Henry I.—The Story of the White Ship
W ILLIAM THE RED died in 1100 A.D. He had no children, so his brother Henry became king after him. Henry was the youngest son of William the Conqueror. He was fond of learning and could read and write better than most people in those days, so he was called Beauclerc, which is French and means "fine scholar."
Henry's eldest brother Robert, Duke of Normandy, was still alive, and the Norman barons in England still wanted to have him for their king. So they sent over to France and asked Robert to come to fight again for the crown.
Once more the English people had to choose between the Norman king and the Norman barons. Once more they decided for the King and fought for him, even although William the Red had forgotten his promises and cruelly deceived them. For although Henry's father and mother had been Norman, Henry himself had been born in England, and the English people felt as if that almost made him English. So once more they chose to fight for the King against the barons.
Henry Beauclerc did not repay the people with promises only, as his brother had done. He gave them a written letter, or charter as it was called, in which he promised to do away with many of William the Red's cruel laws, to restore the good laws of Edward, and to lessen the power of the barons.
Later on another king gave the people a much more important charter, but in the meantime the English were very glad to get this one.
Besides giving them this charter, Henry pleased the English very much by marrying the Scottish Princess Maud, or Matilda as she was sometimes called.
Edgar the Ætheling had a sister named Margaret. She married the Scottish King Malcolm III., and this Princess Maud was their daughter, and the great-granddaughter of Edmund Ironside. When Henry married her and she became Queen of England, the English felt that the crown had come back again to their own people, and they were very glad. But the Norman nobles were angry about it. They thought Henry ought to have married a Norman lady.
Although many of the nobles were angry, Henry's marriage did a great deal of good, for other Normans followed the King's example and married English ladies so that the hatred between the two races began to disappear a little.
Thus it happened that when Robert and his barons came to fight Henry, they were met by an army of English, whose hearts were with their king and who "nowise feared the Normans." So hopeless did Robert feel it to be, that he made peace with his brother and went back to Normandy without fighting.
Then Henry punished the rebel barons by taking their lands away from many of them and banishing others. The English helped him and rejoiced at the defeat of the proud barons.
Later on Robert and Henry quarrelled again. Henry sailed over to Normandy with an army of English soldiers, defeated his brother, and took possession of Normandy. So now instead of England belonging to Normandy, Normandy belonged to England.
When Henry had been king for about twenty years a great and terrible grief came upon him. He and his son, Prince William, had been in Normandy together. Just as they were ready to return to England, a sailor came and begged Henry to honour him by using his ship. "My father Stephen," he said, "steered the ship in which your father sailed over to England when he went to conquer Harold. My father was a good sailor, and he served King William until he died. I, too, am a sailor like my father. I have a beautiful boat called the White Ship. It is newly rigged and freshly painted, it is manned by fifty trusty sailors, and is in every way worthy of a king. Honor me, as your father honoured my father, and give me leave to steer you to England."
"I thank you, good Master FitzStephen," said Henry, "but I have already made choice of the ship in which I intend to sail, and I cannot change. But," he added, seeing the man looked disappointed, "my son, Prince William, is with me and you may steer him and his company over the channel."
Thomas FitzStephen was very glad when he heard that, and he hurried away to tell his sailors to prepare to receive the prince.
Late in the afternoon King Henry set sail, leaving Prince William to follow in the White Ship. But Prince William was young and gay, and he did not feel inclined to start at once. He stayed on shore drinking and feasting and making merry with his friends. When at last he did go on board, he ordered the captain to give the sailors three barrels of good red wine with which to drink his health. So there was still further delay. As was usual in those days, priests came to bless the ship before it started, but the prince and his gay companions laughed at them, and the sailors, whom the wine had made merry, chased them away.
One of the King's friends, who had been left behind with the prince, now urged the captain to start. "Oh, there is no hurry," said FitzStephen, "my beautiful White Ship has sails like the wings of a bird. She skims over the water swifter than a swallow. We can easily overtake the King and be in England before him."
At last they started. The deck was crowded with fine ladies and gay gentlemen. These ladies and gentlemen had many servants, so that, together with the sailors, there were about three hundred people on board the ship.
The sails were set, the sailors bent to the oars, and to the sound of song and laughter the gay ship left the harbour, skimming over the waves like a beautiful bird, as the captain had said.
It was a clear and frosty winter's evening. The red sun had sunk and a silver moon shone brightly. All was merriment and laughter when, suddenly, there was an awful crash. The ship seemed to shiver from end to end and then stand still. The next minute it began to sink. It had struck upon a rock.
One fearful wail of agony rose from the hearts of three hundred people, breaking the stillness of the night. Far away over the sea Henry heard that cry. "What is it?" he asked, straining anxious eyes through the darkness.
"Only some night bird, sire," replied the captain.
"Methought it was some soul in distress," said Henry, still looking back over the sea, anxious he knew not why.
On the White Ship all was terrible confusion. Without losing a moment FitzStephen thrust the prince into the only small boat, and bade the sailors row off. He at least must be saved, though all the rest should perish.
The prince, hardly knowing what had happened, allowed the sailors to row away from the sinking vessel. But suddenly a voice called to him, "Ah, William, William, do you leave me to perish?"
It was the voice of his sister Marie.
William was careless and selfish, but he loved his sister. He could not leave her. "Go back," he said to the sailors, "go back, we must take my sister too."
"We dare not, sire," replied the boatmen. "We dare not, we must go on."
"You dare not," cried the prince, "am I not the son of the King of England? Obey me."
The prince spoke so sternly that the men turned the boat and went back to the sinking ship.
As the boat drew near, the Princess Marie, with a cry of joy, leaped into her brother's arms. But, alas! many others, eager to be saved, crowded into the little boat. The sailors tried in vain to keep them back, the little boat was overturned and the prince was drowned.
The White Ship sank fast, until only the mast was seen above the water. Clinging to it were two men—all that were left of that gay company. One of these men was a noble called Geoffrey de l'Aigle. The other was a poor butcher of Rouen, called Berthold.
As they clung there, a third man appeared swimming through the waves. It was the captain, FitzStephen.
"What of the prince?" he asked.
"The prince is drowned," replied Geoffrey.
"Ah, woe is me!" cried FitzStephen, and throwing up his arms, he sank.
Hour after hour the two men clung to the mast. They were numbed with cold and perishing from hunger. Again and again, as long as they had strength, they called aloud for help. But there was no one to hear. The bright stars twinkled overhead and the moon shone calmly, making paths of shining silver over the still water. But no voice answered their cries.
All through the terrible long night the noble and the butcher talked and tried to comfort each other. But towards morning the noble became exhausted. "Good-bye, friend," he whispered to Berthold, "God keep you. I can hold out no longer." Then he slipped into the water, and Berthold was left alone.
When the wintry sun rose, Berthold, faint and benumbed, was still clinging to the mast. He was the poorest of all those who had sailed in the beautiful White Ship. While the others had been dressed in silk and satin and velvet, his coat was of sheepskin, and perhaps that helped to save him for the rough skin kept out the cold and wet far better than a coat of satin could have done.
It was beginning to grow light when three fishermen, passing in their boat, caught sight of something floating in the water. They rowed near to see what it was, and found the poor butcher almost dead from cold and hunger.
The fishermen lifted him into their boat and took him home. When they had warmed and fed him, and he could speak again, he told his dreadful story.
Alas, what news to carry to England! There was mourning and tears among the nobles when they heard it, for almost every one among them had lost a son or a brother.
But who should tell the King? No one dared. The nobles knew that Henry loved his son above everything on earth, so for three days, in spite of his anxious questions, no one dared to tell him the truth. When alone they wept for their dear ones, but in presence of the King they put away their tears and tried to smile and jest as usual.
At last one of the nobles, taking his little son by the hand, and whispering to him, "Go, tell the King," gently pushed the child into the room where Henry was sitting.
The little boy felt frightened and shy at finding himself alone with the stern King, although he hardly understood how terrible a tale he had to tell. Half sobbing with excitement and fear, he knelt before Henry and stammered out the story.
As Henry listened, his hands clutched his robe, his lips moved, but no sound came. Then suddenly he fell senseless to the floor, and the little boy, now quite frightened, burst into loud sobbing.
At the sound of the fall the nobles rushed into the room. They lifted the King and placed him upon a couch. He lay there with a white face and closed eyes. When he opened his eyes again there was a look in them that no one had seen before; his face was lined and drawn with sorrow, and no one ever saw him smile again.
Henry had no other son, but he had a daughter who was called Matilda, as her mother had been. He resolved that this daughter should be queen after he was dead.
In those days it was thought strange for a country to be ruled by a woman, and the haughty Norman nobles hated the thought of it. But Henry was so strong and stern that he forced them to promise that Matilda should be queen. How they kept that promise you shall hear.
After Prince William's death, Henry spent a great deal of his time in Normandy. He was there when he died. It is said that his death was caused by eating too many lampreys. Lampreys are fish something like eels.
Henry was very fierce and stern, but he was wise, and in those days it was necessary for a king to be stern in order to keep the strong barons in check. He loved justice so much that he was called the Lion of Justice. He took the side of the English people against the Norman barons, and the English repaid him by being true to him. We read of Henry that, "Good he was and mickle awe was of him. No man durst misdo with other in his day. Peace he made for man and deer."
Peace he made and peace he loved, so that he was called the "peace-loving king."
Kneeling beside King Henry, as he lay dying, the Archbishop of Rouen prayed, "God give him the peace he loved."