Cambridge Historical Reader: Primary - Cambridge Press

The Loss of the White Ship, or, How a Prince was Drowned

Prince Henry became king of England after the death of William Rufus. He is sometimes spoken of as Henry the scholar, because he could read and write and knew a little Greek and Latin. He was fond of animals, too, and is said to have kept a menagerie at Woodstock, in Oxfordshire.

Henry the First, although a hard and selfish man, was much better than the Red king; and, on the whole, he ruled his people well. He pleased the native English by marrying a princess who was descended from "Good king Alfred."

Henry I of England


King Henry and his queen had a son named prince William. When the prince was about eighteen years old, his father took him across to Normandy. At this time, Henry ruled that land as well as England, and he wished to show the great barons their future king. After the Normans had promised to serve and obey the prince when he became king, the royal party got ready to return to England.

Just as king Henry was about to go on board his ship, a sea captain named Fitz-Stephen begged leave to speak to him. When he was taken before the king, he said, "Sire, my father steered your father's ship when he sailed across the sea to win the English throne. Let me have the honour of taking you across in my fine vessel, the White Ship."

The king replied, "I have already chosen my ship; but there is my son, the prince, and his young friends, who may sail with you, if they please."

The king's vessel started some time before the White Ship: for, as the captain said, his vessel was so swift that he could easily overtake the other. Before going on board, prince William sent some wine for the sailors, who drank more than they should have done.

About midnight, the White Ship set sail. There was a fine breeze, and the fifty sailors who rowed the ship pulled at their oars as hard as they could. The prince and his young friends were very merry, and told the sailors to row still quicker.

The ship was now going very fast; but, sad to say, no one seemed to be on the watch to see that it kept in the right course. Suddenly a loud crash was heard, for the vessel had struck on a rock, and through the large rent in its side the water was fast pouring in.

A terrible cry arose from those on board, which, it is said, was heard by some of the people in the king's ship. They, however, did not know what it meant, and so thought no more about it.

When the captain saw that his ship was sinking, he put the prince and a few of his friends into the only boat there was, telling them to row as quickly as they could to shore.

Wreck of White Ship


This might have been done quite easily, as the sea was smooth and the night clear. But, before they had rowed very far, prince William heard his sister's voice calling for help.

In the hurry and disorder, she had been left behind. The prince at once ordered that the boat should go back for her. But, when it reached the side of the vessel, so many jumped down that the boat was upset, and all in it were cast into the sea.

The ship soon sank, and, out of nearly three hundred persons, only one man was saved. This was a butcher, who, wrapped in his sheepskin coat, managed to hold on to a floating mast till morning. Some fishermen saw him and took him into their boat. He then told them the sad story of the loss of the White Ship.

When the news reached England next day, no one cared to tell the poor king of the loss of his only son. At last, the courtiers sent a little boy, who fell at Henry's feet and told him the sad tale.

The old writers say that the king was so grieved that, during the rest of his life, he was never seen to smile. Whether this was so or not, we may be sure he never forgot the young prince, for whom he had constantly planned and thought.