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How The White Ship Sailed
by [?]

Henry I., king of England, had made peace with France. Then to Normandy went the king with a great retinue, that he might have Prince William, his only and dearly-loved son, acknowledged as his successor by the Norman nobles and married to the daughter of the Count of Anjou. Both these things were done; regal was the display, great the rejoicing, and on the 25th of November, 1120, the king and his followers, with the prince and his fair young bride, prepared to embark at Barfleur on their triumphant journey home.

So far all had gone well. Now disaster lowered. Fate had prepared a tragedy that was to load the king’s soul with life-long grief and yield to English history one of its most pathetic tales.

Of the vessels of the fleet, one of the best was a fifty-oared galley called “The White Ship,” commanded by a certain Thomas Fitzstephen, whose father had sailed the ship on which William the Conqueror first came to England’s shores. This service Fitzstephen represented to the king, and begged that he might be equally honored.

“My liege,” he said, “my father steered the ship with the golden boy upon the prow in which your father sailed to conquer England, I beseech you to grant me the same honor, that of carrying you in the White Ship to England.”

“I am sorry, friend,” said the king, “that my vessel is already chosen, and that I cannot sail with the son of the man who served my father. But the prince and all his company shall go along with you in the White Ship, which you may esteem an honor equal to that of carrying me.”

By evening of that day the king with his retinue had set sail, with a fair wind, for England’s shores, leaving the prince with his attendants to follow in Fitzstephen’s ship. With the prince were his natural brother Richard, his sister the countess of Perch, Richard, earl of Chester, with his wife, the king’s niece, together with one hundred and forty of the flower of the young nobility of England and Normandy, accompanying whom were many ladies of high descent. The whole number of persons taking passage on the White Ship, including the crew, were three hundred.

Prince William was but a boy, and one who did little honor to his father’s love. He was a dissolute youth of eighteen, who had so little feeling for the English as to have declared that when he came to the throne he would yoke them to the plough like oxen. Destiny had decided that the boastful boy should not have the opportunity to carry out this threat.

“Give three casks of wine, Fitzstephen,” he said, “to your crew. My father, the king, has sailed. What time have we to make merry here and still reach England with the rest?”

“If we sail at midnight,” answered Fitzstephen, “my fifty rowers and the White Ship shall overtake the swiftest vessel in the king’s fleet before daybreak.”

“Then let us be merry,” said the prince; “the night is fine, the time young, let us enjoy it while we may.”

Merry enough they were; the prince and his companions danced in the moonlight on the ship’s deck, the sailors emptied their wine-casks, and when at last they left the harbor there was not a sober sailor on board, and the captain himself was the worse for wine.

As the ship swept from the port, the young nobles, heated with wine, hung over the sides and drove away with taunts the priests who had come to give the usual benediction. Wild youths were they,–the most of them,–gay, ardent, in the hey-day of life, caring mainly for pleasure, and with little heed of aught beyond the moment’s whim. There seemed naught to give them care, in sooth. The sea lay smooth beneath them, the air was mild, the moon poured its soft lustre upon the deck, and propitious fortune appeared to smile upon the ship as it rushed onward, under the impulse of its long banks of oars, in haste to overtake the distant fleet of the king.