The earth bare no corn, for the land was all laid waste by such deeds; and they said openly, that Christ slept, and his saints. Such things, and more than we can say, suffered we nineteen winters for our sins

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The death of King Henry I in 1135 created a succession crisis that resulted in England’s first civil war. Nicknamed ‘The Anarchy’ for its unprecedented levels of chaos and disorder, this nineteen-year conflict witnessed the usurpation of King Stephen, and a persistent battle on the part of Henry’s daughter, Matilda, to reclaim her royal inheritance. Though the civil war came to a peaceful end with the Treaty of Winchester in 1153, it was Matilda’s son, Henry, who succeeded to the throne of England after the death of King Stephen in 1154.

This, in an hour, is the story of The Medieval Anarchy through the personalities, context, events, and aftermath of England’s first, and often forgotten, civil war.

The White Ship Disaster

No ship ever brought so much misery to England

William of Malmesbury

As Duke of Normandy, King Henry I made frequent trips to his Duchy across the Channel. In November 1120, Henry was accompanied by his son and heir, William Adelin. On arrival in the French port of Barfleur, Thomas FitzStephen, master of the White Ship, approached the King and offered his services. FitzStephen claimed that his father had been employed by William the Conqueror as his personal captain; he had taken the Duke to England for the invasion of 1066. As Henry already had a good ship and crew of his own, he suggested that his son, William, and his party use the White Ship instead.

Having spent much of the day drinking, the 300-strong group – including FitzStephen, the helmsman and fifty oarsmen – were roaring drunk by the time they boarded the ship on the evening of 25 November 1120. Desperate to overtake the King’s ship, which had already cleared the harbour, the helmsman began to steer the vessel northwards. It was during this manoeuvre that the White Ship hit a rock on its port side and began to fill with water. In a bid to save the King’s heir, Prince William and a small group of oarsmen descended into a dinghy and began to sail away from the ship. But the cries of those left behind soon became too much for William to bear and he ordered that the dinghy be turned around to help those in need. His attempts were in vain; the White Ship soon capsized, dragging William and his party deep into the murky waters.


White Ship Disaster

With only one known survivor, it is difficult to ascertain the full details of that fateful night. The lucky survivor was a butcher from Rouen, saved by the warm ram-skins that he was wearing and rescued by three fishermen the next day. The White Ship disaster claimed the lives of William Adelin and two of Henry’s illegitimate children. Henry holds the record for the highest number of illegitimate children born to an English king. Historians estimate that he had approximately sixteen illegitimate daughters and nine illegitimate sons from a variety of mistresses.

Although FitzStephen, the ship’s captain, managed to swim to the surface, he allowed himself to drown rather than tell the King of William’s death. This grim responsibility was left to an unidentified young boy. On hearing the news, Henry broke down and fell to the floor. Widowed and in his early fifties, it seemed unlikely that Henry would ever produce another male heir. His son’s death had had truly set England on the road to disaster.



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