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Shipwreck That Changed the Course of British History

Drowning of the heir to Henry I cast a shadow that led to generations of unrest – now the vessel on which he died may have been discovered.

The wreck of a ship which changed the course of English history - after it sank 900 years ago with the heir to the throne on board - is believed to have been found.

The drowning of 17-year-old William Adelin, the only legitimate son of Henry I and grandson of William the Conqueror, cast a shadow that led to generations of unrest known as the Anarchy, according to the historian Charles Spencer, who has written a best-selling book on the White Ship.

Although it was known that the White Ship went down shortly after leaving Barfleur for Southampton in November 1120, it happened so long ago that little trace of the disaster is thought to be left. The diving team searching for the wreck thought they were being optimistic looking for the cast iron rivets that once held the longship’s oak planks together.

What they discovered on the seabed in less than 10m of water may turn out to be a significant section of the hull of the 40m vessel, said Roger Michel, executive director of the Oxford-based Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA), the expedition’s leader.

“The divers found a section of the hull of a ship built with exactly the kind of materials we were looking for - iron and bronze and wooden nails and so forth - in exactly the spot we thought we would find it.”

The White Ship was taking nobles back to England after four years campaigning in Normandy. Henry I had successfully campaigned to have his son William recognised as heir to both the English throne and the dukedom of Normandy.

Henry, who had his own boat, had set off earlier while the younger generation of aristocrats were busy emptying three vast vats of wine in preparation for the original booze cruise. They left Barfleur around midnight, determined to catch up with Henry and beat him to Southampton. However, their boat hit some rocks, leaving only one survivor: a butcher from Rouen, who was only on board to try to collect the money he was owed by the departing noblemen. William Adelin was put in a lifeboat by his bodyguards but insisted on returning to save his sister Matilda. The small boat was swamped by drowning passengers trying to save themselves and they all died.

The White Ship was so called because it was painted white, the colour of celebration. It was one of the largest vessels of its kind ever built and resembled the Viking longships sailed by the ancestors of the Normans who settled in northern France.

The discoveries made by the expedition will help with construction of a replica of the White Ship and a replica of the Anglo-Saxon longship excavated at Sutton Hoo being sponsored by the IDA.

Alexy Karenowska, the IDA’s technical director, said: “It will provide a unique opportunity to expand our knowledge of construction techniques used in making these iconic vessels, including medieval smelting and forging techniques.”


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