The monarchs we never had
The death of a child or young person is always a tragedy, but it usually affects only family and close friends. The death of the heir to the throne has had important consequences throughout British history – sometimes immediately, sometimes obvious only in retrospect. It has twice contributed to the outbreak of civil war, led to England’s break with Rome, caused dynastic change and more than once opened the way for monarchs who were ill suited and badly trained for the role.
This website examines the heirs to Henry I, Henry VII, James I, Anne, George IV and Edward VII, how they died and the consequences of these untimely deaths.Prince William (1103-1120)
Who was he?
Prince William (also known as ‘the Atheling’, Anglo-Saxon for ‘son of the king’) was the only legitimate son of – the third son of William the Conqueror who had reunited his father’s empire of England and Normandy – and Edith-Matilda, who was descended from King Alfred. So the heir to the throne had a blend of Norman and Saxon blood flowing in his veins, and for many, his future reign promised to be a time of reconciliation.
In 1113, in an attempt to bring Anjou, a long-time rival of Normandy, into his sphere of allegiance, Henry betrothed the 10-year-old William to Isabella, eldest daughter of Count Fulk V of Anjou. The marriage would finally take place in 1119.
William's mother usually served as the king's regent in England while he was away in Normandy, but after her death in 1118, William was old enough to serve in her stead. Closely advised in this role by Henry's administrators, such as Roger of Salisbury, the prince was sometimes referred to as rex designatus (king designate), but he had very little real power.
He was, however, a warrior prince who, even at the age of 17, fought alongside his father during the successful campaign of 1119, which culminated in the defeat and humiliation of the French king, Louis VI ‘the Fat’, at the battle of Brémule.
How did he die?
On 24 November 1120, Henry and his entourage were finally returning to England, having reached the Norman port of Barfleur. The king was offered the state-of-the-art White Ship, but as he had already made his travelling arrangements, he suggested that it would be a treat for his son William to sail in such a vessel.
The snecca – Norse for ‘snakeship’ – was very large by the standards of the time, powered by 50 oarsmen and carrying more than 300 passengers. Among them were 140 knights and 18 noblewomen – in fact, virtually all the ‘bright young things’ of the court. A mood of celebration was in the air and the prince had wine brought aboard to help the party go with a swing. Both passengers and crew were soon drunk, shouting abuse at one another and ejecting a group of priests who had arrived to bless the voyage.
The drinking and carousing delayed the start of the Channel crossing – King Henry had already sailed. Now the roisterers issued a challenge to the captain: despite the fact that night had fallen, could he overtake the king’s ship? He accepted and tragedy soon followed. No one knows exactly why the White Ship sank – the fact that the captain was as drunk as his passengers didn’t help – but traditionally it has been blamed on a known hazard just off the coast: a substantial rock that was submerged at high tide.
As it capsized, the ship was close enough to shore for the cries of those who had been pitched into the black, icy water to be heard – but those who heard them thought it was just more drunken revelry. It is even said that some on the king’s ship heard the cries but carried on sailing for England.
The prince’s bodyguards acted quickly, bundling him into a dinghy and to safety just after the rock was struck. However, as William and his men rowed out of harm’s way, they heard his half-sister Matilda, countess of Perche (one of Henry’s many illegitimate offspring), begging for help. The prince ordered his boat to turn round, and it was rowed back to the spot where the White Ship had gone down. However, the dinghy was the only hope of survival for those in the water, and as more and more of them tried to get into it, their weight pulled it below the surface and everyone – including William the Atheling – drowned.
All but one, that is: a Rouen butcher called Berold, who had only gone on board to collect debts owed to him by the aristocratic revellers.
William's wife Isabella was on another ship and survived him to become a nun and, eventually, abbess of Fontevrault. It is said that, after hearing of the disaster, Henry I never smiled again.
What were the consequences?
Historian Robert Lacey has summed up the immediate results of this catastrophe:
The White Ship was the Titanic of the Middle Ages, a much-vaunted high-tech vessel on its maiden voyage, wrecked against a foreseeable natural obstacle in the reckless pursuit of speed. The passenger list constituted the cream of high society, cast into the chilly waters.
But there were far more important consequences than simply the loss of some members of the upper-class. Desperate to secure his family's succession, Henry made the English barons swear an oath to uphold the rights to the throne of his only remaining legitimate child – his daughter , who had only recently married the Holy Roman emperor. However, although the barons initially swore to accept her as queen when Henry died in 1125, many of them then switched sides and took up the cause of her cousin of Blois. The result was 14 years of anarchy and civil war that simply would not have happened had the White Ship not capsized off the coast of Normandy that chilly November night.