Princess Diana's brother Earl Spencer joins expedition as divers find evidence of the wreck of White Ship

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Is this the sunken grave of Henry I's only heir? Princess Diana's brother Earl Spencer joins expedition as divers find evidence of the wreck of White Ship that sunk off France in 1120

  • Experts from the Institute of Digital Archaeology dived on the site last week
  • White Ship sank in November 1120 after hitting Quillebœuf Rock near Barfleur
  • It was carrying Henry I's only legitimate son, 17-year-old William Aetheling
  • IDA's Roger Michel exclusively revealed his team will return to wreck on July 6
  • Also shared a stunning video showing what he said is likely part of ship's deck
  • Earl Spencer wrote a bestselling book on the sinking last year
By HARRY HOWARD FOR MAILONLINE
16 June 2021

Archaeologists are set to return to a ship wreck off the French coast in the hope of conclusively proving that it is that of the White Ship, which sank 900 years ago with the only heir of King Henry I on board.

Experts from the Institute of Digital Archaeology dived on the site, near Barfleur, northern France, last week and found the remains of a vessel which they believe is the famous ship.

They were joined historian Earl Spencer, the late Princess Diana's brother, who last year released a bestselling book on the White Ship's sinking.

It was carrying royal heir William Aethling and many other members of the Anglo-Norman nobility when it sank after hitting the notorious Quillebœuf Rock on November 25, 1120.

It had only just left the Normandy coast and had been bound for Southampton.

Everyone on board - bar one lucky butcher - was killed, leading to a succession crisis and civil war in England.

Now, IDA director Roger Michel has exclusively revealed to MailOnline that his team will return to the wreck on July 6 in the hope of conclusively proving that it is the prestigious vessel they believe it to be.

His team will use ground-penetrating radar in the hope of being able to see the parts of the vessel which are now embedded beneath the sea bed.

Mr Michel also shared a stunning video showing what he said is almost certainly part of the ship's deck, which is now covered in sea weed after nearly 1,000 years underwater.

12th century White Ship's wreck seen for the first time

Historian Earl Spencer (left) last week joined experts as they dived on the wreck site of the White Ship, which sank in 1120, killing King Henry I's only heir. Pictured: Earl Spencer with Roger Michel, the director of the Institute for Digital Archaeology, during the expedition

Historian Earl Spencer (left) last week joined experts as they dived on the wreck site of the White Ship, which sank in 1120, killing King Henry I's only heir. Pictured: Earl Spencer with Roger Michel, the director of the Institute for Digital Archaeology, during the expedition

The IDA team have already created a 3D reconstruction of the vessel, which they are not yet able to share.

Mr Michel, who studied at Oxford University with Earl Spencer, said: 'Our early analysis of the data that we collected last week, including 3D reconstruction, points strongly to this being the remains of the White Ship.

'The size, shape, location and materials are all an excellent match and there is no record of a comparable ship sinking in this area.'

On July 6, IDA experts will also make scans of the Quillebœuf Rock and will measure the sea currents in the area before making an animation of the course of the vessel's sinking.

Last week, the IDA team travelled with Earl Spencer from Lymington Harbour, Hampshire, to the site, which had not previously been explored.

The other experts on the trip were engineer and physicist Dr Alexy Karenowska and marine archaeology specialists Giles Richardson and Holger Schumann.

The IDA experts are set to return to the ship wreck next month in the hope of conclusively proving that it is that of the White Ship. Above: Mr Michel shared with MailOnline a stunning video showing what he said is almost certainly part of the ship's deck, which is now covered in sea weed after nearly 1,000 years underwater

The IDA experts are set to return to the ship wreck next month in the hope of conclusively proving that it is that of the White Ship. Above: Mr Michel shared with MailOnline a stunning video showing what he said is almost certainly part of the ship's deck, which is now covered in sea weed after nearly 1,000 years underwater

Next month, his team will use ground-penetrating radar in the hope of being able to see the parts of the vessel which are embedded beneath the sea bed

Next month, his team will use ground-penetrating radar in the hope of being able to see the parts of the vessel which are embedded beneath the sea bed

Mr Michel said last week: 'This is an incredibly exciting discovery. Apparently no one has employed modern digital technology to search for wreck of the White Ship previously, so the site has remained relatively undisturbed.

'While we had hoped to find some archaeological evidence of the wreck, we knew the chances were slim due to the long passage of time and the strong tidal currents in the area.

'To have located pieces of a ship that match the construction techniques and scale of the White Ship is incredibly exciting -- and potentially very significant.

'We look forward to returning to the site in the next two weeks to learn more.'

Earl Spencer added: 'It's one thing to write about the mother of all shipwrecks - quite another to take part in a dive to see if anything at all remains of her, 900 years on.

The ship was carrying royal heir William Aethling and many other members of the Anglo-Norman nobility when it sank after hitting the notorious Quillebœuf Rock (pictured) on November 25, 1120

The ship was carrying royal heir William Aethling and many other members of the Anglo-Norman nobility when it sank after hitting the notorious Quillebœuf Rock (pictured) on November 25, 1120

The other experts on the trip were engineer and physicist Dr Alexy Karenowska and marine archaeology specialists Giles Richardson (left) and Holger Schumann (right)

The other experts on the trip were engineer and physicist Dr Alexy Karenowska and marine archaeology specialists Giles Richardson (left) and Holger Schumann (right)


Giles Richardson is seen coming to the surface during the dive on the White Ship's wreck site

Giles Richardson is seen coming to the surface during the dive on the White Ship's wreck site
 

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'When Roger Michel offered this opportunity, I didn't hesitate to say "yes - let's do it!" It's been an incredibly exciting journey.'

King Henry I was the fourth son of William the Conqueror, who led the successful Norman invasion of Britain in 1066, in which English forces were defeated at the Battle of Hastings.

His son and only heir, William Aetheling, had embarked on the White Ship to follow his father from Normandy to England on the night of November 25 in 1120.

On board with William were his siblings - Henry's illegitimate son Richard of Lincoln and his illegitimate daughter Matilda - and many other nobles.

Mr Michel said last week: 'This is an incredibly exciting discovery. Apparently no one has employed modern digital technology to search for wreck of the White Ship previously, so the site has remained relatively undisturbed'. Pictured: The divers scour the wreck site

Mr Michel said last week: 'This is an incredibly exciting discovery. Apparently no one has employed modern digital technology to search for wreck of the White Ship previously, so the site has remained relatively undisturbed'. Pictured: The divers scour the wreck site


Earl Spencer outlined in his book, titled The White Ship - Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I's Dream' - how everyone on board had been drinking wine.

With their drunkenness perhaps to blame, the ship hit the notorious Quilleboeuf rock shortly after leaving Barfleur harbour and its hull was ruptured.

The vessel quickly capsized and everyone on board was thrown in to the sea.

Although William had been bundled into the ship's single longboat by his bodyguards, he fatefully ordered his men to turn the vessel around to save his beloved sister Matilda la Perche.

The ship sank just a mile from Barfleur Harbour on November 25, 1120. The passengers had been headed for Southampton

The ship sank just a mile from Barfleur Harbour on November 25, 1120. The passengers had been headed for Southampton

The longboat was quickly swamped as the drowning members of the elite desperately tried to clamber aboard.

The vessel then capsized, leading to the death of William, his sister and everyone else apart from a butcher from Rouen, named Berold.

It was his witness testimony which forms the basis of current knowledge about what happened.

The White Ship - Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I's Dream was published last year

The White Ship - Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I's Dream was published last year

Earl Spencer explained in his book how the sinking and loss of life was not only a devastating personal tragedy for King Henry, but also for the wider Anglo-Norman ruling class.

As well as William and his brother and sister, 18 countesses drowned, along with numerous knights.

Expanding on the gravity of the disaster, Earl Spencer said in a tweet last August: 'Imagine the Titanic, but with the heir to the throne, his siblings, cousins, & many of the leading political & military men aboard. Only one man survived to tell the tale.'

The ship's sinking was a disaster for England because it suddenly made the royal succession a dangerous uncertainty.

Now that there was no clear male heir, Henry had to look to his legitimate daughter, who was also named Matilda.

However, on his death in 1135, Henry's nephew Stephen took up arms against Matilda, prompting a near 20-year civil war which was known as The Anarchy.

The conflict finally ended in 1153, shortly before Stephen died of a fever and Matilda's son became King Henry II.

Earl Spencer joins expedition as divers find evidence of wreck of White Ship | Daily Mail Online