeacon of Hereford
  • Thomas FitzStephen FitzAirard (captain)
  • Geoffrey de l’Aigle
  • Engenulf de l’Aigle
  • Ralph le Roux, Lord of Pont Echanfre (many believe him to be an illegitimate son of Robert de Lacy)
  • Gilbert de l’Aigle, Vicomte of Exmes
  • Dietrich (Theodoric), the nephew of the German emperor (probably a son of Henry V.’s sister Agnes by Frederic Duke of Suabia)
  • Gisulf, the King’s secretary
  • William – Son of the Bishop of Coutances
  • Richard Anskill – Son and heir of a Berkshire landowner
  • William Pirou – Steward to the king
  • Robert Mauconduit – Nobleman

“How sad!” you might say. “But accidents happen, particularly at sea, and it’s a bit cruel to mock the dead, even if it has been a thousand years–”

NO. YOU ARE WRONG. A of all, it’s fine to make fun of things that happened a thousand years ago, and B of all, they drowned for the worst reason ever. The White Ship was ready to go first thing in the morning; the king’s son and his friends stayed on board all day getting drunk and didn’t set sail until sunset.

Which is a notoriously inauspicious time for setting sail!

At length he gave the signal to put to sea. Then the rowers made haste to take up their oars and, in high spirits because they knew nothing of what lay ahead, put the rest of the equipment ready and made the ship lean forward and race through the sea. As the drunken oarsmen were rowing with all their might, and the luckless helmsman paid scant attention to steering the ship though he sea, the port side of the White Ship struck violently against a huge rock, which was uncovered each day as the tide ebbed and covered once more at high tide. Two planks were shattered and, terrible to relate, the ship capsized without warning. Everyone cried out at once in their great peril, but the water pouring into the boat soon drowned their cries and all alike perished.

Do you know what would be a better idea than getting drunk on a boat in France? Sailing home safely, disembarking, and getting drunk at home. (I have never understood the concept of party boats. It seems like a recipe for barf. You can drink on the land! The land doesn’t move!)

According to chronicler Orderic Vitalis, the crew asked William Adelin for wine and he supplied it to them in great abundance. By the time the ship was ready to leave there were about 300 people on board although some had disembarked before the ship sailed due to the excessive drinking.”

If you get so drunk that people DISEMBARK FROM AN ENTIRE SHIP TO GET AWAY FROM YOU, you need to cut back, prince or no prince.

The communists among you will be glad to know that there was one survivor from the wreck, who was found by fishermen the next day clinging to a rock. His name was Berould, he was a common butcher, and he was only on board to collect the debts owed him by various profligate noblemen. ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE.

In addition to causing the death of the king’s entire retinue and half of his secret family members, William’s antics led to a forty-year period of anarchy known helpfully as the Anarchy, which some historians are currently trying to recast as “not really all that anarchic” but don’t you believe them, there was anarchy everywhere, and not the good kind where you get to carve the circle-A into your desk during detention, either.

William, by the way, was apparently allergic to surviving, because some of his attendants were able to bundle him off onto a life boat, but he insisted they turn back when he heard his half-sister crying for help on the wreck. (Yeah, man! Of course she was crying! She was drowning! So was everybody!) The boat was, of course, instantly swamped by dozens of other people who also did not want to drown, and William drowned with them.

If you are the only legitimate heir to the king of a country that has only been conquered within the last hundred years, it is your responsibility to not die from being too drunk on a boat. If you die of fever or in battle or even falling off a parapet, that is one thing. But getting a bunch of sailors too wasted to sail — then refusing to escape when you get the chance — well, you’re going to get made fun of in a thousand years by a woman who almost finished a history minor on a moderately popular women’s blog.

This attitude may seem cold. It is. I would 100% have been one of those rich old bitches on the Titanic lifeboats who refused to go back and pick up survivors even though we had a bunch of empty seats. And you know what? I would have lived.

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