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
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.

King Henry VII, 1505
King Henry VII, 1505
England's King Henry VII sponsored Cabot on his Atlantic voyage.
Unknown Netherlandish artist. From an image on the National Portrait Gallery website, London, and used for non-commercial use under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-NoDervis (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) licence.

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 Forster, denizen, xxxv last lyng, 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; McGrath 1).

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