During this period, the English Channel carried a large number of ships between England and Normandy, mostly trading and troop-carrying vessels, of which many would have been less than seaworthy; losses were therefore common. The "White Ship", however, was the most up-to-date marine transport of its time, equipped with all the best fittings available.

Henry I had spent a considerable time in Normandy dealing with all the disturbances there, but by 1120 things had become settled, to Henry's advantage. Count Baldwin of Flanders died of a wound; Count Fulk V of Anjou was bought off with a bribe; and a decisive victory at Brenville (1119) caused the flight of King Louis VI of France. It seemed now that Henry had put down all opposition; he might therefore return to England in peace, after an absence of four years. Henry's only son William was to follow in the "White Ship", commandeered by Thomas FitzStephen, whose father had carried DUKE WILLIAM of Normandy to the conquest of England (1066), and whose tenure of service, by which he held his fee, was that of providing a passage for his sovereign. The prince embarked with his half-brother Richard, and his half-sister Adela, Countess of Perche, several noble ladies, and 140 knights.

A drunken debauch before they sailed led some to return to the shore, but the others madly pushed on; none of the crew was in a fit state to take to sea; all, it seems, were very drunk. In such a state, they recklessly attempted to overtake the fleet that had preceded them. The "White Ship" foundered on a ledge of rocks off Barfleur, now called Ras de Catteville. Three hundred persons perished, and Berold, a butcher of Rouen, who had jumped on board to collect some debts due to him from members of the court was the only one left to tell the tale. Henry was inconsolable for his loss, and is said never to have smiled afterwards.