Hidden writing on 500-year-old parchments has revealed fascinating new details about the first English-led expedition to North America, which took place in 1499.
Nine years ago, Evan Jones, a historian from Britain’s University of Bristol, published a long-lost letter written by King Henry VII that detailed how William Weston, a Bristol merchant, was preparing an expedition to the “new found land” with support from the monarch.
This expedition would take place just a year after Christopher Columbus first landed on the South American mainland and two years after Venetian explorer John Cabot reached North America in a ship commissioned by Henry VII, which left from Bristol’s port.
Historians think that Weston’s expedition was covered by the same royal patent issued to Cabot in 1496. However, many details of this period have long remained a mystery.
Now, Jones and historian Margaret Condon—also at the University of Bristol—have found evidence to suggest that Weston was an early supporter of Cabot and that the merchant received a handsome reward from the king in 1500 for his exploration of the “new land.”
In total, he was given 30 pounds—equivalent to about six years’ pay for an ordinary laborer at the time—indicating that Henry was pleased with the outcome of his expedition, according to a paper published in the journal Historical Research .
The evidence, in the form of a note, was uncovered after Condon painstakingly trawled through official tax records from the time, which take the form of huge parchment rolls made from the skin of over 200 sheep. Each “membrane” in the rolls is 2 meters long, and the note was so faint that it could be read only under ultraviolet light.
The authors also show that both Cabot and Weston received rewards from Henry in January 1498, indicating that the two explorers were working together long before the Bristol merchant left from the city on his expedition in 1499.
According to Jones and Condon, it is likely that Weston was one of the unnamed “great seamen” from Bristol that were prominent discussion topics for Italian diplomats and merchants in London during the winter of 1497-98.
Surviving letters from the Italians suggest that Cabot took men from Bristol on his 1497 first expedition to North America and that his supporters from the port were the “leading men” behind the 1498 expedition.
It is unknown what the outcome of Cabot’s 1498 expedition was, and it is unclear whether any ships returned. This may explain Henry’s willingness to order another voyage the following year, led by one of Cabot’s deputies.
“Finding this new evidence is wonderful! What’s amazing about these early Bristol voyages is how little we’ve ever known about them,” Jones said in a statement.
“Cabot’s voyages have been famous since Elizabethan times and were used to justify England’s later colonization of North America. But we’ve never known the identity of his English supporters. Until recently, we didn’t even know that there was an expedition in 1499.”
The team also found evidence that provides new insights into Weston’s life, indicating that he was a gambler, much like Cabot. Intriguingly, the study also confirms two extraordinary claims made by a deceased historian from the University of London, Alwyn Ruddock, who studied the early English voyages to the Americas for over 40 years.
Ruddock claimed that Cabot had explored most of the North American continent’s east coast by 1500. However Ruddock never published her findings and, extraordinarily, ordered that all her notes be destroyed when she died in 2005.
Her other claim was that a group of Italian friars who accompanied Cabot on his 1498 mission went on to establish the first European Christian colony and church in North America.
She implied that Weston visited the settlement in what is now Newfoundland the following year before moving up the Labrador coast in search of a passage around the continent. The authors of the latest study suggest it was for this that Weston was rewarded by Henry.
“Given her extraordinary claims about what she’d discovered about the early English voyages to North America, I began investigating her assertions to see if they could be verified,” Jones told Newsweek .
“Since then, I and others have been searching for the ‘new documents’ that provided the foundation for Ruddock’s claims. We’ve now found over half of them and have published many of the key ones