Historical Tales: 4—English - Charles Morris

How the White Ship Sailed

Henry i., king of England, had made peace with France. Then to Normandy went the king with a great retinue, that he might have Prince William, his only and dearly-loved son, acknowledged as his successor by the Norman nobles and married to the daughter of the Count of Anjou. Both these things were done; regal was the display, great the rejoicing, and on the 25th of November, 1120, the king and his followers, with the prince and his fair young bride, prepared to embark at Barfleur on their triumphant journey home.

So far all had gone well. Now disaster lowered. Fate had prepared a tragedy that was to load the king's soul with life-long grief and yield to English history one of its most pathetic tales.

Of the vessels of the fleet, one of the best was a fifty-oared galley called "The White Ship," commanded by a certain Thomas Fitzstephen, whose father had sailed the ship on which William the Conqueror first came to England's shores. This service Fitzstephen represented to the king, and begged that he might be equally honored.

"My liege," he said, "my father steered the ship with the golden boy upon the prow in which your father sailed to conquer England. I beseech you to grant me the same honor, that of carrying you in the White Ship to England."

"I am sorry, friend," said the king, "that my vessel is already chosen, and that I cannot sail with the son of the man who served my father. But the prince and all his company shall go along with you in the White Ship, which you may esteem an honor equal to that of carrying me."

By evening of that day the king with his retinue had set sail, with a fair wind, for England's shores, leaving the prince with his attendants to follow in Fitzstephen's ship. With the prince were his natural brother Richard, his sister the countess of Perch, Richard, earl of Chester, with his wife, the king's niece, together with one hundred and forty of the flower of the young nobility of England and Normandy, accompanying whom were many ladies of high descent. The whole number of persons taking passage on the White Ship, including the crew, were three hundred.

Prince William was but a boy, and one who did little honor to his father's love. He was a dissolute youth of eighteen, who had so little feeling for the English as to have declared that when he came to the throne he would yoke them to the plough like oxen. Destiny had decided that the boastful boy should not have the opportunity to carry out this threat.

"Give three casks of wine, Fitzstephen," he said, "to your crew. My father, the king, has sailed. What time have we to make merry here and still reach England with the rest?"

"If we sail at midnight," answered Fitzstephen, "my fifty rowers and the White Ship shall overtake the swiftest vessel in the king's fleet before daybreak."

"Then let us be merry," said the prince; "the night is fine, the time young, let us enjoy it while we may."

Merry enough they were; the prince and his companions danced in the moonlight on the ship's deck, the sailors emptied their wine-casks, and when at last they left the harbor there was not a sober sailor on board, and the captain himself was the worse for wine.

As the ship swept from the port, the young nobles, heated with wine, hung over the sides and drove away with taunts the priests who had come to give the usual benediction. Wild youths were they,—the most of them,—gay, ardent, in the hey-day of life, caring mainly for pleasure, and with little heed of aught beyond the moment's whim. There seemed naught to give them care, in sooth. The sea lay smooth beneath them, the air was mild, the moon poured its soft lustre upon the deck, and propitious fortune appeared to smile upon the ship as it rushed onward, under the impulse of its long banks of oars, in haste to overtake the distant fleet of the king.

All went merrily. Fitzstephen grasped the helm, his soul proud with the thought that, as his father had borne the Conqueror to England's strand, he was bearing the pride of younger England, the heir to the throne. On the deck before him his passengers were gathered in merry groups, singing, laughing, chatting, the ladies in their rich-lined mantles, the gentlemen in their bravest attire; while to the sound of song and merry talk the well-timed fall of the oars and swash of driven waters made refrain.

They had reached the harbor's mouth. The open ocean lay before them. In a few minutes more they would be sweeping over the Atlantic's broad expanse. Suddenly there came a frightful crash; a shock that threw numbers of the passengers head-long to the deck, and tore the oars from the rowers' hands; a cry of terror that went up from three hundred throats. It is said that some of the people in the far-off ships heard that cry, faint, far, despairing, borne to them over miles of sea, and asked themselves in wonder what it could portend.

It portended too much wine and too little heed. The vessel, carelessly steered, had struck upon a rock, the Catee-raze, at the harbor's mouth, with such violence that a gaping wound was torn in her prow, and the waters instantly began to rush in.

The White Ship was injured, was filling, would quickly sink. Wild consternation prevailed. There was but one boat, and that small. Fitzstephen, sobered by the concussion, hastily lowered it, crowded into it the prince and a few nobles, and bade them hastily to push off and row to the land.

"It is not far," he said, "and the sea is smooth. The rest of us must die."

They obeyed. The boat was pushed off, the oars dropped into the water, it began to move from the ship. At that moment, amid the cries of horror and despair on the sinking vessel, came one that met the prince's ear in piteous appeal. It was the voice of his sister, Marie, the countess of Perch, crying to him for help.

In that moment of frightful peril Prince William's heart beat true.

"Row back at any risk!" he cried. "My sister must be saved. I cannot bear to leave her."

They rowed back. But the hope that from that panic-stricken multitude one woman could be selected was wild. No sooner had the boat reached the ship's side than dozens madly sprung into it, in such numbers that it was overturned. At almost the same moment the White Ship went down, dragging all within reach into her eddying vortex. Death spread its sombre wings over the spot where, a few brief minutes before, life and joy had ruled.

When the tossing eddies subsided, the pale moon light looked down on but two souls of all that gay and youthful company. These clung to a spar which had broken loose from the mast and floated on the waves, or to the top of the mast itself, which stood above the surface.

"Only two of us, out of all that gallant company!" said one of these in despairing tones. "Who are you, friend and comrade?"

"I am a nobleman, Godfrey, the son of Gilbert de L'Aigle. And you?" he asked.

"I am Berold, a poor butcher of Rouen," was the answer.

"God be merciful to us both!" they then cried together.

Immediately afterwards they saw a third, who had risen and was swimming towards them. As he drew near he pushed the wet, clinging hair from his face, and they saw the white, agonized countenance of Fitzstephen. He gazed at them with eager eyes; then cast a long, despairing look on the waters around him.

"Where is the prince?" he asked, in tones that seemed to shudder with terror.

"Gone! gone!" they cried. "Not one of all on board, except we three, has risen above the water."

"Woe! woe, to me!" moaned Fitzstephen. He ceased swimming, turned to them a face ghastly with horror, and then sank beneath the waves, to join the goodly company whom his negligence had sent to a watery death. He dared not live to meet the father of his charge.

The two continued to cling to their support. But the water had in it the November chill, the night was long, the tenderly-reared nobleman lacked the endurance of his humbler companion. Before day-dawn he said, in faint accents,—

"I am exhausted and chilled with the cold. I can hold on no longer. Farewell, good friend! God preserve you!"

He loosed his hold and sank. The butcher of Rouen remained alone.

When day came some fisherman saw this clinging form from the shore, rowed out, and brought him in, the sole one living of all that goodly company. A few hours before the pride and hope of Normandy and England had crowded that noble ship. Now only a base-born butcher survived to tell the story of disaster, and the stately White Ship, with her noble freightage, lay buried beneath the waves.

For three days no one dared tell King Henry the dreadful story. Such was his love for his son that they feared his grief might turn to madness, and their lives pay the forfeit of their venture. At length a little lad was sent in to him with the tale. Weeping bitterly, and kneeling at the king's feet, the child told in broken accents the story which had been taught him, how the White Ship had gone to the bottom at the mouth of Barfleur harbor, and all on board been lost save one poor commoner. Prince William, his son, was dead.

The king heard him to the end, with slowly whitening face and horror-stricken eyes. At the conclusion of the child's narrative the monarch fell prostrate to the floor, and lay there long like one stricken with death. The chronicle of this sad tragedy ends in one short phrase, which is weighty with its burden of grief,—From that day on King Henry never smiled again!