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The Anarchy

When King Henry I’s son died in a tragic sinking, England descended into anarchy, as his daughter and nephew squabbled for the crown. Carl Watkins uncovers the story of England’s medieval civil war


IN THE FAMILY: King Stephen (left) fought for his son to inherit the crown, but it passed instead to his cousin’s son, Henry (right)

One night in the November of 1120, a ship sailed from Barfleur on the coast of Normandy carrying William Adelin, the son and heir of Henry I of England. The ship struck a submerged rock and – as panic-stricken voices cried out in the frosty air – she went down with almost all hands, Prince William among them. The sinking was a tragedy for the King, who collapsed in grief when the news was finally broken to him, but it also set in motion a political crisis. Henry had no other legitimate male off spring, and — as soon became plain — even married to a new young wife, Adeliza of Louvain, would be unable to father any more. So, in an unprecedented step, he looked to his daughter, Matilda, to be his successor.

ALL AT SEA King Henry I mourns the death of his son aboard the White Ship


Three hundred people were due to set sail on the White Ship, but some disembarked just beforehand due to excessive drunkenness.

ALL AT SEA: Henry proclaims his daughter Matilda as his successor

She had married while young, to the German emperor, and had been widowed young, only to be married once again, this time less exaltedly to a handsome young count, Geoffrey of Anjou. Matilda was strong-willed and proud, never shedding the title of Empress, and though she commanded flerce loyalty from some, her second marriage spelled trouble. There was long-standing tension between Normandy and Anjou, and a worry among Norman barons that Geoffrey might rule through his wife.

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February 2017