By Richard Comerford
She was called la Blanche-Nef – The White Ship.
She was undoubtedly a fine vessel, but not intended to carry so many passengers and crew. There were over three hundred on board when she set sail from Barfleur in Normandy just before midnight . The sea was calm, but there was little moonlight, and as most aboard, passengers and crew, had consumed considerable quantities of wine the required standards of seamanship fell by the minute. It was November-cold.
Thomas FitzStephen stood proudly in the stern, next to his helmsman, yet he was uneasy as he surveyed the chaos before him. The rowers bent their backs, but their rhythm was gone and sometimes their oars flailed at empty air, or merely raised weak splashes.
He had offered the use of his ship to the King that day, pointing out his wish to serve as had his father, Stephen Fitz Airaid, served the King’s father William 54 years before. His ship Mora had carried the Norman Duke across the Channel to invade England.
King Henry had thanked him, saying he was pleased with his own vessel, but he had entrusted Thomas with many of his entourage, including his sons William and Richard and his daughter Matilda. William the Atheling was an important charge, as he would be the next Duke of Normandy and would inherit Henry’s crown.
And… he was the young nobleman who, swaying slightly from too much wine,had ordered Thomas to chase and overtake the King’s ship which had left before them.
Thomas was not pleased, but knew he had to do as he was bidden, and he gave orders accordingly while he looked at the noisy, drunken young men and women making merry on his beautiful ship. Free from the stern eye of the King they were intent on making the most of their brief freedom. He had certainly not approved of the boorish manner in which they had driven off a group of pious priests who had merely wished to bless the ship and her voyage. The baffled priests had retreated in the face of a storm of abuse and sneers.
Surely it is bad luck to turn away a priest – many priests – who come from God to bless your venture…?
He heard a loud voice – Prince Richard of Lincoln, one of the King’s sons, he thought –exhort the rowers to greater efforts. “Come on, my lads, put your backs into it! Don’t you want more wine?”
“Yes, my lord!” replied one forward oarsman.
“Then row as you never rowed before!”
A loud belch from his helmsman was followed by the unhappy man vomiting over the side, momentarily surrendering the tiller. It swung wildly before Thomas could grab it and steady the ship.
Dear God, have we lost our course? If only there were more moonlight… Where is Quilleboeuf?
Quilleboeuf was a large rock, feared by all sailors in these waters, which appeared and vanished with the tides.
“Sorry, Captain,” muttered the helmsman. “Wine…”
“Are we clear of Quilleboeuf?”
The man’s vacant expression was alarming, but he attempted to appear in control of himself. “ Yes, Captain, we must have cleared her by now.”
Please, dear God, be right….
Some of the passengers had started to sing, and oarsmen joined in, first tentatively – as befitted their stations – then lustily.
“Are you well enough to continue?” Thomas asked the tillerman desperately.
He looked wounded – wounded and drunk. “Yes, Captain,” he said proudly. “This is my ship, and I will – “
Quilleboeuf had in fact been waiting off their port beam, and now she struck. The ship tore alongside the rock, which ripped out and shattered two planks. The bank of portside oars were sheared and snapped like kindling.
The ship listed to port immediately, as water poured in through the long, wide gash. Her superior construction and materials were no match for the icy sea which, moments before had been calm and benign.
The portside oarsmen were first to react, dropping their broken blades, half-rising in their seats…….before the sharp lurch of the ship tossed them overboard to a man.
The starboard side rose up as the portside dipped, and the oars on that side thrashed at the air. Drunken revellers slid in a human wave towards the sea which now boiled with turbulence. The oarsmen tumbled from their posts and fell among the panicking crowd.
Men roared, and screamed.
Thomas stared in horror, hanging on grimly to the first thing his hands found, the tiller again. Of the tillerman there was no sign.
The King’s heir is in my charge……
The weight of bodies tumbling to one side, together with the inrushing water, was too much for the proud ship. Ninety seconds after striking the rock she capsized and all went into the water. Some, those closest to the port beam, were dragged under the upturned vessel as she turned turtle and were left to fight their way out. The lucky ones were thrown clear.
But few were lucky this night.
The sea was filled with struggling humanity, of whom hardly any could swim.
Thomas was carried, still clinging to the tiller, under the ship. His lungs burning, he felt his way along the tiller to the side of the ship and found blessed open water where he rose to the surface. Two small lifeboats had broken free, but were now both hidden by dozens of terrified people clinging to them, trying to get on board. Those already in relative safety vigourously sought to dislodge the invaders in order to preserve the own positions.
Others threshed and screamed and sank around this ghastly scene.
Thomas bumped into a large piece of spar, probably broken from the mainmast, and gratefully clung on to it. To his shame. he hoped no-one would seek to share his good fortune.
Dear Lord, I have never been so cold.
Horrified, he watched in the thin moonlight silhouettes of his fellow men fighting each other to stay alive.
The shouts… as of battle…
The awful, awful screams.
Is this hell….? What of my King’s children? Will I die here?
He did not know how long he had been in the water, but knew he fell unconscious for a while. He was losing feeling in his extremities as the bitter cold ate its way towards his vitals. The screams were dwindling as the victims, weakened by their revelry, efforts to survive, and fear gave up and succumbed to warm, watery sleep.
Then, a dreadful quiet.
“Does anyone live?” a voice called weakly from a few feet away.
Hope! “I do. Thomas FItzStephen, Captain.”
“I am Geoffrey de l’Aigle”
“And I am Berold, the butcher,” said another voice. “I think we must be the only ones left alive?”
Stephen panicked. “What of the King’s heir, William?”
“I saw him, sir, in a small boat…” started Berold
“But he heard cries for help from the Lady Matilda, and turned back for her?”
“Please tell me he succeeded…”
“I am sorry, Captain. Too many tried to board him. I fear he is lost. We have not heard of him these many minutes. Now all is still.”
Thomas could no longer fight the exhaustion and cold. He could not stand before his King and tell him he had lost his children, and the heir to England. Better to sleep…… He would answer to God.
“God forgive me,” h e mouthed, and let go of the spar.
Without his lifeline, it was easy to slip under the cold, dark water to Oblivion.
And, with Henry’s heir drowned, England slipped into the Anarchy.
Richard Comerford is a former lawyer, now happily retired, living with his Wife in a small village in middle England. Since leaving the Law, he has been engaged in writing a Novel, which is now complete, and has been looking out a Novel, Screenplay, and some Short Stories he wrote many years ago, prior to succumbing to raising a family and earning a living. He wrote “The White Ship” in answer to a challenge from his Wife. She gave him the brief description of the subject matter, and he wrote the Story. It should be clear that he wants, after all these years, to be a Writer.