The History of Bristol to 1497:
Cabot's Arrival in Bristol
John Cabot, accompanied by his wife and his three sons, moved from Italy
to Spain and then finally to England where they settled in Bristol sometime
between 1493 and 1495. Cabot had worked as a merchant while residing in Venice
where he traded with Alexandria (in Egypt) for Asian spices, dyes and silks. He
may well have obtained a general sense of Bristol's reputation as a great trading
port, and probably contacted merchants there before moving his family to England.
|Town of Bristol, ca. 1480.
This map is a depiction of how Bristol appeared in the late 15th
century, just prior to John Cabot's arrival.
Adapted from a map by E.M. Carus-Wilson in The Merchant
Adventurers of Bristol in the Fifteenth Century (Bristol, England: The
Bristol Branch of the Historical Association, ©1962) which was based
on an earlier map by William Hunt in Bristol, 2nd ed. (London: Longmans,
Green, & Co., 1887).
Cabot was anxious to find a western route to Asia, since he believed
this route would be much shorter than sailing around Africa. This sense
of urgency was enhanced by Christopher Columbus' 1492 discovery of what
are now called the West Indies on behalf of Spain, an achievement that
ruined any chance Cabot may have had of obtaining royal patronage from
the Spanish monarchy. Long resident in Spain and Portugal, Columbus
returned with tangible discoveries to report. Cabot had to look
elsewhere (Little 11).
King Henry VII
When his visits to Seville in Spain and Lisbon in Portugal were
unsuccessful, Cabot was forced to search for a new sponsor. And this
new benefactor turned out to be England's King Henry VII. Cabot
provided King Henry with the opportunity to map out a northern
route to Asia (the predecessor of the Northwest Passage) and lay
claim to an area where there was little Spanish or Portuguese activity.
Moreover, it would allow England to break the apparent domination of
Spain and Portugal over much of the known world.
Henry visited Bristol in 1486 and again in 1490. The fact that
the King of England visited this port illustrates the financial,
economic and political importance of Bristol to the country.
During these visits he would have met prominent townspeople, and
may well have discussed trade and transatlantic voyages. Henry
realized the importance of winning political support from England's
merchant class, and Bristol was a crucial part of this strategy.
Henry rejected the 1489 request by the Columbus brothers to support
their expedition to the Indies. His reason may have been a prior
commitment to the Bristol merchants. At the very least, Henry probably
would have been aware of their Atlantic ambitions. Concerned with
maintaining good relations with an influential city, he may well
have been hesitant about supporting rival contenders (Little 14).
Columbus' voyage inevitably sparked competition between the European
countries in the search for new lands and new routes to the rich
spice markets of the East. King Henry undoubtedly felt pressured
to meet Spain's latest accomplishment and would have therefore been
more responsive when approached with a proposal from Cabot.
England Backs Cabot's Voyage
It also appears that England was willing to support Cabot's
risky Atlantic voyage due to increasing pressures to locate new
sources of fish. For most of the 15th century, Bristol had
actively traded with Iceland, exchanging items like wood for
dried cod fish, which was then called stockfish. The Bristol
Customs Records in the National Archives at Kew, England
contain a large number of entries which recorded this Icelandic
trade during the reigns of Edward IV (1461-1483) and Henry VII
(1485-1509). For example, a ledger dating 1471 reports:
The ship called the Antony of Bristol in
which John Deanfitz is master came from Islond on
this day [September 10] and has in it for John
xxxv last lying, value lxx
pounds, subsidy lxx shillings for the same, xv
last stokfysshe, value lxxv pounds, subsidy lxxv
shillings for John Gregorie, denizen, j last salt
fish, value x pounds, subsidy x shillings
(Williamson 1962 176)
But problems with the Icelandic trade arose and Bristol
merchants were finally squeezed out by the German Hanseatic
League in the 1480s. This resulted in some initial exploration
of the Atlantic Ocean by Bristol vessels prior to the Columbus
and Cabot voyages. It was partly due to the increased demand
for codfish that Bristol merchants began venturing out in
search of unknown western lands from at least the 1480s.
It is also probable that the English wanted to lay claim
upon waters free from Spanish and Portuguese control in order
to secure their own northwest route to Asia's spice trade, so
they could rival the Spanish route falsely believed to have
been found by Columbus in 1492. These venturers set out in
search for the mythical Isle of Brasile thought to lie
somewhere off the western coast of Ireland. Late medieval
mariners also believed in the existence of the Isle of
the Seven Cities, supposedly located somewhere in the west
or northwest Atlantic (Williamson 19, 22).
It is known that late medieval seaman genuinely believed
in the stories of these Atlantic islands since maps surviving
from this period show the Isle of Brasile as a small land mass
of a circular or half-moon shape near the coast of Ireland.
Some speculation surrounds the date when Bristol merchants
began to send out expeditions in search of these semi-mythical
islands, but it is known that in 1480 the merchant John Jay
junior launched an unsuccessful campaign which was followed
the next year by another expedition (Williamson 20; Little 13;
Article by Wendy Churchill. ©1997, Newfoundland and
Labrador Heritage Web Site.
Updated by James Hiller and Jenny Higgins, June 2013