The History of Bristol to 1497:
Bristol's Transatlantic Explorations
Prior to 1497
While it has been difficult to pinpoint the exact time frame
of these North Atlantic probes, evidence that they were indeed
occurring by the 1490's is found in a report sent by Pedro de
Ayala, a Spanish envoy located in London. The year after
Cabot's successful transatlantic voyage he wrote Ferdinand
and Isabella stating that for the previous seven years the
Bristolians had been equipping caravels to look for the islands
of Brasile and the Seven Cities. While it is not possible to
ascertain whether or not these were large scale ventures and
precisely what their motives might have been, Ayala's words seem
to supply some proof of westward bound voyages.
Another document which supports this claim is found in the
letter written by the English merchant John Day to an
unidentified Spanish 'Lord Grand Admiral' who is believed to have
been Christopher Columbus. Day wrote:
It is considered certain that the cape of
the said land was found and discovered in the
past by the men from Bristol who found 'Brasil'
as your Lordship well knows. It was called the
Island of Brasil, and it is assumed and believed
to be the mainland that the men from Bristol
found (Williamson 214).
John Day's letter.
This letter was written by the English merchant John Day to an
unidentified Spanish 'Lord Grand Admiral' who is believed to have
been Christopher Columbus.
From Ian Wilson, John Cabot and the Matthew (Tiverton,
England: Redcliffe Press, ©1996) 6. Courtesy of the Spanish
National Archives. Valladolid, Spain.
However, the English were not the only ones who based their
explorations and cartography on reports of mythical Atlantic
islands. The Portuguese had also probed into the western ocean
looking for a large land mass northwest of the Azores, a group of
islands lying in the mid North Atlantic which were discovered by
the Portuguese around 1480 (Wilson 40). The misconception that
these supposedly real but unseen lands were geographically near
Europe displays just how infrequently even master mariners
ventured away from sight of the coastline. The English explorers,
like those from Bristol, attempted to uncover new territory by
venturing further out into the ocean. Most ships in those days
generally tended to stick fairly close to land by hopping from
island to island, rather than braving the dark uncharted waters
of the North Atlantic.
The Search for a Western Passage to the East
The well established wine trade of Bristol, along with the
spice trade between England and the Orient, enjoyed suffered
heavy blows in 1453. The fall of Constantinople created
hostilities which made it difficult for European traders to
acquire oriental spices from the East and forced Bristol
merchants to seek out new trading routes and markets. They
believed they could either sail around Africa's southern tip
or west across the Atlantic to the coasts of Cipangu (Japan) and
Cathay (China). The equally well established wine trade also
suffered a set back in 1453 when France wrested Bordeaux and
Gascony from English control. As a result, Bristol was forced to
redirect its wine trade to places like Spain, Portugal and the
Atlantic islands of the Canaries and Madeira. Along with
Icelandic expeditions to exchange West English cloth for
stockfish and the ancient trading routes with Limerick and Galway
in Ireland, such voyages gave Bristol seamen further experience
navigating through Atlantic waters.
All this meant that Bristol seamen,
particularly, were skilled and experienced in
deep-sea, Atlantic navigation. By the last decade
of the fifteenth century they had already
ventured on the more experimental process of
voyaging, straight out on a westerly course in
search of mythical, and perhaps real, lands with
which new trade might grow and prosper
Thus, by the time Cabot was ready to undertake his
transatlantic journey, Bristol was a port which was well known
for its expeditions of exploration. In addition to this, it was
an important center of English trade and one of the best ship
building ports in all of Europe. Aside from possessing a rank
almost the equivalent of London, Bristol proved to be a logical
choice for Cabot because it faces west into the Atlantic. Yet on
top of all this, lay another advantage: Bristol mariners boasted
a well known reputation as experts in navigating through northern
waters. Thus, even without direct evidence, an argument might be
made that Cabot had probably settled in Bristol before he
approached the king of England with his proposal.
Bristol proved to
be a convenient port for John Cabot because of its strategic position near
the Bristol Channel which leads into the Atlantic Ocean.
Illustration by Duleepa Wijayawardhana.
Henry agreed to the proposed journey and in March of 1496 he
granted the Letters Patent which authorized Cabot and his sons to
explore the 'all parts, regions, and coasts of the eastern,
western and northern seas unknown to all Christians' (Biggar 7).
On 5 March 1496, King Henry VII granted a letters patent to John Cabot and his sons.
This permitted them to investigate, claim and possess any new lands so long as they
did not intrude on Spanish or Portugal territories.
From André Vachon, in collaboration with Victorin Chabot and André Desrosiers,
Dreams of Empire: Canada before 1700, Records of Our History series, English transl.
by John F. Flinn (Ottawa, Ontario: Public Archives of Canada, ©1982) 23. Plate 7.
Courtesy of Public Records Office, London, England: Chancery, Warrants for the Great Seal,
Series II, C 82/146, no. 6.
Although the king would receive one fifth of any trading profits
obtained from the expedition, the financial burden of the voyage
and the equipment lay with Cabot and his Bristol backers. The men
of Bristol were willing to invest their money because they
dreamed of turning their prosperous little port into a great
center of Asian spice distribution among the European markets
It is known that Cabot - with a Bristolian crew - embarked on
an intial voyage in 1496, one year before he set out on his
historic journey. Widely believed to have been an experimental
journey to the west, the vessel was forced to return to Bristol
because of poor weather and dwindling supplies. There is also a
reference by John Day to a disagreement between Cabot and his
crew members. In 1497 when Cabot was ready to attempt the voyage
again, the merchants of Brisol refused to supply him with the
five ships he was permitted to take with him on his westward
expedition (Little 18). For this transatlantic voyage the
merchants only equipped him with one vessel: the Matthew.
Outfitted for sea and accompanied by a crew of 18 men, Cabot
left Bristol in May of 1497 and sailed West. Approximately one
month later, he landed upon the eastern shores of North America,
possibly in Newfoundland. What Cabot thought of his discovery is
unknown, but he certainly could not have realized the profound
effects which it would have upon England and indeed Europe. His
seemingly humble discovery enabled England - previously
overshadowed on the political stage by more powerful countries
like Spain and Portugal - to eventually built itself into one of
the world's greatest empires. Made possible by financial
backing from Bristol's wealthy merchant class and the prime
location of the harbour, Cabot's 1497 transatlantic voyage
formed a lasting bridge between the old world and the new.
John Cabot leaving Bristol, May 1497.
Cabot leaving Bristol on his "Voyage of Discovery".
Painting by Thomson. From J.A. Cochrane, The Story of Newfoundland (Montreal:
Ginn and Co., 1938) 29.
20th Century Bristol
Today, 500 years after John Cabot's historic voyage to
the mainland New World, Bristol has a population in excessive of
380 000 and is presently the largest city in Western England. Due
to its prime location on the Avon River and close proximity to
the Severn, Bristol continues to be dominated by sea trade just
as it was one thousand years ago.
©1997, Wendy Churchill
Bachelor of Arts, Honours (History Major)
Memorial University of Newfoundland