White Ship: Charles Spencer discusses efforts to find a relic
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Exploring the shallow waters off the coast of France earlier this summer, Lord Charles Spencer, ninth Earl Spencer, stumbled upon the remains of a 12th-century longboat known as the White Ship. The diving expedition, led by Roger Michel of the Institute for Digital Archaeology, was on the hunt for the royal vessel, which sank near Normandy on November 25, 1120. The White Ship – one of the biggest and fastest at the time – killed all but one of its 300-strong crew, including William the Conquerer’s grandson, William Adelin.
The tragedy left then King Henry I of England without an heir to the throne, casting the future of the English monarchy into disarray.
Princess Diana’s brother detailed his incredible journey to the shipwreck’s location in the Sunday Times Bestseller, The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream.
Now, in an article penned for The Telegraph, he has explained why it has been a lifelong passion of his to discover the White Ship.
He said: “As a young boy, my enthusiasm for history was awakened by Henrietta Marshall’s Our Island Story, a celebration of 2,000 years of England’s past.
“In that book, the sinking of the White Ship in the winter of 1120, and the resulting death of Prince William Adelin, heir to the English throne, was considered such an important tale that it was allocated an entire page – and a colour illustration.”
Earl Spencer took part in an expedition to discover the White Ship’s remains (Image: GETTY)
The White Ship sank in the English Channel on November 25, 1120 (Image: GETTY)
Little did he know at the time, he would one day take part in an expedition to uncover the ship’s long-lost remains.
The breakthrough was made this year with the aid of a proton magnetometer – a powerful underwater metal detector.
The device, which was dragged under the expedition’s research vessel, scanned the seafloor near Normandy for minute changes in the Earth’s magnetic field.
The £20,000 expedition eventually came across a 13ft-long section of the ship’s hull, packed with bronze and iron fittings.
Historians have a good idea about the events that led to the maritime tragedy.
The vessel was captained by a man named Thomas FitzStephen (Thomas filz Estienne), who had offered to sail King Henry I back to England from Barfleur in Normandy.
Instead, the King suggested his sons William and illegitimate heir Richard of Lincoln board the vessel, alongside a number of other high-ranking nobles.
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The decision, Earl Spencer said, “would change the history of England for ever.”
According to the English chronicler Orderic Vitalis, the ship’s crew had indulged in food and wine before setting off for England.
Once out in the Channel, the drunk crew had ordered the captain to overtake King Henry’s ship.
But as the White Ship set sail under the cover of darkness, it struck the so-called Quilleboeuf Rock just a mile northeast of Barfleur.”
In August last year, Earl Spencer tweeted: “Imagine the Titanic, but with the heir to the throne, his siblings, cousins, and many of the leading political and military men aboard. Only one man survived to tell the tale.”
The sole survivor was a butcher from Rouen, called Berold.
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Earl Spencer wrote a best-selling book about the ship’s discovery (Image: CHARLES SPENCER TWITTER)
Earl Spencer is an accomplished historian and writer (Image: GETTY)
Earl Spencer said: “He had gone on board to collect money owed by passengers, and so became the lone witness to one of the most momentous events of his age.”
Although tragic in its own rights, the death of Henry I’s only male heir led to the outbreak of civil war.
After the young Prince William died, Henry looked to his daughter Matilda for a possible successor.
However, when Henry I died in 1135, his nephew Stephen of Blois took up arms and waged war against his cousin and ascended the throne on December 22, 1135.
Stephen died on October 25, 1154, and was succeeded by Matilda’s son, Henry II.
Because of the turmoil and chaos caused by William’s death on the White Ship, some experts consider it to be among the worst maritime disasters in English history.
Earl Spencer said: “The decades of anarchy that ensued only ended through compromise: Stephen was succeeded by Matilda’s son, Henry II, who was also descended from the Plantagenets of Anjou, and the Plantagenet dynasty remained on the throne until 1485, when Henry Tudor defeated Richard III.”
The earl and his crewmates will return to excavated and recover the shipwreck later this year.
Once recovered, plans will be set in motion to fully recreate the White Ship in virtual reality.
According to Mr Michel, the team will also attempt to recreate the tragedy in 3D animation and assemble a full-scale model of the vessel.
He wrote in The Telegraph: “I’m really excited about getting back on the water.”