Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/William (1103-1120)

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WILLIAM (1103–1120), only son of Henry I, king of England and his first wife, Matilda of Scotland [q. v.], was born in 1103. Edward the Confessor [q. v.] was said to have prophesied that ‘England's sorrows should end when the green tree, severed by the space of three furlongs from its stem, should be grafted in again and should bear flowers and fruit;’ and the fulfilment of this prophecy was looked for in William, as the ‘fruit’ of the promised ‘reingrafting’—in other words, as the offspring of a marriage which had restored the old English blood royal to the throne in the person of his mother. Accordingly, Orderic gives to him, and him alone among the descendants of the Norman conqueror, the old English title of ‘Ætheling,’ and says that ‘the English regarded him as lawful heir to the realm.’ In February 1113 he was betrothed to Matilda, the infant daughter of Fulk V, count of Anjou. As his father's destined successor, he received the homage of the Norman barons in 1115, and that of the English witan on 19 or 20 March 1116. He went to Normandy again in May 1119, and was married to Matilda, at Lisieux, in June, when Fulk settled upon the young couple the county of Maine. On 20 Aug. William was with his father at the battle of Brémule, commonly, but wrongly, called Brenneville [see HENRY I]; after the fight he restored the captured horse of his cousin, William ‘the Clito,’ Duke Robert's son [see Robert, Duke of Normandy], in whose behalf the war against Henry had been undertaken by the French king, Louis VI. Early in 1120 Louis and Henry made peace, and Louis invested William with the duchy of Normandy. On the evening of 25 Nov. Henry and William sailed from Barfleur for England. The king's ship put to sea first; his son followed, with a train of gay young companions, in a fine new vessel called the ‘White Ship,’ which had been built by one Thomas FitzStephen as a present for the king, but offered, at Henry's request, to the ætheling instead. Passengers, pilot, and crew had all alike been drinking and making merry, and were in no safe condition for a nocturnal voyage. They ran the ship on a well-known rock just outside the harbour's mouth; her side was smashed; the ætheling was put into a small boat and might have returned safe to land, but hearing his half-sister crying to him from the sinking ship, he insisted on returning to fetch her; then others overcrowded the boat, and it sank. Such was the tale told by the one survivor of the wreck. Henry of Huntingdon in his ‘History’ charges ‘all, or almost all,’ the victims with the most shocking immorality; but in another work, where he is avowedly speaking more especially from the moralist's point of view, he speaks of them in wholly different terms, and, dilating on the character of William in particular, ascribes to him nothing worse than pride, love of pomp and splendour, and an eager anticipation of future greatness as king. The story that William openly threatened to ‘yoke the English like oxen to the plough, if ever he should reign over them,’ rests upon no authority.

[English Chronicle; Will. of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum; Eadmer's Historia Novorum; Henry of Huntingdon; Symeon of Durham; Gerv. Cant. (all in Rolls Ser.); Flor. Wig. (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Ordericus Vitalis (Soc. de l'Hist. de France); Freeman's Norman Conquest, vol. v.]

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