The shipwreck that caused a civil war

In this, the first article on my historic stories page, I will go way back in time, long before Columbus was born, and I will go to England and France. Be aware that we are back in a time, when not many seconds was spend on finding names for children, especially not girls. A lot of girls were christened the same, and in this story almost all the girls are called Matilda. This name, meaning "strong in battle", was very popular at the time. Don't let the many Matilda's confuse you. Just remember that the important one was the empress. I will get to her sooner or later.

When most people I know are asked about civil war in England, what comes to their mind is what is commonly known as "The English Civil War", that is the war between the "Roundheads" (followers of the Parliament) and the Cavaliers (followers of the king) between 1642 and 1651. This is the war in which Oliver Cromwell was appointed Lord Protector, the king, Charles I was executed, Cromwell died and a new king, Charles II restored the kingdom. This is by far not the only civil war in England. Depending on how you count, you can number 10 or 12. The latest was the so-called Glorious Revolution in 1688. But this article takes us back to the first of them.


In the 1050's, while Edward the Confessor was king of England (by the way I do love the name of Edwards father, Æthelred the Unready), his cousin, the Duke of Normandy, Guilame II, laid claim to the English throne. Edward had no children, and Guilame thought he would be the right man to succeed him and tried to have Edward make him his heir. Unfortunately (for Guilame) a lot of other people also found, that they had the right to become king. When Edward finally died in very early 1066, he left the throne to Harold Godvinson, the powerful Earl of Wessex - cousin to the Danish king, Svend Estridson. Harold was to become the last ruling Anglo-Saxon king of England and his reign wasn't lasting long.

In September of that year, England was attacked by vikings from the north under command of the Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada ("The Hard Ruler". Harold had to gather his army and move north. At Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, Harolds army defeated the vikings, thereby ending the viking age. Unfortunately for Harold, something happened to the south, while he was busy fighting vikings in Yorkshire. Guilame had become tired of waiting for someone to die of natural causes, before he could become King of England, so he and his army had made landfall on the south coast of England. When Harold heard that, he rushed south with his battle-tired army and on October 14th 1066, the troops under Guilame defeated the English army at Hastings in Sussex. Harold was killed during the battle, and thus ended the Anglo-Saxon rule of England. Edgar II Ætheling was proclaimed king, but this 15 year old grandson of former king, Edmund Ironside, was never crowned. On Christmas day 1066 Guilame was crowned as William I, better known today as William the Conquerer. Some of his contemporaries called him William the Bastard, though probably only when he was out of earshot. The name was fitting though. His father, Robert I, Duke of Normandy was never married, and William was the son of one of Robert's many mistresses. The story of the Norman Conquest is depicted on the famous Bayeux Tapestry.

An interesting fact (at least to us Danes) is, that England was never off Danish hands at that time. The Anglo-Saxons, that ruled England, were of Danish origin. So were some of the Vikings, that conquered the land, like Swein Forkbeard and Cnut The Great, and also the Normans were Danish descendants.

The Early Norman Rule

Unfortunately for William, the old Anglo-Saxon nobles didn't like to be conquered, so William had a lot of rebellions to fight, using up most of his ressources on endless battles. At the same time, things back in Normandy was not too good either. Williams son, Robert, had sided with the French king to grab the power in his fathers duchy, so William had to maintain an army in Normandy as well as in England. In 1087 William returned to Normandy for good, and he died there later the same year after a riding accident. When William died, he was survived by eight children he had with his wife, Matilda of Flanders (that was the first Matilda). Three sons, Robert, William and Henry and five daughters, Matilda (that's the second), Cecilia, Adeliza, Constance and Adela. A fourth son, Richard had died in 1075. After Williams death the kingdon was split up. Robert, called Curthose (or short pants) because of his low stature, got Normandy and William, called Rufus (The Red) because of his ruddy face, got England. Henry was given a sum of money.

The peace didn't last long as Robert and William did not agree on who was to rule England. In 1100 William died, when he was accidentally shot on a hunt (possibly killed by one of his own men). This didn't settle the dispute though as young brother Henry ursurped the throne before Robert could get to it (brother was acutally brother worst in the 12th century). After years of battles between the two brothers, the war finally ended in 1106, when Henry caught Robert after The Battle of Tinchebray, and imprisoned him in Devizes Castle in Wiltshire, and left him there to rot. 20 years later, in 1126 though, he showed mercy and had Robert transferred to Cardiff Castle in Wales. Robert never left prison again until his death in 1134. With Robert in prison and William dead, Henry had no immediate rivals for the English throne, but he (and his family) had lost a good deal of their lnfluence in Normandy.

Henry I

Henry was born around 1068, two years after his father's conquest of England. He was thus 32 when he became king in 1100. He was present at the hunt, where William was killed, so some suspected that he had a hand in it. The same year he became king, he married as well. His bride was the daughter of King Malcolm III of Scotland. Her name was Matilda (here we go again) and she was a descendant of Alfred the Great, Earl of Wessex and King of England 200 years earlier. She was also the great granddaughter of Edmund Ironside and a niece of Edgar Ætheling. The marriage therefore, served to unite the new Norman royal line, with that of the old Anglo-Saxon lineage. Matilda was ten years Henry's junior, and the couple had three children. Henry travelled a lot around his country, that now consisted of England and Normandy, while Matilda preferred to stay at the court in Westminster. Despite this marriage, Henry, like his father and grandfather before him, continued to entertain a large number of mistresses, and like them, he made no secret of these relationships. Having mistresses was quite normal among Norman nobility at the time. With his mistresses Henry fathered an unknown but large number of children. We know that he recognized and supported at least 22 of these - 9 boys and 13 girls.

Henrys reign was characterized by even more rebellions and wars than was his fathers. Especially he was on really bad terms with king Louis VI of France. In 1118 Matilda died, while Henry was away in Normandy, battling the French king. The progress of the war, or rather the lack of it, prevented Henry from returning to England for his wifes funeral. At this time, Henry had two surviving legitimat children. A son, Richard, had died young, and he only had one other son, William Adelin (a normannized version of Anglo-Saxon Ætheling, which in itself was a title bestowed on men of royal blood, that were likely to take the throne at some time) and a daughter, Matilda (enter the empress). In 1119 Henry persuaded one of King Louis' allies, Fulk, Count of Anjou, to change side, by promising him, that his daughter (another Matilda), would marry Henrys son, William. A rather big bag of money also changed hands, and may have played some part in convincing Fulk to switch to the English side. As it happened, some years later, Fulk was to become King of Jerusalem. If Henry "stole" one of Henry's allies, one of Henry's illegitimate daughters, Juliana, sided with King Louis, and to prove that she was serious about it, she tried to kill her father by shooting an arrow at him, but she missed. The same year a decisive battle was fought near Bremule in Normandy. Henry won the battle and the war slowly came to an end. A peace treaty was signed in 1120, and Louis recognized William Adelin as Duke of Normandy, while Henry, on behalf of his son, acknowledged Louis as his overlord. Both Henry and his son and a lot of other noblemen witnessed the ceremony. But not his daughter, Matilda, who was busy elsewhere.

Intermission: Empress Matilda

In the beginning of 1109 when Matilda was 6 or 7 years old, the 22 year old Heinrich V, soon to be Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, proposed to her. She, or maybe rather her father accepted the marriage, that would tie Henry in with one of the most prestigous dynasties in Europe. He had to pay a dowry of 10.000 marks, but that was ok. Heinrich needed the money to pay for a trip to Rome, so he could be crowned as emperor by the pope. Matilda left for Germany in 1110, the couple was betrothed and in July, and then 8 year old Matilda was crowned as Queen of the Romans. As she was only a child she was placed in custody at the archbishop of Trier, Bruno, who took care of her education in German culture and politics. In 1114, when she was 12 years old, she married Heinrich in Worms. In 1118 and 1119, while her father was fighting King Louis, she was governing Italy on behalf of her husband, while he was busy fighting a rebellion in Germany. Matilda and Heinrich never had any children, and in 1125, Heinrich died from cancer, leaving a 23 year old  Matilda as his sole heir. On his deathbed he handed her the imperial insignia. She had to turn them over to the Archbishop Adalbert though, and Lothair of Supplinburg was elected king of the romans. Matilda got some marriage offerings from assorted German princes, but she chose to return to her fathers estate in Normandy.

The shipwreck

Finally I got there. "The shipwreck that caused a civil war". After the peace of 1120, Henry and Wiliam Adelin were about to return to England from Normandy. Thomas FitzStephen, a son of William the Conquerors old captain, offered Henry transport back to England on  his brand new ship, known as The White Ship. The king turned down the offer, as he had already made other plans. He allowed though, that a large number of his companions, including his son William, and two of his illegitemate children, Richard of Lincoln and yet another Matilda, Countess of Perch. When the ship left Barfleur in Normandy, it had 300 people on board. Apparently most of the passengers and the sailors were stone drunk, as William Adelin had accepted their demands for "someting to drink" and granted it in full.

The ship had the most modern equipment of the time and wast fast. As the king's ship had left port a few hours earlier, Price William ordered the crew to catch up with the king, before reaching England. Unfortunately they didn't get that far. Almost right outside the harbor, The White Ship hit a submerged rock, that tore the port side of the ship apart. The ship got filled with water and capsized in a few minutes. That most of the crew were very drunk, added to the confusion and panic as people tried to get of the ship before it sank. William Adelin saved himself aboard a small boat, but when he heard his halfsister cry for help, he ordered the people onboard the small boat to return to the ship and save her. When they returned, a lot of people jumped from the ship to the boat in order to save themselves. Finally the boat went under and everybody, including William, and his sister drowned. The captain and owner of The White Ship, Thomas FitzStephen went down with his vessel, but struggled back to the surface. When he heard that William Adelin was dead he let himself slip under once more, and he was never seen again. Apparentlgy he would rather die than face the king.

Only two people, a butcher from Rouen and a nobleman by the name of Geoffrey de l'Aigle survived by klinging to a rock all night until they were rescued next morning. All the rest of the 300 people onboard drowned, and it was Geoffrey de l'Aigle, who later told the story.  Soon after the catastrophe, rumours began to circulate, that the shipwreck was God's punishement, because the crew had'nt allowed some priests to go on board the ship before departure to bless vessel and voyage as was customary at that day and age. Modern historians though are more inclined to think that the intoxicated crew in combination with the order to get to England before the king, was the main reasons.

Succession trouble

After Williams death, Henry had no male descendants, and thus no heir to the throne. In 1125 he remarried, this time to a  bride 35 year younger than he, Adeliza of  Lovain, hoping to produce a new heir. Henry's goal was primarily political and practical, while Adeliza, in spite of the age difference had affections for her husband and accompanied him on his travels. The marriage produced no offspring though, and as the king gradually became aware that most likely he would have no more children, he tried to manouver another heir in position for thr throne. He first tried to convince the nobility, that his daughter and only legitimate heir, Matida (the empress) should inherit the throne. He ordered her to England from her residence in Normandy, an order she responded to only hesitantly.With Matilda in England, Henry got all his barons to swear an oath to support Matilda. But then he made a very bad decision, when he wanted Matilda to marry Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou and a son of Fulk, whose daughter had been promised to William Adelin. Unfortunately Matilda didn't agree with him. This was partly because of his age as Geoffrey was only 12, eleven years her junior, and partly because she felt the he was way below her level. Geoffrey being only the son of a count, and herself being empress dowager, and the daughter of a king. Because of Geoffreys age, the wedding was postponed to 1128 (he would then be 15), but that didn't made Matilda more positive about the whole thing. On June 10th 1128, Henry himself knighted the young count, and later that year they were married in spite of Matildas wishes. Right after the marriage she left her husband in England ,and did'n't return until 1131. During the marriage they were apart for long periods of time, but in spite of that had three children, all sons, Henry, Geoffrey and William. Like most Norman noblemen, Geoffrey of Anjou managed to have additional children with a mistress as well, Hamelin, Emme and Mary. The latter is under suspicion for being the otherwise anonymous poet of the times, known as Marie de France.

The three sons meant that the line of succession was clear. But unfortunately for Henry, Matildas marriage to Geoffrey was not well received among the nobility and people of England. The counts of Anjou was traditional enemies of England and was still considerecto be so. This, combined with the fact that England never had had a female ruler, and that most Englishmen didn't want one, blocked Matilda's way to the throne, and thus also blocked the way of her sons. Henry therefore had to consider other possiblillites, and he suggested his nephew, Stephen of Blois, a son of his sister, Adele, later one Theobald, count of Champagne and Brie (who was by the way married to yet another Matilda, Matilda of Carinthia), and finally he suggested his own illegitimate som, Richard of Gloucester. In the end he discarded those and decided to support Matilda once more.

The civil war

Henry died in 1135 while his succession has still not been settled. This caused a long period of civil war, later known as The Anarchy. Henry's nephew, Stephen of Blois, a grandson of William the Conqueror, though on the distaff side, assumed power in England, assisted by his brother, Henry of Winchester. Stephen had to fight fierce battles against the English barons, who didn't want him on the throne, rebellious Welsh leaders, that wanted an independant Wales, and Scottish invasions. Matilda on her part, felt that she was signinficantly more entitled to the throne than Stephen, first of all because her father had been king, and she was an descendant of Williams sword side. She therefore decided to do something about it. After a major revolt among the barons of southwestwern England in 1139, she invaded England with her Norman troops, and with the help of her half brother, Robert of Gloucester. After the invasion she was  declared "Lady of the English.

Neither side managed to gain the upper hand in the war, but eventually Matilda gained power in the southwestern part of the country, while Stephen kept the power in the southeastern parts. Gradually the war evolved into a war of attrition, in which both sides tried to wear out the other through sieges of towns and castles and through minor skirmishes. In 1141 Stephen was taken prisoner after the Battle of Lincoln, and Matilda was ready to let herself crown as queen in London, but unfortunately the local population sided with Stephen and she was forced to leave town by angry crowds before the coronation could take place. After the Battle of Winchester, Robert of Gloucester was taken prisoner by Stephens army, in his absence lead by his wife, by the name of - yes you guessed it, Matilda, Countess of Boulogne, and Stephens second in command, William of Ypres, Count of Flanders. Empress Matilda and Stephens wife, Matilda, were first cousins, as Matildas mother, Matilda had been a sister of Matildas mother, Mary! Gloucester was then exchanged with Stephen, who immediately laid siege to Oxford, where Matilda (the empress) resided at the time. She managed to escape though by walking across the frozen River Thames.

The war went on for years with no party be able to gain the upper hand. In 1148 Matilda returned to Normandy, which meanwhile had been conquered by her husband, Geoffrey. The war in England was continued by her 15 year old son, Henry FitzEmpress ("fitz" in Anglo-Norman simply means "son of"). Meanwhile Stephen had tried to get his own son, Eustace, recognized by the church as the next king of England, but with no success. Equally unsuccesful was Henry in the war, and in 1151 he had to return to Normandy.  Stephen were in power in England once again, but his grip on the throne was not safe. In 1153 Henry invaded again with a new, fresh army. Neither party was really interested in continuing the tiresome war though, and that same summer they came to an agreement, and signed the Treaty of Wallingford, in which Stephen recognized Henry as his heir. 18 years of civil war and anarchy was finally over, though troubles were not.

Henry II

In 1154 Stephen died and Henry was crowned as Henry II, and he began a long period of reconstruction. Along the way he had to fight his brother, Geoffrey, and although their mother, Maltida, managed to calm the tempers of her sons, peace lasted only for a short while, as Geofffrey rebelled once more. In 1158 Geoffrey died suddenly (one might suspect that Henry had a hand in this, but it has never been confirmed). Finally Henry had peace as his younger brother, Willliam was satisfied with the titles bestowed on him by Henry. Peace didn't last long though.

Henry ruled England until his death in 1189, an extremely long period at that day and time. His nickname was Henry Curtmantle (short coat) or Henry Plantagenet, a "family name" that derived from his father, Geoffrey of Anjou's nickname (meaning "sprig of broom"), and became the name of the dynasti. Henry married Eleanor of Aquitaine, and acquired her lands, and became Duke of Aquitaine besides his other titles, and he became a very rich man. Along the way the two of them had 8 children, five sons and three daughters. Keeping a family tradition, that went at least back to his great great grandfather, Robert of Normandy, Henry also had a large number of illegitimate children. In 1173 his sons, "Young Henry" (heir to the trone), Richard and Geoffrey supported by their mother, Eleanor, rebelled. This rebellion, known as "The Great Revolt" was only defeated by use of heavy military force. Ten years later Young Henry rebelled again, this time only supported by his brother Geoffrey. Young Henry was killed in the rebellion, but Henrys trouble didn't stop. All of his sons wanted land and power for themselves. His son, John got land in Ireland after a Norman invasion of that country, and that made Richard (part of the first rebellion and Johns older brother) afraid, that his father might appoint John as king of England, and the French king, Philip played on that fear to get Richard to side with him in a war agaiinst Henry. In 1189 a final rebellion broke out in which Philip and Richard defeated Henry. Beaten and ill with a bleeding ulcer, Henry escaped to Anjou, where he died shortly after. In spite of all his troubles with brothers and sons, Henry was considered a good king in his own time.


After Henry's death his son Richard became king. He ruled until his death in 1199 and was succeeded by his brother, John who ruled for 7 years. These two brothers are well known to readers of The Adventures of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, as Richard The Lionheart and John Lackland. John was succeeded by his son, Henry III. Richard and John were the most famous of Henry's legitimate sons, but also two of his illegitimate sons became quite famous, Geoffrey (not the one, that had rebelled - that was a legitimate son, knows as Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany). This Geoffrey was Archbishop of York. His mother is not known, but may have been the daughter of one of Henry's knights or maybe Henry's mistress, Rosamund Clifford.  Another illegitimate son, William, 3rd Earl of Salisbury, called William Longespee, which  meant "long spear" and alluded to the large weapons he wore, due to his own largeness. William var probablyson of Ida de Tosny, Countess of Norfolk.

14 kings from The House of Plantagenet reigned from England's throne, until another civil war ended the reign of the dynasti, 300 years later. This later civil war creates the background history for my next article on this page.

Post Scriptum

Empress Matilda lived to see her son on the throne, but she never returned to England. In Henry's absence she ruled Normandy from her court in Rouen. Allthough she never was crowned as queen of England, she had been a very popular Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, and Henry was rarely mentioned, without his mother being mentioned as well. When she died in 1167, 65 years of age, she was buried under the high alter in the chapel of the monastery of Bec-Helloin. On her epitaph was written: "Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring: here lies Matilda, the daughter, wife, and mother of Henry". Her grave was ruined and restored a´couple of times, but in 1846 her remains was transferred to the Cathedral of Rouen, where they are still buried. In the cathedral other menbers of the family are buried as well, "Young Henry",  her son, William FitzEmpress, and the heart of Richard the Lionheart. Later John Plantagenet, Duke of Bedford who was responsible for the trial and execution of Joan of Arc, was also burried in the cathedral. Strange by the way, is that when Joan of Arc had been burned, her remains was thrown in the river Seine from a bridge called Mathilda! Before the Empress, Rollo, the viking chieftain who conquered Normandy for the vikings, had been buried in the cathedral as well.

Thus ends the story of a shipwreck, caused by drunkenness and pride, that, 19 years after it took place, caused an 18 year long civil war. But without this shipwreck, the House of Plantagenet, probably would never have been on the English throne, and Robin Hood and Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, would have had to be written in quite another fashion.

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