JOHN CABOT’S timing in taking to England the idea of a north Atlantic passage to Cathay was flawless in capitalizing on catastrophe. The venal relations between England and Maximilian’s realm had shut the door on any chance that Martin Behaim could make a pitch of his own. But the trade war arising from the maneuverings surrounding the pretender Warbeck proved to be only part of the complications necessary to turn Cabot into an English explorer. Cabot also needed England to be somehow denied the services of the Flanders Galleys and the Oriental luxury goods they carried. In 1495, that condition was fulfilled in spectacularly disastrous fashion.
In January 1495, two of the three vessels in the Flanders Galley flotilla, including the flagship, perished in a storm in the Bay of Biscay en route to England. Then in October 1495, the lone surviving galley, the Bragadina, and another Venetian merchant vessel, theZorza, with which the galley was to return home in convoy, suffered a brazen attack by French pirates at Southampton. The Venetian consul in London, Almoró Gritti, was dining aboard the galley when the raiders struck at dusk. The crews were taken prisoner. The galley convoy’s captain, Piero Bragadin (Pietro Bragadino), as well as Nicolo da Napoli, commander of the Zorza, each were tagged with a 550-ducat ransom; a nobleman’s son, Francesco Donado, who was wounded in the thigh by a falconet—a small cannon that fired a two-inch-diameter iron ball—was held for an additional 150 ducats. They were all carried away to France to await payment for their liberation.
Venetians found it outrageous that English defenses had allowed this pirate raid to succeed. It fell to the Venetian doge, Agostino Barbarigo, to address by diplomacy. He was about seventy-five years old and had been elected for life in 1486 as chief magistrate and head of state of the republic. Henry VII was a familiar if problematic customer for Barbarigo. On one hand, the English king had goods, wool especially, that Venice desperately needed. On the other hand, he could behave like an unpredictable barbarian, moving ruthlessly to press an advantage. “I fancy he will always wish to have peace with France,” the Milanese ambassador to his court would remark in December 1497, “though I think if he saw her up to her neck in the water, he would put his foot on her head to drown her.”
In 1492, Henry had commandeered two of the Flanders Galleys so he could ferry an army to Calais during his spat with Charles VIII over Brittany, threatening the captains with death if they did not comply. Barbarigo had naturally protested then; beyond the high-handedness that delayed the galleys’ return with desired English wool, loading these exquisite craft with the Renaissance military’s version of an organized, armed mob did little for their state of finish, and damage was also incurred bringing them into Calais. Henry’s action had been little more than state piracy.
From his station inside the Palazzo Ducale on the Piazza San Marco—which a doge was not permitted to leave except in the most pressing circumstances—an infuriated Barbarigo now expressed to Henry his dismay with an altogether different sort of hijacking, which he nevertheless laid at the king’s feet. Writing Henry on November 9, 1495, the doge lamented the “infamous and detestable seizure, in your Majesty’s port of Hampton, by certain French subjects of the captain of our galleys and of our consul holding office in London, together with two other noblemen of ours, and some of our sailors, as it caused us displeasure.” It did not help his mood that the Zorza evidently belonged to the renowned shipbuilding family of his son-in-law, Zorzi Nani. The doge was confident this assault was also “most irksome to your Majesty, whose honour is chiefly wounded by the violation of your harbor.” Barbarigo trusted that “everything which can be desired has been done” by Henry “for the release and indemnity of our said captain, consul, noblemen, and sailors who went thither under the royal security and safe conduct.”
The doge was keen to make Henry understand how shabby this incident made his kingdom appear as a place to conduct business and how unlikely future trade might prove to be if the matter was not resolved to Venice’s satisfaction. He reminded Henry of “the very infamous offence done to yourself, and also to us and our subjects, the great convenience and profit afforded by whose trade in your kingdom is perfectly known to you.”
Barbarigo proposed that Henry take his own hostages to secure the return of the captive Venetians. He ought to “seize the persons and effects of the subjects of the King of France for the release of our said subjects, for then you will provide both for the safety of the prisoners, and for your own honor, whilst our other merchants will have greater cause to traffic in your kingdom, perceiving you prone towards their indemnity and security.”
What Henry actually did in response isn’t known, but on January 22, 1496, the doge issued orders to Venice’s new consul in London, Piero (Pietro) Contarini, a former capitaneus of the galleys: Send the 150 ducats to free the young noble Donado, and go to Southampton and take command of the two pillaged Venetian ships. London’s Venetian merchant community was further required to reimburse the ransoms and expenses of Donado and the two commanders as well as the costs associated with springing the clerk, bowmen, and oarsmen of the galley and presumably the abducted consul Gritti as well. Contarini also had been instructed, if his own business permitted, to command the Bragadina for the return voyage, but Barbarigo soon had more important matters for Contarini to attend to on the republic’s behalf in England.
RENAISSANCE GEOPOLITICAL CRISES seemed to unfurl and ensnarl without beginning or end, but the state of affairs at the time of the Flanders Galley crisis, already complicated by the Warbeck affair, was particularly energized by the highly destabilizing decision of Charles VIII of France to march a massive army across the Alps into northern Italy in 1494 in order to seize the kingdom of Naples.
Ludovico Sforza, ruling Milan as regent in the name of his nephew Gian Galeazzo Sforza, had created a fine mess for himself. He had encouraged Charles VIII’s notions of entitlement to the kingdom of Naples and provided Genoa as a naval base for the invasion. He had hoped that the French king would introduce a new political and military power to the Italian peninsula that would in part counter the weight of Venice. But when Charles helped himself to the republic of Florence while he was in the neighborhood and his army began to inflict atrocities on whoever got in its way, even Sforza began to worry about where the French king might turn next for easy conquest. (Sforza had also become the new Duke of Milan after the death that October of his nephew, whom he was suspected of having poisoned.) In March 1495, the doge Barbarigo had fashioned Milan, Venice, Spain, the Papal States, and the Holy Roman Empire into the Holy League, also known as the League of Venice. Its forces confronted Charles’s army at Fornovo in July 1495, persuading the French to withdraw back over the Alps.
To further check Charles’s ambitions, the league then courted Henry VII. The English king had shown interest in joining the league after it was formed, but he did not relish the idea of becoming an enemy of France in the process. Wars moreover were a drain on the treasury, and Henry (hailed as the wealthiest monarch in Europe) was proving himself adept at maximizing royal revenues while minimizing expenditures. A shrewd if cynical economist, he has been called the finest businessman ever to wear the English crown. It was said that he went to war to extort money from his subjects and secured peace to extract more of the same from his enemies. He levied customs duties on exports of England’s much-desired wool amounting to one-third of its value to encourage domestic production of cloth and finished clothing for export, which were subject to only a 3 percent export duty. As raw English wool was in such demand in the Low Countries and northern Italy, he filled his coffers with the steep duties foreign merchants were willing to pay. He forbade gold and silver and specie in general from leaving the country (keeping armies fed and equipped in the field was particularly debilitating in that regard) and would not allow pewter craftsmen to take their trade to the continent.
Henry had requested that Venice and Milan send ambassadors in order to discuss his options with respect to joining the Holy League, but in the wake of the French pirates’ assault at Southampton, the Venetians considered it too dangerous to do so. Instead, the doge on February 22, 1496, turned to Piero Contarini and a fellow Venetian merchant in London, Luca Velaresso, who were already working together on the Southampton pirate assault file, to serve as ambassadors-designate in persuading Henry to join the Holy League or agree to some similar new alliance against France.
Still seething over the Southampton assault of October 1495, the Venetians continued to withhold the Southampton service of the Flanders Galleys, giving Henry a profound impetus to please the doge and senate by joining the Holy League. Venice was not the only Italian state to trade with England, but where luxury goods were concerned, it was the dominant player. Without the service of the galleys, England was hard-pressed to secure precious goods that verged on necessities, as many of the items we generally call spices were valued for therapeutic properties. Saffron, for example, in addition to being used in cooking, was considered “a cordial, a pectoral, an anodyne, an aperient, and an antidote to poison and hysterics.” England’s apothecaries, kitchens, and artisans were being starved of precious Venetian commodities, and the country’s exports of wool as well as tin and lead were seriously compromised as the haul-back service of the galleys was lost. And a king who could not ensure that his nobles (on whose capacity to raise armies and suppress domestic unrest he so depended) were provided with the essential spices, therapeutics, and fineries for their estates and families and mistresses and assorted hangers-on was a king who could not expect to rule profitably, if at all. Henry needed galleys.
But as diplomacy swirled around the absent galleys and the League of Venice, Henry suddenly found an opportunity to make alternate arrangements for accessing the Orient’s riches, arrangements that would render the Flanders Galleys obsolete and turn England into the new Venice.
HISTORIANS HAVE LONG ASSUMED that Cabot went directly from Spain to Bristol, from which his voyages for England sailed, and then tried to figure out how he got there. The English port city had long trade connections with Spain (and Portugal), so some Iberian vector usually has been proposed. The English merchant community at Seville, and particularly at Sanlúcar de Barrameda, would have provided an exploitable connection. We can add to them the comitres of Triana who traded with England and imagine Cabot hailing the first carrack downbound on the Guadalquivir as he slunk away from Seville in flight or actual banishment. But in addition to the likelihood that Cabot first went to Lisbon, as the Spanish ambassador Pedro de Ayala stated, there is good reason to believe he then went to London rather than Bristol, if not solely as an Indies voyage promoter then partly as a merchant.
In a 1534 senate report by the Venetian ambassador to Spain, Marcantonio Contarini, Cabot’s son Sebastian was described as the “son of a Venetian, who went to England on the Venetian galleys with the idea of searching for new lands.” The Venetian chronicler Ramusio in 1550 would further assert that a “Mantuan gentleman” who had met Sebastian in Spain had been told that John Cabot, “having left Venice many years ago and having gone to England to trade, he took [Sebastian] with him to the city of London.”
If Cabot truly arrived in England on the Flanders Galleys, he must have been aboard the Bragadina, the lone vessel in the three-ship flotilla to reach England in early 1495 before service was suspended. Such a conveyance was poetically appropriate; it was the attack on the Bragadina in Southampton Water in October 1495 that caused the Venetians to suspend all galley service to England and created the political and economic crisis that would persuade Henry VII to license Cabot to prove an alternate route to the Orient’s riches. To be sure, as a Venetian merchant whose earlier dealings in hides and possibly wool already may have taken him to England in the 1480s, Cabot would have been well informed about the Flanders Galley service and been able to persuade Henry to adopt a plan that could turn an English port, Bristol, into the new Venice of the Asia trade.
There are connections between Cabot and men associated with the 1495 Flanders Galleys and the ensuing crisis. But placing Cabot on the Bragadina is not easy. Piero Bragadin was already in Southampton by January 31, 1495, when he wrote the Venetian senate with news of the disappearance of the flotilla’s other two galleys in a storm in the Bay of Biscay. Although we don’t know when the Bragadina departed Venice, it is a challenge to put Cabot on board at departure if he was still in Seville in late December 1494. Perhaps he had already absconded with his money from Seville before the city council voted to dismiss him from the project and considered the measure of formally expelling him.
The tradition that he arrived in England on the Flanders Galleys may be a slight elision of the truth: that Cabot arrived on a merchant vessel sanctioned by the Venetian senate, but not one of the actual galleys, whose service was suspended after the flotilla disasters of 1494–95. Either the Zorza or the Malipieri, another significant Venetian merchant ship that reached England in the summer of 1495, was a good candidate for Cabot’s conveyance. And if Cabot did appear in Lisbon to seek support for his voyage scheme, as Ayala asserted, he would have been positioned to hitch a ride to England on one of the Venetian merchant ships, the Bragadina included, that sometimes called there en route.
A Venetian was one of the few foreigners who could hope to initiate a westward voyage pitch to Henry VII by the winter of 1495–96 because of the myriad diplomatic complications. No subject of Spain or Portugal could do so without treasonously advocating a breach of the Treaty of Tordesillas. For a subject of Maximilian (or his son Philip) like Behaim, the initiative remained out of the question. Relations between Maximilian and Henry were even worse in 1495, when Cabot made his way to England, than they had been when Behaim was waylaid there for three months in early 1494. In January 1495, Henry VII had renewed the ban on Flemish merchants in England and trade to the Burgundian Netherlands. In April, Maximilian belatedly retaliated by closing the Low Countries of Burgundy altogether to English merchants, specifically banning the importation and sale of English wool.
A connection made by Cabot in Lisbon to Behaim and his father-in-law, Huerter, could explain how Cabot ended up in London as a merchant, as neither Sebastian Cabot nor the chronicler Ramusio indicated what Cabot was trading in and, more important, whom he would have been trading for as an agent when he went there. In the face of the countervailing embargoes that had eliminated official trade between England and the Burgundian Netherlands, Huerter and Behaim would have welcomed the services of a commission agent with experience in English wool (as Cabot’s debts to Venetians Tommaso Mocenigo and Nicolò Cappello have suggested) who enjoyed the protection and privileges of Venetian citizenship in the English capital.
And Maximilian’s support of the pretender Perkin Warbeck only hardened over the summer of 1495. On July 11, Maximilian confided to two Venetian ambassadors that he had gone to great expense to support Warbeck, whom he insisted on calling the Duke of York or the “new king of England,” and that an invasion was under way. Maximilian didn’t yet know that Warbeck’s amphibious assault on July 3 had been a catastrophe. Of perhaps 1,000 men, only 600 came ashore in Kent. About 170 men were captured; all were executed, most of them hanged in coastal ports. Already in January 1495, Henry had beheaded an assortment of English nobles found guilty of supporting the Warbeck cause. The invasion leaders, who included a Spaniard and a Frenchmen, had a brutal fate specially reserved for them, with their severed heads put on display on London Bridge. Warbeck, who never even got ashore, stole away to Scotland, to plot anew with his supporters, with Maximilian’s approval. James IV of Scotland was so persuaded of Warbeck’s authenticity that he arranged for the ersatz Duke of York to marry his cousin, Lady Catherine Gordon, that November.
There was no end in sight to this intrigue, unless Spain, which had already refused to give sanctuary to Warbeck, could engineer a diplomatic solution. That solution rested in the way Fernando and Isabel continued to strategically deploy their children to forge dynastic alliances. One of the most crucial matches was a double wedding arranged in 1495 between Maximilian’s house of Hapsburg and the coregents of Spain. Maximilian’s son and successor Philip, Archduke of Burgundy, would wed Fernando and Isabel’s daughter Joana; Maximilian’s daughter Margaret, shunned by Charles VIII, would wed Fernando and Isabel’s son and successor, Juan. The dual marriages would bind together the Holy Roman Empire and the united Spain.
Fernando and Isabel were also able to unite the ruling houses of Spain and Portugal by persuading their daughter Isabel to accept another Portuguese marriage after the death of her husband, the crown prince Afonso, in 1491. Isabel agreed to wed Afonso’s uncle, Manoel, who had assumed the Portuguese throne on the death of João II in October 1495, on the condition that Portugal follow the example of Spain and expel the Jews who refused to convert to Christianity. Manoel obligingly introduced the crackdown in December 1496, and the couple was wed in October 1497.
At the same time, Henry VII very much wanted to revive the marriage plans for his son, Arthur, and Fernando and Isabel’s daughter, Catherine of Aragon, that had been promised by the Treaty of Medina del Campo in 1489. In attempting to renew the treaty in March 1493, Henry had been hoping to address the uncomfortable fact that in the Treaty of Barcelona two months earlier, in order to get back Roussillon and Cerdagne, Fernando and Isabel had promised Charles VIII to go to war against England if France required support to that end. But Spain no longer seemed to have much use for Henry’s friendship. The wedding between Arthur and Catherine was effectively off.
Then Charles VIII had invaded Italy, which changed everything, although it should not have. By the Treaty of Barcelona, Fernando and Isabel had agreed not to interfere in any French military adventure into Italy, but treaties at this time were being shredded into a snowstorm of legal confetti as parties maneuvered for fresh advantages. The Spanish monarchs decided it was in their interest to suppress Charles VIII’s adventurism and turned on him by joining the Holy League. Now they needed Henry, as much to secure England as an ally as to not have England become an enemy allied with France.
The Spanish monarchs understood that the promise of a renewed marriage agreement for Arthur and Catherine gave them tremendous diplomatic leverage with Henry. They also needed the enmity between Henry and Maximilian to end, in order to unite them all within the Holy League against France, with which Spain was now heading toward war. For that to happen, the Hapsburgs had to stop supporting the pretender Warbeck.
What this all meant for the cause of westward exploration was that European geopolitics were precariously, fantastically unstable with Warbeck still in play, and England remained a hostile territory for any German or Burgundian hoping to secure a royal favor well into 1496. A Venetian, however—especially one who could also access the resources of Italian financiers in London—had a legitimate chance of persuading Henry to mount a westward voyage in northern waters to reach the Indies, especially now that the Flanders Galleys were no longer servicing England with the Orient’s riches.
That John Cabot—a man who had left behind a trail of prominent creditors in Venice, had no oceanic résumé to speak of, could not fulfill a promise to build a bridge at Seville across the Guadalquivir, and in the process had angered some of the most powerful nobles in Spain—became the focal point of such an ambitious English royal gambit is one of the true oddities of the Renaissance. Cabot needed every ounce of help he could muster to position himself for the extraordinary privilege he was able to secure through the letters patent from Henry. The London branch operations of Italian financiers, prepared to gamble on the possibility of opening a new route to Asia that might bring healthy returns instead of the losses and discouragements of the Columbus scheme, may have been part of Cabot’s proposal to Henry from the beginning, or at least soon after the patent was in hand. And the very conception of the scheme, it should be clear by now, appears to have originated elsewhere.
Behaim may have been something akin to a silent partner; Cabot was the one who would front the plan to the English court. Behaim had the voyage concept and the cartographic details—much as he appeared to in the Dulmo-Estreito plan of 1486–87—but until Henry VII was brought into the Holy League as an ally of Maximilian, Behaim had the extreme liability of hailing from Maximilian’s realm. Cabot, in his involvement with the Seville project and his possible experience on the second Columbus voyage as an engineer tasked to La Isabella, would have had some idea of the state of the Spanish enterprise. Behaim, through Münzer’s impressively thorough fact-finding on his 1494–95 tour of Spain and Portugal, would have been especially well informed and able to share details of the Spanish misadventures that Cabot could use to impress Henry’s court and help the English king see the advantage still to be seized on the Ocean Sea by employing the higher-latitude strategy Portugal’s João II had declined to exploit with Behaim’s assistance.
But when Fernando and Isabel learned of Cabot’s proposal to Henry, the Spanish monarchs saw an altogether different scenario: a meddlesome intrigue hatched by the French.
ON MARCH 28, 1496, Fernando and Isabel dispatched an urgent letter from Tortosa, in southern Catalunya’s province of Tarragona. Entrusted to a ship departing the Basque port of Fuentarrabia on the Bay of Biscay, the letter was a reply to news their ambassador Roderigo de Puebla had sent from London on January 21.
Puebla had been striving to advance Fernando and Isabel’s demands that Henry VII join the Holy League and become an enemy of France in order to revive the proposed marriage of Arthur and Catherine. In a message to Puebla on January 30, 1496, in which Ferdinand and Isabel gave their ambassador the power to negotiate the renewed terms of the marriage, the Spanish monarchs stressed: “[W]hat is wanted is [Henry VII’s] immediate declaration of war with the King of France. For this reason de Puebla must, without delay, procure the marriage, and the alliance between Henry and them, and between Henry and the Archduke [of Burgundy].”
Before that letter arrived, Puebla had sent news of the “one like Colon,” the “one from the Indies” footloose in Henry’s court, promising to undertake a voyage that would succeed in securing the wealth of the Orient, where Columbus, in the service of Fernando and Isabel, thus far had failed.
Puebla’s January 21 message has been lost, but the March 28 reply from his monarchs recounted a long list of pressing diplomatic issues, all of them tied in some way to the effort to bring Henry into the Holy League. Westminster was crowded with diplomats and their intrigues. Individual treaties needed to be completed, one between Henry and Maximilian and another between Henry and Maximilian’s son Philip, Archduke of Burgundy. The English king could then be welcomed into the Holy League. And once the Perkin Warbeck crisis was resolved, the planning for the wedding between Arthur and Catherine could accelerate.
The three marriages involving Spain, England, and the Hapsburgs were at the foundation of Fernando and Isabel’s diplomatic ambitions. It was critical that all the royal households involved be united by treaty, in opposition to France, with Henry’s armies in the field with their own. But so long as the pretender remained at large and was thought capable of mounting another invasion, Fernando and Isabel would never allow Catherine to travel to England and wed Arthur. And any wavering by Henry in particular in the face of overtures from Charles VIII could collapse the entire scheme.
The Spanish monarchs were concerned by news from Puebla that French ambassadors were at Henry’s court, making promises about the pension due him under the 1492 Treaty of Étaples—apparently not all of the semiannual payments had been made. Fernando and Isabel were nonplussed to hear Puebla tell of unkind words spoken by the French ambassadors to Henry about themselves as well as Maximilian, and chided Puebla for not having already forcefully refuted the slanders. “[Puebla] will not keep his word any longer than is convenient to him,” they ordered. “The alliance of England with Spain, the King of the Romans, and the Archduke must be concluded as soon as possible.”
The French efforts to undermine Henry’s confidence in other members of the Holy League brought Fernando and Isabel around to addressing the other matter Puebla had raised: the arrival there of the “one like Colon” who wanted to entice the king of England into “another affair, like that of the Indies.”
THE AMBASSADOR PUEBLA’S lost letter of January 21, 1496, is the earliest known mention of John Cabot’s ambitions to secure the support of a European monarch in challenging Christopher Columbus in proving a profitable new route to the Orient. Fernando and Isabel’s response to it, of March 28, is difficult to understand. In addition to being written in archaic Spanish, it came from the pen of Fernán Alvarez de Toledo-Zapata, a wealthy member of a powerful Toledo family who served as the secretary of state of both Fernando and Isabel for decades. Drafts of communications to diplomats in England were written by Alvarez according to the instructions of the Spanish monarchs, who maintained firm control of their foreign policy. But Alvarez was not a particularly learned man. He was unable to write Latin, which was still the prevalent language of diplomacy.
In addition, one often has to possess privileged knowledge to fully understand what was being discussed in a diplomatic message, and in the case of the March 28, 1496, letter, it doesn’t help that the Puebla letter to which Fernando and Isabel were responding no longer exists. Especially cryptic is the first sentence addressing Cabot’s voyage plan: “With regard to what you say, that the one like Colon went there to get the King of England into another affair, like that of the Indies, without causing any damage to Spain or Portugal, if he helps him as us, the one from the Indies will be quite at liberty.”
Alvarez’s phrasing in the final clause (“if he helps him as us . . .”) is so crude and ambiguous that it is a wonder Puebla even understood the instructions in their original Spanish. Nevertheless, the letter does appear to say that were Henry VII to agree to assist not only Cabot but Fernando and Isabel as well, then Cabot would be free to make the voyage. In other words, Fernando and Isabel would look the other way where their exclusive rights under Tordesillas were concerned if Henry VII gave them what they most fervently desired at that moment: a declaration of war with France in concert with joining the Holy League.
The Spanish monarchs were thoroughly discouraged about Columbus’s Indies venture. Exasperated and humiliated by it, even. Not a maravedi of profit had been generated; the Castilian treasury continued to be drained. The final indignity of Jorge de Sosa’s flotilla disaster in February 1496, in which the Ocean Sea dashed their ambitions to splinters against the Castilian coast, would have been fresh in their minds as they considered the news of Cabot’s pitch to Henry.
Allowing Henry to have his own crack at the money-hemorrhaging Indies game with Cabot would have been a small price to pay to gain the enormous dividend of the English committing to a war with France. Fernando and Isabel nevertheless suspected French chicanery—that Cabot was some kind of fifth-column diversion, with Charles VIII covertly engineering an exploration venture that would spark a diplomatic incident between England and Spain and derail plans to bring Henry into the Holy League.
“Take care that you prevent the King of England from being deceived in this or in anything else of the kind, since wherever they can the French will endeavor to bring this about,” they instructed Puebla. They further advised (in a subtle nod to their ongoing headaches with the Columbus venture) “things of this sort are very uncertain and of such a nature that for the present it is not seemly [for Henry] to conclude an agreement therein; and it is also clear that no arrangement can be concluded in this matter in that country [England] without harm to us or to the King of Portugal.”
Implicitly invoking Inter cetera and Tordesillas, they expected Puebla to make Henry understand that he could not approve Cabot’s venture without infringing on Spain’s (and Portugal’s) rights. By offering to accommodate Henry under Tordesillas in exchange for his declaration of war with France, Puebla would soon find out how serious Henry was about employing Cabot—and if Cabot was anything more than a ruse by Charles VIII to cause trouble between England and Spain.
But by the time Alvarez wrote Fernando and Isabel’s reply to Puebla’s news of Cabot’s presence at court, it was too late for the London ambassador to act on their advice and instructions. Henry VII already had awarded John Cabot and his three sons their letters patent on March 5. The quest to reach the Orient was gaining several new players—not only the Cabots, but Henry VII as well—just as Columbus was preparing to return to Spain for the first time in more than two and a half years to defend his widely discredited performance and to solicit fresh support for his westward explorations.