TWO SHADOWY FIGURES stole through shoreline woods, one behind the other. Animal? Human? The men of the Mathew could not tell, and they may have been too terrified to find out, too indoctrinated in the cannibal tales of the Indies to want to risk confronting strangers. In thirty days of coasting an unknown land, the crew followed their Venetian leader ashore just once. There was none of the imperious swagger normally attributed to explorers: armor gleaming, striding through surf to raise a flag and declare a sovereign’s God-given dominion over the new land as well as its awestruck, gathered natives. A crossbow-shot was as far as these mariners were willing to venture inland in their only sortie ashore, remaining long enough to plant a cross and banners and cast nervous eyes over their surroundings.
They found remnants of a fire and an unstrung bow dyed red. Trees appeared to have been felled, and clearings suggested cultivation, but their anxious glances were only fueling their imaginations. They gathered snares and a needle they thought was for making nets. No one emerged to greet them, let alone inspect them from a canoe, a kayak, or an umiak. The wariness was deep and mutual. Only the running figures, too fleeting to resolve into man or beast, indicated any sign of life.
As far as John Cabot was concerned, he had found the land of the Great Khan. At least, that was what he was going to tell people when he returned.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1497—with Christopher Columbus in Spain negotiating new regulations for Española and trying to mount another voyage and John Cabot wandering an uncharted ocean and gathering the cast-off tools of an unseen and unknown people on a distant shore—Henry VII’s troubles were converging dangerously. The pretender Perkin Warbeck and his Yorkist supporters were planning an assault with Scotland’s James IV. Meanwhile, in the southwest, a rebellion over new tax measures imposed by Henry to pay his military bills ignited a mob uprising of alarming dimension and determination.
Upward of twenty thousand angry rebels were soon marching out of Cornwall on London. So confused was the situation that a royal force that could have blocked their way, under the Earl of Surrey, instead wheeled north to deal with a coincidental Scottish attack in support of Warbeck. The road was left clear to the capital, where the rebels were determined to seize power and clean the treasures out of the Tower of London. A letter received by the senate and doge on July 15 from Venetian merchants in London advised that “the island was in commotion, both owing to these insurrections of the people who were desirous of a change, and because the King of Scotland, who favored the Duke of York, was also molesting the kingdom.”
The Duke of Milan was no less concerned; a critical intelligence source on English events was the Spinola family, which had been involved in English trade since at least 1303, with merchant banking branches in London and Southampton. The family was keen to grease the wheels of diplomacy where profitable relations between England and the Duchy of Milan were concerned, assisting whichever side required their services.
Prominent among the Spinolas was Antonio, a banker and merchant who had joined the Genoese family’s operations in Southampton in 1470. After becoming an English subject in 1475, he branched into diplomacy, serving three successive English kings: Edward IV, Richard III, and now Henry VII. Henry made him surveyor of the royal customs at Southampton in 1489, and he seems to have spent most of his time there, occasionally appearing in London. In 1496, he had been dispatched as Henry’s envoy to the Vatican. Before returning to England, he was empowered while in Genoa as an agent of the Duke of Milan.
Back in London in late June 1497, Spinola gathered from the royal court at Westminster an update on the convergent crises for the duke. The common people of Cornwall had risen in rebellion, he informed Ludovico Sforza, “because of the money which they have to pay to the aid of the king for the war of Scotland, and they came as far as Blatz [Blackheath], but the king routed them near Greenwich.” The battle—remembered as the Battle of Deptford Bridge or the Battle of Blackheath—had occurred on June 17, four miles from the capital, Spinola further explained. As for the situation to the north, Spinola got things roughly correct. The Scots had attacked the English border fortress at Norham on Tweed. But a planned coordinated assault by sea under Perkin Warbeck failed to materialize, and the Scottish siege fizzled. Warbeck was still at large—hiding from Henry’s forces on the Irish Sea, in a barrel in the bilge of a ship.
At Bruges on August 5, Raimundo di Raimundis, the new Milanese ambassador who was en route to England with the new Venetian ambassador, Andrea Trevisan, wrote the Duke of Milan with news gathered on the fly from London: “[W]e learn that his Majesty is 50 miles beyond London towards Scotland, to prevent the White Rose [Warbeck] from taking root, and I gather that our coming is desired by his Majesty. Those affairs are in great travail.” The following day, local tradition would hold that John Cabot and the Mathewreappeared in Bristol.
Henry VII was bracing for an altogether different arrival by sea. The king had been sequestered since July 28 at his manor at Woodstock, outside Oxford, about sixty miles from Bristol and fifty miles from London. Intelligence received from Waterford in Ireland on August 5 indicated that Perkin Warbeck had found refuge in Cork on July 25 and was expected to land an invasion force in Cornwall. Henry replied promptly on August 6, at the very time Cabot was reaching Bristol, thanking the mayor and citizens of Waterford for their diligence and proposing that they dispatch ships to capture the pretender.
Cabot was at Woodstock a few days later, reporting to Henry on his triumph. No account survives of the meeting, but what Cabot reported gave Henry some pleasure during one of the darkest periods of his reign. The king’s household books noted for August 10–11 a payment of ten pounds—a modest initial reward—“to hym that found the new Isle.” From there, Cabot was on to London, to spend some of his windfall, doubtless confer with his Florentine bankers and Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis, and boast to the Italian merchant community about his spectacular find and his plans for the next voyage.
Cabot’s voyage had proved to be perfectly timed to avoid the terror and chaos of the simultaneous rebellion and invasion of 1497. The initial plan of the Cornish rebels in fact had been to head for Bristol. Their leader sent word to the mayor, John Drewis, to prepare to feed and lodge two thousand men. Drewis replied that they would not be welcomed. “And then the Maire mustred and made redy to withstond the said rebelles, and garnished the town walles with men harnessed and with gonnes, and brought shippes and botes about the mersshe, garnished with men, artillery, and gonnes. And the said rebelles hereng of this chaunged theire purpose, and toke another wey.”
Cabot headed for a capital that two months earlier had faced down the dangerous mob army that had chosen to march directly on London rather than make an initial appearance at Bristol. Approaching from the far side of the English Channel were the ambassadors from Milan and Venice. Raimundis and Trevisan reached Calais under escort to protect them from thieves on the road on August 8, where there were more delays in their protracted overland journey because of fears over hostile shipping. They did not expect to be able to cross until August 14. In fact, they were not able to sail from Calais to Dover until the twenty-third, due to delays regarding protocol and weather. There was then yet more waiting for the two ambassadors, as an escort of nobles and church figures arrived to welcome them and lead them to London, in a procession that grew to two hundred horses at Canterbury on August 26. The ambassadors would travel the seventy-five miles to the capital first and wait there until Henry was prepared to grant them an audience at Woodstock.
The repeated delays meant that neither Raimundis nor Trevisan—especially the Venetian Trevisan—was able to witness John Cabot’s return from his momentous 1497 voyage.
TREVISAN WROTE TO THE senate a quick summary of what he had learned since arriving at Dover. The king, he reported, was in the field with his army, which wasn’t literally true, although the king’s army itself was certainly in the field. Henry had been at Woodstock, while the queen, as Trevisan correctly understood, was in London. Elizabeth and the two princes, Arthur and Henry, had taken shelter during the strife at the Tower of London.
The Duke of Milan also received two letters sent from England on August 24. Raimundis wrote one of them, at Dover, updating his whereabouts and plans and relating what little he knew about Henry’s movements. The correspondent of the second letter plainly was much better placed than Raimundis to gather the latest court news. The identity of its author has never been settled, but the best candidate is one of the Spinolas. It may have been Antonio Spinola, who had already written a detailed report on the unrest in the kingdom in late June and would continue to be valued as an intelligence source in England by the Duke of Milan. Another candidate was Benedetto Spinola, who made his first appearance in Southampton records as a clerk in the family enterprise in 1458 and also spent time in London. On April 18, 1490, he had been empowered as an envoy to Henry VII by the Duke of Milan when Francesco Paganus ended his brief embassy in London. Still another candidate was Agostino Spinola, who would assume envoy duties in London for the duke in 1498.
The correspondent did his best to glimpse reliable facts amid the fog of rumor and outright panic, especially in London. He first reported that “by God’s grace, the King and the whole court were in good condition” and were at Woodstock, where on July 14 “there had been firmly concluded and published the marriage of the daughter of the King of Spain to the eldest son of the King of England—that she was to come over next spring.” The wedding news, however, proved premature. Perkin Warbeck had not been captured and was still dangerous, and Catherine of Aragon was going nowhere.
Next, he summarized what he knew about Henry’s defeat of an invasion by the King of Scotland and “the individual who styles himself Duke of York.” The correspondent didn’t quite get all the details correct—for one thing, Perkin Warbeck had never put in an appearance—but it was close enough for now.
Next: “[T]hree of the leaders of the Cornwall rebellion had been beheaded and quartered in the city of London on the 28th June, many others being put to death; so that his dominion may be considered much strengthened and perpetual.” That was fairly correct. Two of the Cornish leaders, An Gof and Thomas Flamank, were to be hanged (until not quite dead), then drawn (their entrails pulled out and burned before their blinking eyes) and quartered (chopped to pieces), but Henry demonstrated a particular Tudor sense of mercy by commuting their sentence to a less excruciating execution by hanging, followed by decapitation, on June 27 at Tyburn. On June 28, the third ringleader, Sir James Tuchet, Baron Audley, was led out of Newgate prison to Tower Hill mockingly dressed in a paper suit of armor and there decapitated; all three heads were then displayed on pikes on London Bridge and were waiting to greet Trevisan and Raimundis when they arrived in the city.
And then the writer had this to note, practically as an afterthought: “Also, some months ago his Majesty sent out a Venetian, who is a very good mariner, and has good skill in discovering new islands, and he has returned safe, and has found two very large and fertile new islands. He has also discovered the Seven Cities, 400 leagues from England, on the western passage. This next spring his Majesty means to send him with fifteen or twenty ships.”