It seems like 2012 is shaping up into a year for shipwrecks. Not only have images of the stricken Costa Concordia circled the globe through the news outlets, but the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic has brought the danger of the seas back into our thoughts. Now, using sonar and other advanced computing techniques, our fascination with the wreck, and its fate, has yielded more complete information about how the disaster unfolded than ever before, including startlingly crisp images of the ship upon the seafloor.
Even today, dozens of ships strike icebergs, though none with such a devastating loss of life. Given the lack of satellite tracking, radio communications, and airborne rescue divisions during most of the Middle Ages, it should come as no surprise that shipwrecks also plagued sea travel in the mediaeval period. At times, these disasters played a determining role in history, particularly as regards the fate of sea-bound Britain.
One such event has entered history as the ‘White Ship Disaster’. In 1120, on the continental side of the English Channel, the heir to the English throne, William the Aethling, was preparing to embark. As son to the Anglo-Norman king Henry I, he had been campaigning to protect his family’s lands in France, and was now returning to London. To celebrate, he, his companions, and the crew of his vessel (The White Ship) became uproariously drunk.
Despite being in no condition to set sail, the White Ship left for England, her rowers working furiously to overtake other ships in the Anglo-Norman fleet. Rushing across the Channel in the dark, the ship struck a rock and quickly sank, her passengers drowning, nearly to a man, in the icy waters. Even the prince William, who had made it into a dingy, did not escape; his craft was overwhelmed by panicked fellow passengers in the water.
The story of the White Ship, with its combination of hubris and human folly, echoes certain traits of the Titanic, but its political effects were more far-reaching. William had been King Henry’s only legitimate son, and his death soon sparked a succession crisis. Henry I attempted to secure the throne for his daughter, Mathilda, but upon his death Stephen of Blois claimed the crown instead. What followed is a period known by historians as ‘the Anarchy of King Stephen’s reign’, a time of civil war between his supporters and those of Mathilda’s that only resolved itself with the succession of Henry II, Mathilda’s son.
Not all tragedy at sea occurred as a result of human error or sinking, as the fate of Margaret, the Maid of Norway, attests. A Norwegian princess, Margaret was the granddaughter of King Alexander III, who ruled Scotland from 1249 until 1289. Like Henry I, he died with no male heir, making Margaret the future Queen of the Scots. Her ascension to the throne, and her marriage to the English prince Edward of Caernarfon, was intended not only to prevent civil war within Scotland, but also to unite the crown of her country with that of England.
Sadly, she fell ill during the crossing of the North Sea, and died in Orkney without once setting foot on the mainland of her inherited realm. With her dead, King Edward I of England saw his chance to annex Scotland entirely for himself, sparking the Wars of Independence that marred Anglo-Scottish relations for centuries. One wonders if Margaret’s illness would have been fatal if her ship had not been blown off course, or if she had waited to embark at a later date….
These incidents demonstrate how vulnerable the history of England and the greater British Isles have been to shipwreck and disaster. Although these events could harm the monarchy, however, they could also benefit it. The scattering of the Spanish Armada during the reign of Elizabeth I, for example, spared England a second sea-borne invasion (the first being the Norman conquest of 1066).
Even today, shipwrecks are revealing more about the island’s early history. Just recently, maritime archaeology revealed a Bronze Age shipwreck off the coast of southwestern England. In its hold were ingots of British tin, a necessary component of bronze alloy. The wreck reveals the importance of Britian’s mineral wealth long before the Romans brought proto-industrial mining to the island, and testifies to the bravery of ancient sailors, venturing out to trade despite the sea’s perils.