William Adelin was the only legitimate son and heir of King Henry I of England. His early death by drowning in an event known as the “White Ship Tragedy” would leave his father without a male heir and eventually lead to a period of civil war known as “The Anarchy”.
William was born on 5 August 1103 in the old Anglo-Saxon capital of Winchester. He was the son of King Henry I and a grandson of William The Conqueror. His mother, Queen Matilda, was born a princess of Scotland and, through her, he descended from the earlier Anglo-Saxon kings of England as well as the early kings of Scotland.
As the only legitimate son, Henry placed all of his hopes for the future on the pampered William. William was created Duke of Normandy so his father could avoid having to do homage as Duke of Normandy to the King of France whom he regarded as an equal. Following the death of his mother in 1118, (who had often acted as regent in Henry’s absence), William was considered old enough to act as regent if required and he did so under the guidance of Roger, Bishop of Salisbury. Thus, William became known as the “king designate”.
To secure the loyalty of Normandy’s longtime rival, Anjou, Henry betrothed William to Matilda of Anjou – the daughter of Count Fulk V of Anjou. The marriage took place in June 1119 in Lisieux, France.
On 25 November 1120, William prepared to return to England after a visit to France. William and his companions were to sail across the English Channel aboard the Blanche-Nef, known as the swiftest and most modern ship in the royal fleet. They decided to remain on the shore drinking until the evening and, consequently, when they were sailing in the middle of the night, the drunken helmsman did not see a rock in the bay and struck it. The crew and passengers were unable to lever the ship or prevent it from filling with water; however, William and his friends managed to launch a life dinghy. William dashed back to rescue his illegitimate half-sister, Matilda, and they and several others attempted to board the dinghy. Tragically, it capsized, causing all to drown. William was just 17 years old.
William’s wife was on another ship and survived. She returned to Henry’s court where she lived for a time and was treated as a daughter until she returned to Anjou and became a nun. Henry decided – despite having an illegitimate son and nephews – to make his eldest daughter, Matilda, Holy Roman Empress, his heir. When he died in 1135, the nobles in England decided not to accept Matilda as queen and named Henry’s nephew, Stephen, as the king instead.
Stephen was a weak and ineffective monarch, and his reign was characterised by a period of civil war known as “The Anarchy” between his supporters and Matilda’s supporters. When Stephen died in 1154, Matilda’s son, Henry of Anjou, came to the English throne as King Henry II.