Monday, 16 May 2016

Henry I and the White Ship, 1120

King Henry I achieves many great things during his life but written history is not kind to him. Rather than focus on his hard work to modernize the legal statutes of government into the ‘Charter of Liberties’ our popular history has gazed instead upon his colourful personal life.  This is not really surprising though as he fathers over 20 illegitimate children. This focus is a shame as it means many people are unaware of the events in his life. One such example is the voyage of the ‘White Ship’ on the 25th November 1120.

The voyage comes about because Henry is King of England and much of France so he regularly has to cross the Channel. Before the journey a man called Thomas Fitzwilliam asks Henry I if he will board his new ship. Thomas pleads with him for his regal honour to join him and mentions that he is the son of the sea captain who took his father, William the Conqueror across the Channel back in 1066 for the invasion of England. Henry replies that he already has his own ship but that this new ship called the ‘White Ship’ is fit for his son and successor, William Adelin and his other son, Richard.

So it comes to pass that the King and his 300 strong retinue decide to cross the channel. The mood is one of joy and good spirits. King Henry I sets out first and his sons follow in the ‘White Ship’. Gradually though the crew with his sons become more and more drunk and the mood sours. Perhaps in some ways this is not surprising. Henry of Huntingdon said that William is ‘a prince so pampered’ that he seems ‘destined to be food for the fire.’ This explains why his men think little of insulting some ministers who have tried to bless the ship earlier on. It is in this atmosphere that a rather rash bet is decided upon. William and his men agree it will be fun to race up to the King’s ship and then overtake it.

With 50 eager oarsmen on board the ‘White Ship’ heaving with all their might they are able to surge forward. It is by now night-time and rather unwisely no one sees fit to check the route ahead. Suddenly there is an almighty bang as the ship hits a rock that has been hidden by the full tide. Immediately the ship capsizes and many drown as they do not know how to swim. Tragically their screams are heard in the King’s ship but no one thinks to question what they are. In fact many assume they are just shouts of revelry. 

Only a few remain who can swim and survive the treacherously cold waters. Eventually the survivors dwindle down to only the Captain, Thomas Fitzwilliam, Berold of Rouen and Geoffrey a young man and son of Geoffrey of Laigle. Thomas asks for the king’s son and when he is told that he has died he rather forlornly despairs ‘it is vain for me to go on living’. He promptly gives up the struggle to keep his head above the water and lets his body sink beneath the waves. The bitterly cold night is also too much for Geoffrey and he also perishes.  

By the next day only Berold the butcher of Rouen is alive. His good fortune owes much to the thick ram-skin coat he wears. By sheer good luck he is found by some fishermen the next day who he proceeds to recount the events to. Such news is sensational and travels fast but even though many barons know what has happened all are fearful of the King’s wrath and so say nothing to him even though he grows increasingly concerned by the absence of news regarding his sons’ arrival.

One baron, Count Theobold hears the news and after a while musing over the predicament that he faces he manages to come up with the following ruse. Since he can not muster the courage to tell the King directly, the following day he makes a young boy fall to the king’s feet and tell him. When Henry hears this appalling tragedy he falls to his feet in utter despair. His family and friends then help take him to his private quarters where he weeps inconsolably.

His reaction is a stark contrast with his image as a tough, uncompromising ruler. After all this is the very same man who has earlier fought with his brother for the English throne, imprisoned him and when he escapes and is recaptured, burnt out his eyes so as to stop any future attempts by him.

This event has big ramifications for the English throne. Namely it leaves his daughter Matilda as the heir to the throne. This is astonishing as in the Norman culture of this time women are routinely looked upon as inferior to men. That is not to say that Henry I does not try to have more children to create a male heir. Just two months later he marries Adeliza, a young woman. Unfortunately for him in one of those curious twists of fate he becomes infertile.  We know this because he has no children with her and yet after his death she remarries and goes on to have seven of her own.

Matilda’s fate is also sealed by the ‘White Ship’. It is alleged that her great rival, Stephen of Blois, only remains as a contender for the throne by disembarking from the ‘White Ship’ due to a sudden bout of diarrhoea. This leads to one of the great what if questions in history. Had he not disembarked he would have died so would have left Matilda as the unchallenged ruler of England from 1135 onward instead of plunging  England into a long drawn out and very violent civil war.



Monday, 8 February 2016

Blackbeard's demise, 1718

Blackbeard is the most famous pirate that ever lived. Who can forget a man so successful, dangerous and terrifying to look at. It is all a far cry from his origins. He is originally known as Edward Teach and his first experience of the seas is gained with the English Navy but when the lure of great wealth proves irresistible he moves on to pirating.

He first gains notoriety in Charleston where his ship and several other pirate ships he controls carry out a South Carolina naval blockade of the port. Eventually a man called Maynard takes it upon himself to go after him.

On November 21st 1718 he catches up with  the Blackbeard ship when their two respective ships meet and a fierce hand to hand fight soon ensues. Blackbeard takes the initiative and clambers on to the ‘Jane’ ship used by Maynard in the mistaken belief that his broadside attack has killed most of his adversaries. His confidence takes a hit when several men in hiding come out. This has little bearing on Blackbeard’s stomach for a fight. He barks at Maynard ‘damnation seize my soul if I give you quarters, or take any from you’. When Maynard and Teach (Blackbeard) come across one another they lunge straight for one another with their swords. Maynard makes a thrust and catches Blackbeard’s cartridge box with the point of his sword with such force he bends it to the hilt. Teach counters by breaking his guard, and wounds Maynard's fingers but not enough to finish the fight. It is a desperate situation but Maynard is quick witted enough to realise his only chance is to use his pistol so he jumps back, throws his sword away and fires his pistol at Teach.

This time he wounds him. Another officer, Demelt then intervenes and catches Blackbeard with his sword on the pirate’s face. Blackbeard praises him and Demelt attacks him once again. They only break off because both get attacked by others.  

Maynard continues to fight long after. Later during the battle, while Teach is loading his pistol he finally dies from blood loss. According to Maynard’s report, when he examines Teach he has five shot marks and has been stabbed more than twenty times. Maynard then completes the coup de grace by cutting off his head and hanging it from his bowsprit. It is such a triumph that Teach's head is later placed as a trophy on the ship where it is kept until Maynard can show it to claim his prize when he returns home.

If you like reading about the Blackbeard death and enjoy hearing about Pirates then go ahead and read about

Henry Every and his Amazing Pirate Theft from the Mughal Convoy, 1694