The White Ship – history as poetry and moral message

The sinking of the White Ship

I’ve posted about the sinking of the White Ship on 25 November 1120 before. The boat sank off Barfleur causing the death of Henry I’s only legitimate son the 21 year old William Adelin.

Henry returned to England from Normandy on a separate vessel leaving his son, other family members and younger court elements enjoying themselves – drink was involved. Two monks who should have travelled with the group decided not to journey with the group describing them as “riotous.” The Orderic Vitalis estimates that there were three hundred people aboard when it sank. There was only one survivor. Many, if not most, of England’s leading families were hit by the event. One theory put forward at the time was that the ship sank because there were no clerics on board…

As a result of this disaster Henry, who it was said never smiled again, had to marry for a second time in the hope of a male heir. Even so he was faced with the knowledge that even if he did beget an heir with his young wife that in all likelihood he would die before the child achieved adulthood. The only other alternative was his daughter Matilda. Ultimately Henry made his barons swear that they would support her after his death.

Dante Gabriel Rosetti was sufficiently inspired by the episode to put pen to paper. The result was published in 1881. It is not a short ballad! It can be found here: https://excellence-in-literature.com/the-white-ship-by-dante-gabriel-rossetti/

I’ve also discovered this poem by Felica Hemens written in 1830 portraying Henry living out the rest of his life in the knowledge that his son was dead – which just goes to show that there’s always something new to find!

HE NEVER SMILED AGAIN

The bark that held a prince went down,
The sweeping waves rolled on;
And what was England’s glorious crown
To him that wept a son?
He lived—for life may long be borne
Ere sorrow break its chain;—
Why comes not death to those who mourn?—
He never smiled again! 

There stood proud forms around his throne,
The stately and the brave,
But which could fill the place of one,
That one beneath the wave?
Before him passed the young and fair,
In pleasure’s reckless train,
But seas dashed o’er his son’s bright hair—
He never smiled again! 

He sat where festal bowls went round;
He heard the minstrel sing,
He saw the Tourney’s victor crowned,
Amidst the knightly ring:
A murmur of the restless deep
Was blent with every strain,
A voice of winds that would not sleep—
He never smiled again! 

Hearts, in that time, closed o’er the trace
Of vows once fondly poured,
And strangers took the kinsman’s place
At many a joyous board;
Graves, which true love had bathed with tears,
Were left to Heaven’s bright rain,
Fresh hopes were born for other years—
He never smiled again!

            Felicia Dorothea Browne Hemans, 1793-1835

Poets who drew on historical events not only wanted to tell a story they wanted to draw on deeper emotional truths. In the case of Rosetti, Boos makes the point that The Rime of the Ancient Mariner probably had a part to play. Essentially Rosetti is using the event to look at the deeper darkness of the world. i.e. the perils of princes forgetting God and going on booze fuelled rowing activities. This is of course not so far from the medieval chroniclers of the period who were keen to chronicle current affairs from the point of view of fitting God into the overarching message or to frame their work as moral fables.

These days we are more likely to look for a conspiracy theory which is exactly what can be found in Victoria Chandler’s article – and very interesting reading it makes.

 The Poetical Works of Mrs. Hemans : electronic version”, University of California, British Women Romantic Poets Project. Retrieved 2020-03-04.

Boos, Florence S. The poetry of Dante G. Rossetti: A critical reading and source study

Chandler, Victoria, “The Wreck of the White Ship: A Mass Murder Revealed?”, The Final argument. The imprint of violence on society in medieval and early modern Europe, eds. Kagay, Donald J., and Villalon, L. J. Andrew (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1998)

Early sources on the death of William Rufus

William Rufus pictured in the Stowe Manuscript

I’ve stated before that we all like a good conspiracy theory – and why not- sometimes though the theory grows with the retelling.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle  which is one of the earliest accounts of William’s untimely demise is terse. “In the morning after Lammas King William when hunting was shot by an arrow by one of his own men.” Similarly Eadmer, who is St Anselm’s first biographer, states that when the news that William had been killed arrived at the monastery where Anselm was staying that Anselm sobbed for the soul of the king and wished that he had died – the inference being that Anselm had a better chance of Heaven than the “Red King” who was definitely not on the list of the Church’s ten most saintly people. There was however, no suggestion, that he had been murdered.

If anything the accounts that followed wished to create a moral story. Peter of Blois’s account saw the Devil make an appearance whilst William of Malmesbury mentions dreams amongst other portents. In both cases there is no suggestion that William’s death is anything other than a hunting accident. Orderic Vitalis discusses other royal hunting accidents.

Matthew Paris has the arrow that killed William ricocheting off a tree where as earlier accounts have Walter Tirel taking a shot at a second deer but having the sun in his eyes. A later account, 1889, includes the sound of argument and broken bow strings. The broken bow string belonged to Prince Henry and that can be found in Wace’s account of William’s death. Wace was born about 1110 and he wrote his La Roman de Rou in about 1160.

It should probably be noted that William’s likely killer, Walter Tirel, was a patron of the Benedictines. He had links with Bec and let’s face it there’s the additional problem of Henry I’s undignified rush for the treasury in Winchester and the Crown of England. It is very easy to see henry making a bid for the crown, especially as his and William’s elder brother Robert Curthose was on his way back from the First Crusade with a wealthy bride – were she to have children then Henry’s claim would dwindle. Alternatively if you were a Norman prince you probably had to cease opportunities when they came up in order to gain the power you craved.

I have posted elsewhere about the possibility of the Clare family being involved in a conspiracy to finish William and as always there’s more than one argument to be made as well as rather a lot of circumstantial evidence to unpick. It’s certainly provided rather a lot of novelists with material.

William Rufus – the red

King William II – a name that we don’t tend to use – it’s usually Rufus. Bynames which described a person’s appearance crop up a lot in medieval history. It was a habit that gradually disappeared from the naming of English monarchs but in continental Europe there were a whole series of Charleses who rejoiced in bynames such as “fat,” “bald,” “simple,” not to mention a number of King Louis who were pious or who stammered.

Eadmer of Canterbury never uses his byname whilst a slightly later writer, William of Malmesbury does call him King William Rufus and spends some time describing him whereas Geoffrey de Gaimar who wrote before 1140 explains that he was called Rufus on account of his hair colouring.

It’s Orderic Vitalis who calls him William Rufus throughout his account and its probably from him that the name has stuck.

William was a third child after Robert and Richard and as as such may well have been intended, initially at least, for the church. If this was indeed the case he may have been more literate than historians give him credit for. Usually Henry II is identified as the first post-Conquest literate King of England. Essentially if you were going to be a knight and land owner you did not need to be able to read and write – someone else could do it for you.

As a third son his birth was not particularly auspicious – so history down not know the date.

We know that part of his education was overseen by Lanfranc of Bec who went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury. He could have been placed in monastic care from the age of five which might go some way towards explaining his antipathy towards the Church.

Richard died and William’s role in life may have been amended to reflect this. As Robert grew to adulthood he rebelled against his father. Again, William’s standing in society would have been affected by this but it is important to note that a boy’s military training began at the age of twelve and young William was noted for his aptitude in warfare in a family and court that trained hard in combat so if he had been destined for the church William changed his plan early on.

Popular quiz knowledge jumps William from his name to his death in the New Forest. For those with a greater knowledge base is the idea that he was a tad on the villainous side – which is impressive given that his father purportedly laid waste to the north and died being haunted due to the atrocities he committed. The idea of the villainous red king comes from the writings of Eadmer of Canterbury who tells the story of St Anselm. If Anselm is the hero of the tale, William Rufus is the villain.

Later writers took up Eadmer’s position, added the views of Henry I’s chroniclers who often denigrated William to “big up” Henry and his legal reforms – turning Henry into Beauclerk or the Lion of Justice whilst William resides in the role of avaricious thwarter of the church with a questionmark about his sexuality. The Anglo -Saxon Chronicle stated that William was “abhorrent to God.”

All of which seems a bit unfair given that William put down his uncle’s rebellion in short order (admittedly he reneged on the promises that he had made to the militia); secured his country’s northern borders and exerted control over his treasury (by failing to appoint bishops and abbots so he could draw the income from the vacant bishoprics and monasteries.) It was Rufus who cemented his father’s conquest of England using techniques familiar to any medieval king worth his salt.

Revisionist historians have argued that actually Henry benefited from his brother’s policies and that William has suffered on account of negative press. It cannot have helped that he alienated the Church and that they were the chroniclers of the period. It’s probably not good press when a saint attacks you for your licentious behaviour!

Orderic Vitalis

The Venerable Bede – whose work Orderic copied.

Orderic was born in 1075 in Atcham, Shropshire. His father came to England during the Conquest with Roger of Montgomery, the first Earl of Shrewsbury. As a reward Odelerius was given a church – remember there were different degrees of holy orders. Odelerius appears to have been a clerk in holy orders – part of the secular clergy before becoming a priest and then a monk. But in any event he had a family as well as being a priest. Priestly marriages were banned in 1123 by the First Lateran Council- so Orderic was born at a time when there was greater flexibility in the arrangement but wrote at a time when such liaisons were prohibited. Orderic’s mother appears to have been English.

At the age of ten he became an oblate at Saint-Evroul. He tells his readers this in his writings – so not only does he provide us with history but we also have a biography.

As an oblate Orderic was not a professed monk but his life was dedicated to God at this point and his parents paid for the privilege. Not only that but they had given the Church their most precious treasure. (Van Hout suggests that Orderic’s mother may have died soon after the birth of her third child which would explain why Orderic was sent to be educated with monks at the age of five.) It should also be remembered that the Earl of Shrewsbury was the patron of Orderic’s father and at this point he was seeking the favour of Saint-Evroul with many gifts. Orderic did not speak French when his father handed him over to a monk named Reginald. Orderic writes his his father weeping as he delivered him to Reginald and Orderic himself also crying. Odelerius never saw his son again.

In part Odelerius gave his sons to the Church as a penance. He had come to regard himself as deeply sinful. He gave money for the building of St Peter’s Abbey around the church that the Earl of Shrewsbury had given him. He became a monk and his sons Orderic and Benedict were given to the Church only his youngest son remained to the wider world. Van Houts (Rozier: p24) suggests two possible reasons for giving two sons to the Church: i) penance for being a married priest and therefore living in sin (and Orderic’s writing reflects the shame of being the son of such a union.) ii) penance for his part in the Norman Conquest.

By 1107 Orderic was an ordained priest and had been given the name Vitalis by the Benedictine monks who struggled with the Anglo-Saxon name Orderic. Orderic knew the scriptorium well and seems to have been an excellent copyist as more than twenty works have been assigned to his hand including Bede’s.

Orderic’s  career as a chronicler began with a copy of the Gesta Normannorum ducum by Guillaume de Jumièges which he extended.

Orderic travelled but returned to his monastery which was thriving. It was also increasingly wealthy. Not only were men like the Earl of Shrewsbury giving it gifts but men who had spent their lives at war were returning to Normandy to find sanctuary in monastic houses in their later years. No doubt they shared stories as well as paying their way. The house was also a hub for the monastic houses that were being set up in England.

The abbot of Saint Evroul wanted a history of the abbey and so Orderic began to write – what turned out to be a general history. The Historia Ecclesiastica grew out of the information that Orderic heard and unlike other chroniclers of the period Orderic allows the voices of the contributors to be heard – and not always sorted into the right order. William wrote about the Norman Conquest and William the Conqueror as his history progressed from the creation of the world into what were then current affairs. This period is covered in books three to five of his history. Not only does he write about the Norman Conquest of England but the foundation of the Norman kingdom of Sicily. He wasn’t shy about criticising everybody – the Normand for being over greedy and the English for being below par when it came to resisting the Normans.

Orderic finished this history which ran to thirteen books because he said that he was getting old – book six covered the abbey which was the original purpose of his writing. He probably died in 1142 having written a chronicle that covered political history, descriptions of people, customs, traditions and fashion as well as his own story amongst other things.

https://archive.org/details/ecclesiasticalhi03orde/page/n8

(eds) Charles C. Rozier, Daniel Roach, Giles Edward Murray Gasper, Elizabeth van Hout (2016) Orderic Vitalis: Life, Works and Interpretations. Martlesham : The Boydell Press

Christmas crowning

imagesThere are twelve days until Christmas so I thought I’d turn my attention to a few festive posts and where better to start that with William, Duke of Normandy.

The Orderic Vitalis recounts events. Given that the dates for the Orderic are 1075-1142 the chronicler could hardly be accused of penning his words from the front line but it’s the best historians have to go on and it is a reliable source.

 

So at last on Christmas Day… the English assembled at London for the king’s coronation, and a strong guard of Normen men-at-arms and knights was posted round the minster to prevent any treachery or disorder. And, in the presence of the bishops, abbots, and nobles of the whole realm of Albion, Archbishop Ealdred consecrated William duke of Normandy as king of the English and placed the royal crown on his head. This was done in the abbey church of St Peter the chief of the apostles, called Westminster , where the body of King Edward lies honourably buried.

 

But at the prompting of the devil, who hates everything good, a sudden disaster and portent of future catastrophes occurred. For when Archbishop Ealdred asked the English, and Geoffrey Bishop of Coutances asked the Normans, if they would accept William as their king, all of them gladly shouted out with once voice if not in one language that they would. The armed guard outside, hearing the tumult of the joyful crowd in the church and the harsh accents of a foreign tongue, imagined that some treachery was afoot, and rashly set fire to some of the buildings. The fire spread rapidly from house to house; the crowd who had been rejoicing in the church took fright and throngs of men and women of every rank and condition rushed out of the church in frantic haste. Only the bishops and a few clergy and monks remained, terrified, in the sanctuary, and with difficulty completed the consecration of the king who was trembling from head to foot. Almost all the rest made for the scene of conflagration, some to fight the flames and many others hoping to find loot for themselves in the general confusion. The English, after hearing of the perpetration of such misdeeds, never again trusted the Normans who seemed to have betrayed them, but nursed their anger and bided their time to take revenge.

 

Source: The Ecclesiastic History of Orderic Vitalis, translated by Marjorie Chibnill (Oxford University Press, 1978)

 

Now I ask you – you’re a man at arms; your man Bill is getting crowned, you hear a loud noise inside the abbey where the coronation is going down. You panic because of the loud noises. Fair enough, you’re probably aware that you’ve not won friends and influenced people during the last three months but then- and this is the bit I struggle with- instead of checking that Bill isn’t being brutally murdered by some very cross Saxons you set fire to random buildings…why exactly would you do that? It’s not really a terribly logical thing to do – but then I’m not a Norman.  There again, perhaps if you set fire to the buildings on either side of the narrow streets it would prevent anyone else getting to the abbey?

Every monarch since William the Conqueror has been crowned in Westminster Abbey apart from Edward V and Edward VIII who weren’t crowned at all- the first because he disappeared whilst in the Tower and the second because he became sidetracked by a divorced American.  Other monarchs had themselves crowned elsewhere to be certain of the job but had themselves re-crowned at Westminster in due course.  Henry I on spotting that brother William Rufus had expired due to a nasty arrow related injury in the New Forest on 2nd August 1100 took himself off to Winchester, secured the treasury and  had himself crowned there the next day.  The procedure was repeated in Westminster on the 6th.  It was normal for medieval kings to hold more than one coronation – it helped remind people who was in charge.

 

Anyway, that’s the first of my festive posts – William the Conqueror being crowned on Christmas Day 1066 followed, not with the first edition of the King’s speech,  by a good old-fashioned medieval riot.