Evidence of ‘Previously Unknown British Expedition to America’ Discovered by Experts

Evidence of the expedition was hidden deep in huge rolls of parchment and only readable by the use of ultraviolet light.

In 1492, a Spanish-based transatlantic maritime expedition led by Christopher Columbus encountered the Americas, continents which were largely unknown in Europe and outside the Old World political and economic system.

Now, Historians from the University of Bristol have discovered new convincing evidence about the first expedition led by England to North America in 1499.

Evidence of the expedition was hidden deep in huge rolls of parchment and only readable by the use of ultraviolet light.

The rolled-up parchment that holds news of the reward William Weston received from King Henry VII. Image Credit: The National Archives, UK
The rolled-up parchment that holds news of the reward William Weston received from King Henry VII. Image Credit: The National Archives, UK

“First time I read the roll, I almost missed it!” said Margaret Condon, from the University of Bristol-led Cabot Project.

“These rolls are beasts to deal with, but also precious and irreplaceable documents. Handling them, it sometimes feels like you’re wrestling, very gently, with an obstreperous baby elephant!”

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Nine years ago, Evan Jones, from the University’s History Department, published a lost letter from King Henry VII that revealed that William Weston, a Bristol merchant, was preparing an expedition to the “new found land” with the King’s support.

His adventure took place only a year after Christopher Columbus first reached the mainland of South America and two years after the Venetian explorer Juan Caboto, arrived in North America from the Bristol.

The result of Caboto’s final expedition in 1498 is unknown, and it is not clear if any of the ships returned.

That may explain King Henry VII’s willingness to send another expedition the following year, led by one of Caboto’s officers, in this case, William Weston.

A four-meter-long scroll stretched out on a table at The National Archives in the United Kingdom. Image Credit: The National Archives, UK
A four-meter-long scroll stretched out on a table at The National Archives in the United Kingdom. Image Credit: The National Archives, UK

Dr. Evan Jones, along with Margaret Condon discovered that Weston received a reward of 30 pounds from the King in 1500 as a contribution to the merchant’s expenses for his exploration of the “nova terra” (the new land).

The reward was equivalent to a payment of approximately six years for a common laborer, suggesting that the king was satisfied with the result of the expedition.

Dr. Jones said: “Finding this new evidence is wonderful! What’s amazing about these early Bristol voyages is how little we’ve ever known about them.”

“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 discovery was made possible thanks to the meticulous detective work of Margaret Condon, who tracked official fiscal registers. Each one takes the form of a huge roll of parchment, made from the skin of more than two hundred sheep.

Each ‘membrane’ in this roll is two meters long, while the note itself was so faint it is only legible under ultra violet light.

The new study was published online Oct. 2 in the journal Historical Research.

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New evidence discovered regarding first English voyage to America
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William Weston: early voyager to the New World*
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