First off, let’s define the word: “prologue”. Webster’s defines it as ‘an introductory or preceding event or development’. In a literary work it is often called a ‘preface’, a commentary or explanation that the author includes to clarify the story or the facts that are to follow. The term, ‘the past is prologue’, tells us that, in real life, almost EVERYTHING can be a prologue—or a causative event-- to what follows it. Thus, my responding to my “four-legged alarm clock” at 6:30 a.m., and dragging myself out of bed this morning, was my ‘prologue’ to going to work and serving my customers. That’s a fairly easy concept to grasp. What is more complicated to fathom is how the past of each one of us—I mean the really “long, long ago past”—has affected who we are, into what family we were born, and even in what country we originated. Now that’s kind of deep, isn’t it? In addition, it’s quite fascinating to “conjecture” various “present scenarios” resulting from a series of “past prologues” that might have occurred, but didn’t.
Let me clarify by recounting a story from my wife’s genealogy. Both of us have done genealogical research on her family for several years. She has a really long and illustrious heritage, the research for which was started by her mother long before the days of computers and the internet, which have made family history much easier to reconstruct. I like to kid her that she is descended from many famous people throughout world history, and she is. We inherited all of her mother’s many years of genealogical research on her family—several thick notebooks of hand written histories and family lines that took us about two years to put into our computer. Her mother had traced her (and of course, my wife’s) family genealogy back to King Alfred the Great of England (849 A.D.-899 A.D.), and she belonged, and my wife now also belongs, to several lineage societies that celebrate their lineages going back into Roman Britain, as well as heritages that incorporate the Plantagenet lines of Kings of England (my wife’s ancestors), and that celebrate the Magna Charta and the English Barons who signed it (several of whom were my wife’s ancestors), and who forced King John Lackland (one of my wife’s ancestors) to also sign it (although he and the Catholic Church repudiated Magna Charta within two years of its being signed).
One of the fascinating historical “prologues” of my wife’s family genealogy is the story of King Henry 1 and “The White Ship Tragedy”, a history-changing event that occurred on November 25, 1120 A.D. Henry 1 was the fourth son of one of my wife’s direct ancestors, Duke William of Normandy (William the Conqueror)-(1028 A.D.-1087 A.D.), whose Norman dynasty was only barely established over much of England by the time of this event. Henry 1 (ca. 1068 A.D.-1135 A.D.) had fought a war with his brothers over who would control Normandy and, by inference, most of England, which was basically a Norman possession at this time. Henry 1 came out victorious eventually, and did everything he could to assure that his line would retain control over Normandy and England into the future. Thus, a series of “prologues”—the conquest of England by Duke William of Normandy in 1066 A.D., and Henry’s victorious war with his brothers and his becoming King of England & Normandy—set the stage for the following historical “prologue”, which would change English history and by virtue of descent from the principles involved, my wife’s place in the endless flow of time.
Henry had a problem. Although he had many illegitimate children (whom he loved, to his credit), he had only TWO living legitimate children—an older daughter, Matilda (my wife’s ancestor), (ca. 1102 A.D.- 1167 A.D.) and a young son named William Aethling (also called William Adelin, a Latinized Norman-French version of ‘Aethling’) (1103 A.D.-1120 A.D.). The teenaged William, (17 when he died), a “warrior prince” who had fought beside his father, Henry 1, as they defended their Norman possessions on the continent from the attempts by King Louis V1 of France to take Normandy from Henry and his Norman Barons. William was also the “heir apparent”—the Crown Prince who would inherit the Throne of England and Normandy when Henry died, and who had the support of both the Norman and Saxon nobility. In the year 1119 A.D., King Henry 1 of Normandy and England concluded a war against King Louis, resulting in Louis’ defeat at the Battle of Bremule. King Henry and his army and huge entourage prepared to return to England in November of 1120.
The “White Ship” (La Blanche-Nef, which was its real name), was a newly reconditioned sailing vessel that was also equipped with oarsmen. Its’ captain was Thomas FitzStephen, whose father had been a ship captain for William the Conqueror during his invasion of England in 1066 A.D. Captain FitzStephen offered his ship to King Henry 1 to use to return to England with much of his entourage, but Henry had already made arrangements to return on another, larger ship. He did agree to have his heir, the Crown Prince William, return to England on The White Ship, along with about 300 of Henry’s entourage of nobles, knights, and the usual horde of sycophants that flitted around royalty. The passengers on The White Ship included 18 noblewomen, William’s half-brother, Richard; his half-sister, Matilda (Countess of Perche); his cousins, Stephen and Matilda of Blois, and included the young nephew of the German Emperor Henry V.
Having been away from England for a year or more, these young heirs to the great estates in Normandy and England, their older and experienced warrior knights, and the usual hangers-on, were in a great celebratory mood as they went aboard The White Ship in Barfleur, Normandy. Prince William ordered many barrels of expensive wine to be brought aboard the ship, in order to really “celebrate” their eminent return to England. It wasn’t long, as might have been expected, that most of the young Prince’s entourage, and ALL of the ship’s crew, were totally intoxicated, drunk as the proverbial ‘skunks’. The revelries turned abusive, as alcoholic stupor loosened tongues that normally would have been kept under control. A group of priests arrived to “bless the voyage”, but the drunken revelers ejected them without any blessing. Some of the less inebriated passengers, perhaps sensing trouble, departed from the ship, including Stephen of Blois who reportedly had come down with diarrhea. Thus, another “prologue” raised its “head” for the future, for Stephen of Blois would later become King of England for a time because of the tragedy that was about to unfold for all who did not leave before La Blanche-Nef sailed.
King Henry and his larger ship had already left Barfleur to return to England. By the time that Prince William decided to set sail, it was already well past dark. William and his drunken entourage ordered the ship’s crew to set all sails and all of the oarsmen to man their oars, in order to either overtake Henry’s vessel or, even better, to beat it back to England. Inebriated passengers are one thing, but a drunken crew of a ship sailing off into the darkness is another matter. Captain FitzStephen apparently was as inebriated as his crew, and he readily agreed with Prince William’s demands for the “utmost speed”, and soon The White Ship was racing over the water, toward the doom of all save one—a medieval “Titanic” racing toward its “iceberg” of history.
Once in open water, the sleek ship raced to overtake the rest of King Henry’s fleet. Suddenly The White Ship struck a submerged rock called “Quilleboeuf”, (which must have been on the charts), causing the port side hull timbers to crack wide open, causing the ship to quickly begin to founder. Prince William’s bodyguards rushed him up on deck and into the ONLY small dingy (shades of Titanic?) available. William got safely away from the sinking ship. However, he heard his half-sister, Matilda, screaming for him to rescue her. William ordered his boat crew to turn back to the sinking ship, but by then it was too late. The White Ship began to slip beneath the waves, hundreds were drowning all around them, and the little dingy was swiftly overwhelmed by desperate people struggling to live. It was quickly capsized and all in it, save two, of those struggling in the cold November Atlantic, perished from drowning or exposure to the combination of cold water and frigid air.
According to Orderic Vitalis, a chronicler of that time, only two people survived until dawn by either clinging to the submerged rock, or by clinging to the top of the mast of the submerged ship (the account is confusing). One was a man named Berold, a butcher from Rouen who had come aboard The White Ship to collect debts owed him, and Godfrey, son of Gilbert of Laigle (who succumbed to cold at dawn’s light). Vitalis wrote that when Captain FitzStephen came to the surface after his ship sank, and learned that Prince William had already drowned, he let himself drown rather than face the wrath of the King.
Thus, one of our past’s “prologues” came to its sad end. It is said that after King Henry 1 was informed of his son’s death, he never smiled again. Still desperate to secure his family’s legitimate succession to the Throne of Normandy and England, Henry forced his English barons to swear an oath to support his only remaining legitimate child, his daughter, Matilda (also called Queen Maud), and recognize her as their Queen after his death. A woman had never yet become the ruler of England, however, and after Henry’s death his nephew, Stephen of Blois, who fortuitously did NOT travel aboard The White Ship that night, seized the crown, thereby precipitating a period of civil war referred to as The Anarchy, which dragged on from 1135 A.D. to 1153 A.D.
Eventually my wife’s ancestor, Matilda, and her second husband, Geoffrey V (The Fair), Count of Anjou (who founded the Plantagenet line of kings), were victorious over Stephen, and a somewhat “negotiated” conclusion to the war was placed in force, which allowed Stephen to remain king for the balance of his life (about another year), upon which time Matilda and Geoffrey would become rulers of England
and Normandy. After Stephen’s death, the Plantagenet Dynasty began its rule over English history, and 818 years after this “White Ship Tragedy”, and her ancestors having long before abandoned “royalty”, my wife—a direct descendant of Matilda and Geoffrey the Fair-- was born. Had the teenaged William survived to rule England, how would history have been altered? Only God knows, for the timeline of history is easily altered by just ONE event—one “prologue”--that was not meant to be, according to man’s reckoning.
So “if the past is prologue”, as we agree that it is, what then is “the present”? Obviously, we can say with certainty that the “present” is “PROLOGUE TO THE FUTURE”. Which is to say that the present time in which we live is an infinity of current “prologues” which will determine mankind’s future history. Essentially, we who live today are the PROLOGUES of the future—we are generating THE HISTORY OF THE FUTURE of mankind every day we live, and with every action we take, and with every decision we make. So think wisely and act accordingly. The “future”, especially the future of human liberty, depends on all of us acting wisely and rationally, and not stupidly!