Post-classical history


THE 1496 PATENT granted Cabot fabulous privileges, far beyond what Columbus had been able to secure. But as the Dulmo-Estreito venture of 1486–87 had proved, such a royal privilege was worthless unless the bearer actually could get an expedition off the dock. A voyage of even one ship, never mind five, would require money that Cabot himself didn’t have. Given how Italians all but monopolized the banking system that made commerce function across Europe and how their family networks had extended their activities to the Indies enterprise of Columbus and the Canaries conquest of Columbus’s associates, it should be no surprise that Cabot would have turned to a branch operation in London to fund his English voyages.

Without the clever bankers of Genoa and Florence and their innovations, such as bills of exchange, double-entry bookkeeping, and a fiscal sleight of hand that permitted loans to be made without violating the church’s stricture that any sort of interest constituted usury, Renaissance commerce could not exist. London in particular had no bank of deposit and needed exchange bills for international trade to function. It’s not certain whether even a handful of Englishmen in the late fifteenth century understood the banking and accounting systems northern Italian financiers pioneered and dominated. Henry relied on advisors, Genoese and Florentines especially, from the Italian merchant community. Arriving at Henry’s court in September 1497, the Milanese ambassador Raimundo di Raimundis remarked on how well apprised the king was of Italian affairs and how “the merchants, more especially the Florentines, never cease giving the long advices.”

Florentine bankers were vital to business in Europe, England included. Lombard Street, around which the Italian merchant community in London was organized, was named for Florence’s Lombardy region of northern Italy. Florentine galley service to England had all but ceased by the end of the reign of Edward IV in 1483, leaving the Italian trade in precious goods to Venetian galleys and bulk goods largely to Genoese ships, but Florentine merchants were still active in London, moving goods on English vessels. They were sufficiently numerous for their community to be organized under a consul and were powerful enough to engineer a monopoly on English wool exports to Italy through a 1490 treaty, only to see it collapse under Venetian opposition a few years later.

Cabot secured at least some of his voyage financing through two managing partners in a branch operation off Lombard Street of Florence’s House of Bardi, a family firm that had been active in England since the dawn of the fourteenth century. The Bardis had vied with their fellow Florentines the Peruzzis for bragging rights as Europe’s greatest bank until both firms went bankrupt in the 1340s. The Bardis nevertheless carried on as bankers and merchants, and their name was suspiciously evocative of Gianotto Berardi, Columbus’s banker.

Spellings of family names (as Cabot and Columbus well demonstrated) were extremely elastic at the time: Amerigo Vespucci, Berardi’s associate in Seville, was called Bespuche in records relating to his assumption of responsibility for the ill-fated Sosa flotilla of February 1496. No other Berardi merchants or bankers are known, except for the Lorenzo Berardo whom Las Casas said carried Columbus’s letter to Toscanelli to Tuscany, and who was most likely Berardi himself. Nor did the Bardis have a family member representing their business in the economically vital Seville during Berardi’s years there. Francesco Bardi is the only family member to appear in Seville’s notarial records, from 1504 to 1506. Berardi was a factor for the Medici bank in Seville until it collapsed in 1492, but the Bardi and Medici families intermarried, and it would not have been surprising that as a Bardi, Berardi would have tended to Medici business in the Andalusian capital.

If Gianotto Berardi was actually a Bardi, it is possible Cabot had already made connections with the Bardi banking network in Seville in 1494 before arriving in England in 1495. Having struck a flotilla agreement with Fernando and Isabel in early 1495 that may not have had Columbus’s knowledge or approval, Berardi would have been open to the idea of Cabot pursuing a route to Asia to compete with the one claimed by Columbus and so passed him along to the family branch in London. Cabot’s ability to secure Bardi financing could have been a key factor in Behaim and Münzer choosing to work with him.

Berardi certainly had had his fill of Columbus in 1495. In his deathbed will of December 5, he made a point of excoriating the Genoese for the heavy debts he left him bearing and even accused him of bringing on the end of his life. “To serve him,” he declared, “I have . . . wasted my property and that of my friends, and have even sacrificed my own person, for if our Lord should take me from this world with this present sickness, it is the result of the travails and sufferings I have endured for the service of his lordship.”

Cabot otherwise appears to have made his connection with the London House of Bardi through one of the partnership’s clients: the deputy collector of papal revenues in England, the Augustine friar Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis, who also seems to have been Cabot’s champion at Henry’s court. He surfaced as a Milanese envoy in 1489, conveying messages between Henry VII and Ludovico Sforza in association with Benedetto Spinola, one of that well-known Genoese merchant family’s leading members in England. In late 1489, Carbonariis was attached to a mission to England as a “servant,” or aide, to the Milanese ambassador, Francesco Paganus, who had come to England to secure a treaty of friendship. Paganus stayed in England only a few months and was back home by April 18, 1490. Carbonariis remained in England and became the proctor, or deputy, to the collector of papal revenues in England, Antonio Castellesi. When Castellesi left England for Rome in 1494 to serve as Henry’s proctor there, he retained his rights as collector. Carbonariis continued to serve as Castellesi’s proctor and took over the rental of his London house.

Carbonariis was at the height of his ascent in England when Cabot came along, and he was close to the king. Henry granted him a benefice of the rectory of Gosforth parish church in Cumberland on January 9, 1496, right around the time the Spanish ambassador Puebla took notice of Cabot’s lobbying for his letters patent. Although it’s not known how Carbonariis and Cabot met, Carbonariis apparently was advancing Cabot’s scheme at court and could have served as his interpreter. Puebla was said to have cut corners in his domestic expenses by living in the Augustine friary in London, and so the Spanish diplomat must have known well a senior member of the order like Carbonariis.

As the absent Castellesi’s deputy, Carbonariis oversaw the church’s considerable income stream in England, which poured in as tithes and tenths and from various other sources from the faithful and church properties. The wealth of the English church impressed even Italian ambassadors, who marveled at the opulence of its churches and cathedrals. European monasteries traditionally had been a source of funds for merchant bankers, who routinely borrowed the money they loaned out themselves. As Henry forbade specie from leaving England, there would have been a tremendous amount of church revenue sloshing around the kingdom’s economy, where it wasn’t fixed in opulent reliquaries. Whether the funds Cabot was able to borrow to mount his explorations actually came from church revenues isn’t known. Carbonariis could have used his banking connections at the House of Bardi to open doors for Cabot, as other members of London’s Italian merchant community also may have extended support. The Spinolas, for that matter, could have been involved. But the relationship could have flowed in the opposite direction: Cabot using his Berardi/Bardi connection to link up with the influential House of Bardi client Carbonariis once in London.

The funds Cabot initially raised were not considerable. Having secured a letters patent from Henry VII in March 1496 that permitted him to mount a voyage of up to five vessels, Cabot was able to secure only enough money to outfit one in Bristol for that season. Henry could have selected Bristol in the patent negotiations and directed Cabot to organize his voyages there. As the second largest city in England and its major port on the west coast, facing in the direction Cabot proposed to go, Bristol made sense as a base of operations. Southampton was too far up the English Channel—and, as the 1495 Flanders Galleys incident underscored, was vulnerable to French pirates. Bristol thus would serve as Henry’s staple port for the Asia trade.

But Cabot himself may have proposed he operate out of Bristol because mariners there already had some knowledge of a distant shore.

BRISTOL AT THIS TIME was as entitled as Madeira and Puerto de Santa María to dockside tales of storied landfalls over the western horizon. Southern Ireland was a principal area of trade for the port, a source of wool and fish; Bristol merchants also held rights to Irish salmon streams. The tales of the voyage of St. Brendan, the Irish monk whose fabled sixth-century wanderings may have held kernels of truth of distant Atlantic landfalls, possibly as far as the New World, would have been common currency, and St. Brendan’s Isle was a regular feature of fifteenth-century charts.

As well, the Icelandic fishery and trade, and church postings there, would have provided ample opportunities for the English to have heard something of the Norse sagas recounting the discovery around A.D. 1000 of Helluland, Markland, and Vinland, which today are generally thought to represent in turn Baffin Island, the Labrador coast, and a more southerly, verdant land that at the least included Newfoundland. An Englishmen, John Williamson Craxton, was appointed Bishop of Hólar in Iceland in 1425. After first visiting his see in 1427 on a trading voyage, he appears to have lived in Iceland from 1429 to 1435. A learned man who also had extensive dealings with English traders, Craxton was in Iceland at the time the sagas were being written down for posterity. Other Englishmen had secured chiefdoms in Iceland by 1430 and would have been familiar with the stories, both oral and more recently as set down on vellum, of the discoveries made in centuries past to the west of Greenland.

Trade brought to Bristol Icelandic merchants as well as children who were alleged to have been abducted (or even sold by their parents). Early English voyagers to Iceland may have fished off Greenland and traded with its Eastern Settlement, which is thought to have endured to about 1450. Whether any of these English by accident or intent wandered across Davis Strait and the Labrador Sea and saw for themselves the lands promised by the sagas remains fertile ground for debate.

But in the years immediately preceding Cabot’s appearance in Bristol, the main focus of the city’s maritime curiosity was the elusive Brasil, sometimes called O Brasil or Hy Brasil, and not to be confused with the Brazil of South America. The name is generally believed to be Irish in origin, a corruption of the Celtic word bras or bres, meaning among other things “noble” or “happy.” It has been associated with the Island of Delight, or Insula Deliciosa of the tale of St. Brendan. Brasil first appeared in a portolan chart drawn by the Genoese Angelino de Dalorto between 1325 and 1330, and was placed southwest of Ireland around latitude 52°.

“Brasil” proved to be a flexible concept. Its Irish Gaelic origins became confused with brazilwood, which probably originated with an Oriental dyestuff called berzin that the Venetians had introduced to Europe in the late twelfth century. On some maps that followed Dalorto’s there were two different Brasils. The “new” Brasil was placed in the general region of the Madeiras and the Azores, and sometimes was associated specifically with little Terceira, where another dye, a reddish resin called dragon’s blood, was extracted from the leaves and bark of the dragon-tree.

The fifteenth-century Spanish Basque chronicler Lope García de Salazar gave Brasil as the final resting place of King Arthur; his sister Morgain cast a spell on the island that made it almost impossible to find. He asserted the island “is 25 leagues off Cape Longaneas, which is in Ireland.” Salazar’s geography was confused: Le cap de Longaneos was the Basque name for Land’s End in Cornwall. In addition, a distance of only twenty-five leagues hardly inspired visions of a New World discovery.

But Salazar’s offer of corroborating contemporary evidence for Brasil’s existence was noteworthy:

And the English say that that island can be found if the ship can see the island before the island the ship, for a vessel from Bristol [briscol] found it one dawn and, not knowing that it was it, took on there much wood for firewood, which was all of brazil, took it to their owner and, recognizing it, he became very rich. He and others went in search of it and they could not find it. And sometimes ships saw it but due to a storm could not reach it. And it is round and small and flat.

As Salazar died in 1476, his undated account must have been written before then. He simply may have caught wind of an early Bristol landfall on Terceira, which was some eleven hundred nautical miles southwest of Land’s End and equated with Brasil in some mid-fifteenth century portolans. It had not yet been settled in the 1460s or early 1470s and featured a kind of brasilwood (dragon-tree). With its low bluffs of volcanic rock along the north shore, Terceira also agreed with Salazar’s description of the landfall being “round and small and flat.”

Nevertheless, Salazar’s account was testament to a Bristol curiosity in Brasil that was drawing its mariners farther into the Ocean Sea. A Bristol man named William Worcestre, who died in 1481, recounted in an undated manuscript a voyage from Bristol in 1480 in search of the Isle of Brasil involving his brother-in-law, John Jay, Jr., in a ship of eighty tons burden under the master Thomas Lloyd, “the [most] knowledgeable seaman of the whole of England.” The ship had departed on July 15; word was received in Bristol on September 18 that “the said ship had sailed the seas for about nine months but had not found the island.” Rebuffed by storms, the ship had taken refuge in an Irish harbor.

The 1480 voyage of Jay and Lloyd clearly had been a failure. But the quest continued the following year.

On January 20, 1483, a “customer,” or customs collector, in the port of Bristol named Thomas Croft received a pardon in a confusing case in which he had been accused by the crown of illegally landing fish in the port. In 1480, Croft had been one of three men to receive a license from Bristol to trade anywhere with two or three vessels, provided they did not exceed sixty tons. But because Croft was a port customer, he should have been barred from trading at all, which suggests that the license was intended to further exploration.

The crown showed Croft held a one-eighth share in two ships, the Trinity and the George, which had departed Bristol on July 6, 1481, each loaded with forty bushels of salt. The ships were naturally suspected of having embarked on a fishing expedition. Croft was licensed to trade, which was a different sanctioned activity from catching fish in the open sea and bringing them to port.

Croft was able to beat the charge. The salt, the crown agreed, had been aboard “for the reparation and sustenation of the said ships”—to salt down fish caught to feed the crew during the voyage. The salt moreover was not aboard “by cause of merchandise but to the intent to search and find a certain Isle called the Isle of Brasil as in the said Inquisition more plainly it doth appear.”

The records of Thomas Croft’s case did not say if the search for Brasil had yielded results. Croft may have successfully deployed the “looking for Brasil” defense to excuse what truly had been an illicit fishing expedition. Or perhaps he had been involved in a westward voyage in search of new fishing grounds that also happened to include a landfall Bristol sailors called Brasil.

The church’s allowance of fish consumption on fast days, which included every Friday, created a massive demand that had made it worth the while of the English to sail all the way to Iceland to get cod especially. But for decades, English merchants out of Bristol and eastern ports, such as Lynn and Hull, had been embroiled in a vicious dispute over access to Iceland’s bounteous cod. The range of adversaries included native Icelanders and the merchants of the powerful Hanseatic League of northern German cities, who wanted to keep the Icelandic fishery and trade to themselves. The crown of Denmark, which since 1397 had ruled Norway and in turn Iceland, tried to impose a ban on direct trade by the English with Iceland and alternately to enforce a licensing system, with Bergen in Norway serving as the staple town. In 1467, the Danish governor of Iceland was murdered by Englishmen as he tried to uphold regulations.

When Henry VII first visited Bristol in 1486 after wresting the crown from Richard III, he was greeted by a pageant that included an oratory by an actor portraying a legendary king, Bremmius, who by tradition founded Bristol. Through the actor’s speech the local merchants made known their complaints about the decline in local trade: “That Bristol is fallen into Decay.”

The herald’s account of the visit noted that Henry VII took up this theatrical pleading. “After Evensong, the King sent for the Mayor and Sheriff, and Part of the best Burgers of the Town, and demanded them the Cause of their Poverty; and they showed his Grace for the great Loss of Ships and Goods that they had lost within 5 years. The King comforted them, that they should set on and make new Ships, and so exercise their Merchandise as they were wont for to do.”

But the theatrical complaint had nothing to do with the Icelandic fishery, as has been often alleged. The only commerce it mentioned was “Cloth-making,” which referred to the wool Bristol sourced from Ireland, in association with a decline in its merchant fleet, or “Navy.” In 1490, prosperity had returned. A number of streets were “newly paved,” and on a visit that year, Henry levied a 5 percent “benevolence” (essentially a loan he had no intention of paying back) on the “commons” of the thriving port.

The Icelandic fishery may have ceased to be a trade concern for Bristol merchants in 1490, when Henry entered a treaty with Denmark that secured English trade with Iceland and fishing in its waters. English ships were required to obtain a license from the Danish crown that was good for seven years and, when departing Iceland, would have to pay a fairly nominal fee of six shillings, eight pence. But the treaty was compromised when the ratifying Icelandic parliament struck the provision permitting direct trade by English ships. This meant English merchants could not trade at Iceland for “stockfish”—cod dried on land-based racks—but English fishermen were free to exploit the “green” fishery, which involved catching and salting down fish at sea.

Strife over access to this vital fishery might have encouraged Bristol sailors as late as the 1480s to search westward for an alternate grounds, perhaps in association with seeking the fabled Brasil. But because of the access to Iceland’s green fishery secured in the 1490 treaty, there seems to have been little to no economic impetus to find a new fishery for a half dozen years when John Cabot secured his letters patent and mounted his voyages out of Bristol. The idea that Bristol sailors were exploiting a secret fishery discovered across the Ocean Sea also fails to hold water. If anything, men of the city might have found a distant landfall they recalled as Brasil at some point in the past, but by the time of Cabot’s voyage, they had lost track of it.

The fundamental issues of Brasil—of who might have already found it, of where it was thought to be, and especially of what Cabot’s contemporaries and English associates then thought of his discoveries in relation to it—also became the fundamental issues of Cabot’s English voyages. Having come north to prove a route to Cathay, he found himself entangled in a dispute not unlike the one in which Columbus saw his Indies discoveries dismissed as Antilla. And like Columbus, whose discovery claims would be further undermined by hazy stories of prior landfalls, Cabot’s achievement faced concerted questions about its originality. There would be good reason to believe that the lands Cabot saw were not, as he would claim, Cathay and that they had, in fact, been known for decades in the port from which he departed.

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