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Earl Spencer – Have we found the wreck of the White Ship, the worst ever royal disaster?

Blog | By Earl Spencer | Jun 10, 2021

The White Ship by Joseph Martin Kronheim

To the south coast, for a quick flit across to the Normandy coast - precisely 77 years and two days after my father landed there on D-Day-Plus-One.
I’m not a lieutenant in a Sherman tank, of course, but a historian on a mission: to try to locate anything that might remain of The White Ship - “the medieval Titanic” - whose tragic sinking changed the course of history by depriving the Normans of William Ætheling, the sole legitimate heir to the English throne. Carnage ensued, out of which the Plantagenets took possession of the crown for more than 300 years, till the Tudors saw them on their way.
We set off for Normandy in June in glorious sunshine, with the Channel still as a millpond. Three and a half hours later we arrived off the port of Barfleur, and saw the brooding Quillebœuf Rock that - 900 years ago last November - holed The White Ship.

The collision sent the 300 passengers (including three of Henry I’s children, and the flower of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy) and 50 crew tumbling into the icy waves: none of them knew how to swim, and only one man - a butcher - survived, by scrambling onto a piece of broken mast.

Our divers were somewhat better prepared, and equipped. We’d worked out where any wreckage from nine centuries back might lie. The divers soon found a three-yard strip of ancient shipwreck, with a combination of metalwork on it that would fit with a vessel made in 1100 or so. A cheer went up when they surfaced with the news.
We now await confirmation of the initial, extremely upbeat findings.
It would be amazing to truly reconnect with the tragic vessel that brought England its worst ever maritime disaster.