William Aetheling and the Titanic of the 12th century

William Aetheling (* before 1103, † 1120) was the sole legitimate son of Henry I of England (* around 1068, † 1135). His surname Aetheling derives from Oldenglish “æþeling”, meaning something like “little noble”, in Anglosaxon England it was the title for the legitimate heir.

England und Frankreich zur Zeit Henry I. von England, Karte 11 des The Public Schools Historical Atlas von Charles Colbeck. Longmans, Green; New York; London; Bombay. 1905. public domain/gemeinfrei

England and France in the time of Henry I, map 11 of the The Public Schools Historical Atlas by Charles Colbeck. Longmans, Green; New York; London; Bombay. 1905. public domain


Henry I tried to cement the rights of William in England and Normandy. William got engaged to Isabelle d’Anjou († 1154) in 1113 when he was 10 years old.

Henry I demanded the oath of fealty for William from the Norman nobility in 1115 and in 1116 from the English Nobility. Thus he infringed on the rights of his nephew William Clito (* 1102, † 1128), who was duke of Normandy.

Willliam Aetheling (on the left) and his family, illustration of the 13th century, British Library, public domain

In Mai 1119 William crossed over the English channel from England to Normandy. In June he married Isabelle d’Anjou in Lisieux.

In August Louis VI of France made war on Normandy. He was in Les Andelys, a town in Eure and William Clito was with him. They didn’t know that the army of Henry I and William Aetheling was near. The armies met on a plain called Brémule near les Andelys. Louis VI was defeated, he fled. Henry I generously returned the horse of Louis VI and William Aetheling did the same for William Clito.

After this battle Louis VI acknowledged William Aetheling as duke of Normandy.

Schlacht von Brémule, anonymus, aus den Grandes Chroniques de France, 14. Jahrhundert, der mit den blauen Klamotten soll Louis sein, public domain/gemeinfrei

battle of Brémule, anonymous author, Grandes Chroniques de France, 14th century, public domain

the White Ship

On the 25th November 1120 the vessels of Henry I set sail from Barfleur. Henry’s ship was the first one, most of the barons were on the ship of William Aetheling. It was called Blanche-Nef (White Ship). The nobility was drunk and demanded from the captain to catch up with the ship of the king. Instead the vessel ran on a rock. The rock broke two planks and caused a huge leak. People were screaming, but not very long, soon water filled their mouths while the ship sank. Only two men were able to latch onto the yard. A butcher by name of Bérold and a young nobleman named Goisfred, son of Gislebert de L’Aigle. They saw the captain lifting his head out of the waves. He asked where the prince was. They told him that the prince must have been drowned, so the captain prefered to drown himself instead of having to tell king Henry I the bad news. The night was icily cold. Goisfred gave up after some hours and sank into the dark waves. In the morning three fishermen found Bérold and rescued him. He told the detailed happenings to a priest when he was ashore and he lived on in good health for nearly 20 more years.

Untergang der Blanche-Nef, anonymus, aus Cotton Claudius dii  f45v, 12. Jahrhundert, public domain/gemeinfrei

sinking of the Blanche-Nef, anonymous author, in Cotton Claudius dii f45v,British Library, 12th century, public domain

war of succession

Henry I had no legitimate heir any longer, he married a very young girl but didn’t manage to get male children. Thus he demanded the oath of fealty for his daughter Empress Maud (Matilda) from the English noblemen. She was called “Empress” because she had been married with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V. She was not Empress herself. After the death of Henry I she was reigning Enland for some months, but the barons didn’t accept her and she was never crowned queen. Stephen of Blois disputed her claim and a war of succession started, and England fell into chaos from 1135 until 1154.

Williams wife Isabelle had been on a different ship. She became abbess of Fontevrault under the name of of “Mathilde” in 1150.


æþeling in Wiktionary

Histoire de Normandie by Ordericus Vitalis, vol 4, published by J.-L.-J. Brière in Paris 1825-1827 pages:298+311+353-356, translated from Latin into FRench by Louis-François Du Bois (1773-1855) on Gallica

King Stephen by Donald Matthew, published by Continuum International Publishing Group 2002, page 51, ISBN=9781852852726 in Google Books (englisch)

Creative Commons LicenseThe article William Aetheling and the Titanic of the 12th century is in the Public Domain.


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