The chronicler Henry of Huntington doesn't have much good to say about William Adelin (or the Atheling). What about other chroniclers of the time?

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    He risked, and ultimately lost, his life attempting to save his half-sister during the wreck of The White Ship. That represents a good character trait for a person, but perhaps not for a future king. The chronicler might simply be upset about how William's careless death ruined the Kingdom for nearly 20 years during The Anarchy.. Aug 19, 2017 at 7:50

2 Answers 2


The short answer is "Not a lot". We know relatively little about the life and character of William Adelin (or William "the Atheling").

The main chronicles for the period are:

There are also a number of other chronicles that mention particular events (such as the wreck of the White Ship) peripherally.

So just what do we know about William Adelin?

  • We know when and where William was born (in Winchester on 5 August 1103).
  • We are told that he was a pampered and (perhaps) somewhat sickly child. (Henry of Huntingdon)
  • We know that he was invested as Duke of Normandy.
  • We are told that "all the free men of England and Normandy" swore homage to him when he was 12 years old. (William of Malmesbury)
  • We know he was betrothed to Matilda, daughter of Count Fulk of Anjou, in February 1113. We also know that they were married before the Council of Rheims in Lisieux in June 1119.
  • We are told that he gave a good account of himself at the Battle of Brémule when he was just 16. (Orderic Vitalis)
  • And we are given several accounts of the events surrounding his death in the wreck of the White Ship on 25 November 1120.

Given the implications of the death of the heir to the throne of England in the wreck of the White ship, it is perhaps not surprising that this is the event of William Adelin's life for which we have most information. This single event would lead to the two decades of civil war known as The Anarchy. Yet, even so, many of the details of his death in the wreck of the White Ship are uncertain.

  • We are told that there were either one (William of Malmesbury, John of Worcester) or two (Orderic Vitalis - although he implies that one died later) survivors from the wreck.
  • We are told that the survivor was a butcher from Rouen.

So, even if the details in the chronicles were honestly and accurately recorded, it was just the testimony of one (or, at most, two) survivors.

  • We are told that William Adelin survived and escaped the wreck in a small boat, but that he returned in an attempt to rescue his half-sister. The boat overturned and he was drowned. (William of Malmesbury)
  • We are told that the captain of the ship, Thomas FitzStephen, survived, but then allowed himself to drown rather than face the wrath of the king after he learned of the death of William Adelin. (Orderic Vitalis)
  • We are told that Stephen of Blois (the future King Stephen) was supposed to sail on the White Ship but had disembarked just before it sailed due to to a sudden, violent, bout of diarrhoea. (Orderic Vitalis)
  • And we are told that the King was grief-stricken on hearing the news of the death of his son.

[Some chroniclers (notably Henry of Huntingdon and William of Nangis) suggested that the White Ship sank "because all [the men] aboard were sodomites". This was, presumably, simply a reflection of the medieval belief that disaster was an act of God, and always the result of sin. That said, Henry was often quick to assume the worst about people - it's probably one of the reasons that his books were so popular!]

It's not much of a record of a life, but, then again, William Adelin was just 17 years old when he died. He never ascended to the throne, and lived his life in the shadow of his father.

For context, it is worth noting that Henry of Huntingdon's chronicle was first published, under the patronage of Alexander of Lincoln, in around 1129/1130. A second edition was published in 1135, with further editions following over the years, up to 1154. His writing style made his works popular (we have at least 25 surviving manuscripts from the period). Then, as now, (albeit to a slightly lesser extent, perhaps) a whiff of scandal sells!

  • Two further questions stemming from your answer: 1. In Orderic Vitalis' account of Bremule it seems (from the translations I've read) William played little part in the battle itself. Would it be fair to assume this was primarily because, at 16, he would not have completed his training as knight? 2. Henry of Huntington (as you said) is known for his contemptuous attitude but, after some cutting comments on William's demise, heaps praise on his half-brother Richard of Lincoln. Why would he do that if he didn't genuinely believe William didn't amount to much? Am I missing something here? Aug 24, 2017 at 13:38
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    By 16, William should have completed his training. The limited part he played was more likely due to the fact that he was the sole legitimate heir. Even so, according to Orderic Vitalis it seems he won some spoils for himself in the battle, so he can hardly have disgraced himself either. 2. Possibly because Richard had fought in more battles, and was more likely to be personally known to Henry's audience? Like I say, we don't know a lot, so trying to understand Henry's motivation at this distance is likely to be more speculation than actual history. Aug 24, 2017 at 14:41

He also attested several charters and seems to have been in training as a co-regent along with his mother between 1116 and Matilda's death in 1118.

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    Sources would improve this answer.
    – MCW
    Dec 27, 2017 at 18:10
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    I'm not sure that this answers the question about how he was viewed by contemporary chroniclers. Dec 27, 2017 at 19:15

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