Skip to main content

The drinking session that led to Civil War

Image: Wikimedia Commons

A group of young, bolshy Brits abroad get far too drunk and cause mayhem on a channel crossing. Sounds like just another story tutted over by the tabloids, except this particular group was sailing in the 12th Century, and their revelry would lead not only to disaster for the ship, but to the entire nation.

His father, Henry I, was perhaps the friskiest king to ever wear the crown

It was on 25 November 1120 that the party of wine-sodden ladies and gents set sail from Normandy to England on board a vessel named the White Ship. Her captain was Thomas FitzStephen, whose claim to fame at the time was that his father had captained William the Conqueror’s ship during the Norman invasion of 1066. Now, in 1120, FitzStephen was proudly following in his dad’s footsteps, because one of the 300 or so passengers on board the White Ship that fateful night was William Adelin, William the Conqueror’s 17-year-old grandson and heir to the English throne. Young William wasn’t the only VIP making the crossing, either. His father, Henry I, was perhaps the friskiest king to ever wear the crown, spawning literally dozens of illegitimate children with countless mistresses, and a couple of them were also making merry on board the ship that evening.

William, his half-siblings and their mates had begun binge drinking well before the ship set off. According to contemporary chronicler Orderic Vitalis, things got so lairy that a few members of the group decided not to get on board. One of them was Henry I’s nephew, Stephen of Blois (it’s been speculated he stayed ashore because he was stricken with diarrhoea, presumably from too much boozing).

According to Orderic Vitalis, the royal party on the White Ship became reckless and arrogant with drink – 'they even drove away with contempt, amid shouts of laughter, the priests who came to bless them'. But, as Vitalis quickly assures us, 'they were speedily punished for their mockery'. Captain Thomas FitzStephen, filled with drunken confidence, 'rashly boasted' to his partying passengers that they could get to England quicker than the king himself, who had sailed ahead on another ship. It was a decision that would have inconceivable consequences for FitzStephen, the hundreds of people on board his ship, and for England itself.

Almost immediately after setting off, the vessel crashed into rocks on the Normandy coast, ripping a gash into the hull. 'The passengers and crew raised cries of distress, but their mouths were soon stopped by the swelling waves,' writes Vitalis in his breathless account. Only a few managed to cling to life, quite literally by holding onto the mast. As Vitalis tells us, Captain Thomas FitzStephen swam up above the waves and asked the other survivors where the heir to the throne was. On learning William had drowned, Thomas allegedly said 'It is misery for me to live any longer' and, in the words of Vitalis, 'abandoned himself to his fate in utter despair, preferring to meet it at once rather than face the rage of the king… or drag out his existence and expiate his crime in a dungeon.'

The death of William thrust England into a succession crisis

From Vitalis’ account onwards, the story of the White Ship – with its swaggering, aristocratic passengers, the fatally cocky attitude of the captain and the one working class survivor (a butcher named Berold) – has always had the flavour of a parable about tragic human hubris. Centuries later, in 1840, historian Victor Godard-Faultrier would sound almost as judgy as Vitalis when he described the fashionable clothes of the doomed passengers and the 'frolicsome young women' with 'too lively gaiety'.

But the true consequences of the disaster went far beyond the deaths of the passengers. The death of William thrust England into a succession crisis, as the grief-struck King Henry I tried in vain to establish his only other legitimate child, the Empress Matilda, as the new heir to the throne. The prospect of an all-powerful female monarch didn’t go down well, and when Henry himself died in 1135, the throne was promptly seized by Stephen of Blois, whose diarrhoea had perhaps saved him from going down with the White Ship.

This initiated a period of civil war known as the Anarchy. The Empress Matilda, with the support of her husband Geoffrey Plantagenet, grappled with her cousin Stephen for the crown for decades. The arduous conflict, marked by fighting and raiding across the country, would only be resolved in 1153, when Stephen agreed to name Matilda’s son as his successor. He would rule as Henry II, the first Plantagenet king of England.

So, all in all, it’s fair to say that when William ordered wine brought to his party in Normandy on 25 November 1120, it ushered in the most unfortunate drinking session in world history. As the 12th Century chronicler William of Malmesbury accurately put it in his own report on the White Ship, 'no ship that ever sailed brought England such disaster'.