The sabotage of The White Ship; a tale of love, grief, savagery and revenge to help us rise above contemporary politics

The sabotage of The White Ship; a tale of love, grief, savagery and revenge to help us rise above contemporary politics


I t is sometimes felt by people today, engaged in the throng and press of their own lives and loves, that the men and women who lived in the past were somehow cardboard figures without feeling. Today I want to introduce an example of red-blooded refutation, drawn from 900 years ago, which had a profound effect on the history of this country, and still reverberates today. Some four years ago, I had what Shakespeare might have called a ‘Holinshed Moment’. I was reading an excellent history of Henry 1, King of England and Duke of Normandy, by Professor Judith Green of Edinburgh University, and a plot, begging to be written, sprang from the pages. Intrinsic to it was a strong motive for revenge and sabotage, perpetrated and orchestrated by Juliana, Comtesse de Breteuil, Henry’s own (illegitimate) daughter. Henry had more illegitimate children than any other English king, and that is saying something. He used to marry the girls off to Norman barons to keep them loyal. A stratagem that did not always work. On this occasion in 1118, his daughter Juliana’s husband, the sottish Comte de Breteuil, did something profoundly stupid. There was a dispute, fanned by one of the trouble-stirring de Montforts, about the strategic Chateau of Ivry which was owned by Henry, and kept by his Castellan, a man called Harenc. The Comte de Breteuil had got it into his head that he should own it, because his own father had held it. Henry disagreed but, because he liked to be seen to be just, and wanted to keep the Comte on side, he went along with a negotiation. This was traditionally conducted with an exchange of hostages. Henry suggested that the Castellan’s young son, 9 year old Roger, should be put into the keeping of the Breteuil family, and that the two little Breteuil girls, aged about 8 and 6, should be held, not by the Castellan (they were after all Henry’s grandchildren) but by Henry himself in Caen.

The Comtesse de Breteuil was reluctant, of course, but it was arranged. All seemed to go well, until a trouble-maker called de Montfort reported (falsely) to Breteuil that the Castellan was fortifying the Chateau of Ivry contrary to agreement. Breteuil became enraged and drunk, put the little Roger’s eyes out and returned him to his father, the Castellan. You can tell what happens next. The Castellan complained bitterly to Henry, and Henry, who had come to the dukedom on a ticket of justice and fairness at the entreaty of the Church, since his elder brother Duke Robert had been inept and futile, and Henry had defeated him at the Battle of Tinchebraie) was faced with a terrible decision. Should he hand his grandchildren over to the Castellan to do with them as he saw fit, or should he exercise his privilege and protect them. I know what I would have done, but Henry was made of sterner stuff. Deaf to their mother’s desperate entreaties, he sent the little girls to the Chateau d’Ivry. And what happened? The Castellan, driven by pride, or sorrow and rage; who knows how much his only son meant to him since it appears the boy’s mother was dead? blinded both the little girls and sent them back to Breteuil with the tips of their noses cut off as a bonne bouche. Thus the lives of both the Breteuil children had been doubly wrecked, not only blinded but mutilated! One can imagine the mother’s fearful, uncontrollable rage… When Henry came visiting to try to patch things up, she shot at him with a cross-bow and, when the bolt just missed, she tried to load it again before she could be restrained. Henry became enraged, and returned with troops to lay siege to the chateau. When this succeeded, the Comtesse escaped by diving into the moat, but her dress floated up so that the soldiers could see her bare body underneath; (an event that profoundly shocked the monkish chronicler) and she swam across the water to reach a waiting horse, and so galloped off. A feisty woman, no less.

All this is recorded by Orderic Vitalis. I have made none of it up. The next time we hear of the Breteuil parents is when they appear before Henry, suddenly and shockingly, in sackcloth as penitents in the year 1119, when they seem to make it up with him. A year or so later, it seems that she has entered a convent. I submit that in the interim she organized the sinking of the White Ship, with the loss of 300 of the great and the good including a couple of Henry’s bastard children and his own legitimate son, the 18 year old Prince William, to deprive Henry of his child just as he had ruined hers. There has always seemed to me to be something fishy (pun only moderately intended) about the wreck of The White Ship in 1120. The sea was calm, the night was clear, although the moon was only moderately new. The crew was experienced. The helmsman was the very person who had built the ship, a man called FitzStephen whose father had organised the fleet for the Conqueror. The rock itself was only 1 mile from its home harbour of Barfleur, every sailor and fisherman must have known of it, for it had its own name: the Quille Boeuf Rock. Why would a spanking new vessel make a beeline for it in all the wide ocean?

At any rate, it seems to me there is enough of a possibility for me to submit the notion that some individual or persons on board combined to overwhelm the helmsman and drive the vessel onto the Quille Boeuf, partly submerged as it was at high water. They then made their escape by dinghy in the confusion. The bodyguard around Prince William tried to get him to do the same thing, but as they were rowing away, his half-sister, the Comtesse de Perche, cried out: ‘William, William, don’t leave me.’ The Prince ordered them to turn round and retrieve her. She must have meant a great deal to him since the soldiers advised against it. But he insisted.They managed to get the girl on board, when hands reached up from the water, as many as the tentacles of an octopus, and pulled the boat over, so that they all drowned. The only person who survived was the butcher of Rouen’s accountant who was on board to collect money owed by the army quartermasters. The smart folk on board had mocked his sheepskin coat, but it was that which stopped him from sinking; and he lived to tell the tale, picked up like a dead manatee by fishermen in the morning. Juliana, Comtesse de Breteuil, her work done and her children avenged, had plenty to think about as she paced the cloisters of her nunnery. When Henry died, fifteen years later, the result of all this was a calamitous civil war between his only other legitimate child, Matilda – many of the barons didn’t take to the idea of a woman ruling them – and his nephew Stephen. It lasted 19 years and culminated in the introduction of the name Plantagenet to the roll-call of English monarchs. The story of Henry l, King of England and Duke of Normandy and his daughter Juliana is recounted by her fictitious lover Bertold, the bastard son of the Comte de Perche, in the novel The White Ship, published by Accent Press/ Headline. It is available from Daunt Books, Waterstones and other good bookstores.

By Nick Salaman

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