In November 1120, a ship carrying three of King Henry I's children, including his only legitimate son and heir William the Atheling, struck a rock off the coast of northern France and sank.

Also on board were over 150 nobles, including the King's illegitimate son Richard of Lincoln, his niece Matilda FitzRoy, and several key figures in Henry's government. The only survivor among the 300 passengers and crew was a humble butcher. The repercussions of this disaster were enormous and led to almost 20 years of civil war in England as William's sister Matilda and his cousin Stephen (who had disembarked from the White Ship shortly before it set sail) fought over the throne of England.

There have been many maritime disasters with a far greater loss of life, but has there ever been one where there were so many notable people who died, and where the consequences were so far reaching?

  • 1
    Depending on the tags, you could consult Maritime Disasters - but I suspect the only one that potentially qualifies is the Princess Amelia in which the Director of New Netherlands died.
    – MCW
    Commented Sep 6, 2017 at 12:05
  • I tagged middle-ages because of the White Ship, but I'm interested in any time period. Should I remove the tag in this case? Commented Sep 6, 2017 at 12:36
  • 7
    Not a maritime disaster, but the death of the President of Poland and several other dignitaries in the 2010 Polish Air Force Tu-154 crash comes to mind...
    – Jørgen
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 8:05
  • 3
    Interesting that in 1120 there were ships so large. I wonder what accommodations were like on board, even for the king himself.
    – Jeff
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 8:34
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    There is also "Johann Orth" a Habsburg who changed his name and went to sea and whose ship disappeared.
    – MAGolding
    Commented Dec 3, 2017 at 22:51

3 Answers 3


There was Margaret, Maid of Norway who was the heir to the throne of Scotland. Actually she was the Queen but had not been crowned.

She was travelling from Norway to Scotland but after the ship was blown off course to the Orkney Islands she died due to the effects of sea-sickness (so not normally what you think of as a maritime disaster, but it was directly caused by a sea journey)

The consequence was that the plan to marry her to Edward I's son (later Edward II) did not happen so the crowns of England and Scotland were not united several hundred years earlier. This would probably have cut out several wars.

  • I'm accepting this answer although I think the final part is a little speculative (several hundred years...) Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 11:52
  • I think it is factual in this case the crowns would have been combined around 1300 whilst they weren't until 1600. And you did ask for consequences
    – mmmmmm
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 13:38
  • 2
    I'm not questioning that it is highly likely the crowns would have been united around 1300, but I wouldn't want to assume that they would have remained united over several hundred years. Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 14:09

Apart from the example of Margaret, Maid of Norway cited in Mark's answer, there seems to be only one other possible heir: John William Friso, Prince of Orange.

John William Friso, according to the Wiki article on the The Second Stadtholderless Period, was made William III's heir in 1702 according to his last will and testament:

As William died without (legitimate) issue, he had to make provisions in his last will and testament to prevent any uncertainty. Indeed, he made John William Friso, Prince of Orange, head of the cadet branch of Nassau-Dietz of the family, his general heir, both privately and politically.

Note: Although the article does not state it, this did not include the Kingdom of England.

Unfortunately for Friso, five of the seven Dutch provinces did not follow William III's will so his

rejection as stadtholder by five of the seven Dutch provinces in 1702 marked the return to political supremacy of the States General

It appears that all was not lost for Friso, though, as he became a general under the Duke of Marlborough and served with distinction until he drowned when a ferry he was on sank in bad weather in July 1711. This seems to have been particularly bad timing as (from Wiki)

The prestige that he acquired from his military service should have favored his eventual elevation as stadtholder in the remaining five provinces.

At the time of his death Friso was, technically at least, still William III's heir. His posthumous son, William IV, was born six weeks later and, in 1747 became the first hereditary stadtholder of all the provinces.


I would suggest as another possibility not an heir to a throne, but a mighty monarch who might have died with thousands of others, some of them probably important people, in a sea disaster.

Musa II, Mansa of the Malian Empire, or Mansa Musa, is famous as one of the richest men in history. He ruled from about 1312 to 1337, and his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 and 1325 with an immense retinue and spending vast amounts of gold dust is legendary.

Apparently Musa II became Mansa by being selected as the deputy of the previous Mansa when the previous Mansa, Abu Bekr II, went on a journey. The story that Musa II is said to have told in Cairo is:

The ruler who preceded me did not believe that it was impossible to reach the extremity of the ocean that encircles the earth (meaning Atlantic), and wanted to reach that (end) and obstinately persisted in the design. So he equipped two hundred boats full of men, as many others full of gold, water and victuals sufficient enough for several years. He ordered the chief (admiral) not to return until they had reached the extremity of the ocean, or if they had exhausted the provisions and the water. They set out. Their absence extended over a long period, and, at last, only one boat returned. On our questioning, the captain said: 'Prince, we have navigated for a long time, until we saw in the midst of the ocean as if a big river was flowing violently. My boat was the last one; others were ahead of me. As soon as any of them reached this place, it drowned in the whirlpool and never came out. I sailed backwards to escape this current.' But the Sultan would not believe him. He ordered two thousand boats to be equipped for him and for his men, and one thousand more for water and victuals. Then he conferred on me the regency during his absence, and departed with his men on the ocean trip, never to return nor to give a sign of life.[7]


Mohammed Hamidullah. "Echos of What Lies Behind the 'Ocean of Fogs' in Muslim Historical Narratives". Muslim Heritage. Retrieved 27 June 2015. (Quoting from Al-Umari 1927, q.v.)2

So possibly the mighty ruler Abu Bekr II of Mali died in a sea disaster, which might be considered even more important that the deaths of Margaret the Maid of Norway, Prince William of England, or Jan William Friso.

  • Not an heir to the throne but an interesting answer nonetheless. Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 22:44
  • Looking at answers to skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/23757/… I would ask how verified is this account
    – mmmmmm
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 15:08
  • 1
    @Mark The skeptics doubt authors who jump to conclusions and rashly assume that Abu Bekr II of Mali reached the Americans. The skeptics do not doubt very much the original account that claims that Abu Bekr II left Mali in an attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean, they doubt wild claims that he arrived at any specific place and even that he reached the Americas at all. Of course there is no proof that Mansa Musa's story is correct and accurate as recorded, but it is fairly probable that Abu Bekr II did set sail.
    – MAGolding
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 19:53

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