1499 – William Weston, First Englishman to Explore New England Coastline

Before Francesco de Bobadilla shipped the demoted Columbus back to Castile, King Henry VII of England began searching for the missing Venetian. He needed mariners who were familiar with the North Atlantic. Apparently William Weston had that experience – historians do not know exactly why. Two bits of evidence connect him to Cabot’s second expedition:

  1. his association with the Bristol merchant John Esterfeld
  2. King Henry VII’s household ledger for January, 1498, that stated that King Henry paid William Weston “40 shillings” during the same week he paid John Cabot “66 shillings, 8 pence.” Those payments were made when both Weston and Cabot were in London. The two men could easily have communicated with each other. They could have been working together. At the least, the proximity of the payments written in the ledger book implies that the king paid both Cabot and Weston for something having to do with the 1497 voyage. It seems from historian Dr. Alwyn Ruddock’s book outline that she found evidence that Weston’s experience went farther than that. She hinted he had sailed as far northwest as today’s Hudson Strait.

We know King Henry considered hiring William Weston to continue Cabot’s search for Quinsay from a letter the king wrote on March 12, 1499, to his Lord Chamberlain, John Morton.(1) The letter instructed the Lord Chamberlain to suspend a legal action by John Esterfeld, who was suing William Weston [details in a minute]. Henry wanted to free up Weston so he, Weston, could “shortly, with God’s grace, pass and sail for to search and find, if he can, the new found land.” [This was probably the first time the term “NewFoundLand” was used for the island.]

There are no records of Weston’s expedition. However, Dr. Ruddock’s outline notes that on Michaelmas [late September] of the year 1500, King Henry awarded William Weston a significant sum of money. The payment implied that Weston completed his voyage the year before, did an excellent job, and was paid handsomely for it.

It is possible that the tiny English flag markers on Juan de la Cosa’s world map of 1500 mark Weston’s claims. The flags appear along the shores of today’s New England where De la Cosa has written “Mar descubierta por inglese” [Sea discovered by the English]. Even though some of the flags are blue and some red, historians say they are all English. Hugh Say wrote that John Cabot “landed at only one spot of the mainland, near the place where land was first sighted, and they disembarked there.” In other words, John Cabot staked only one claim for England in 1497. Do the additional flags signify that John Cabot returned? Or do they reflect claims made by William Weston or others in 1499. And if Weston did not make the claims, who did? If it was Weston, he was the first Englishman to explore America.


Juan de la Cosa, Detail of World Map with five English flags, Spain, dated 1500.(2)

The Cabot Project(3) researches are working hard to find Dr. Ruddock’s sources for the above scenario. What they have found so far is that William Weston was a “minor” merchant of Bristol. Shipping records from 1480 state that he took part in an early English trading venture to the Portuguese island of Madeira. Perhaps the English wanted to trade for Madeiran sugar.

In 1488, Weston was involved in a major maritime accident. He served as the attorney for a prominent Bristol merchant named John Foster. Foster was the founder of Foster’s Almshouses [charitable residences for poor people]. As the attorney, Weston was responsible for managing Foster’s ship, the Anthony of Bristol of 380 tons burden. She was the pride of Bristol’s fleet. That February, in the middle of winter, as the Anthony returned from a long voyage and sailed up the Kingroad toward the Severn, she sank. Bristol’s merchants blamed the master of the ship. The master may or may not have been William Weston. All we know is that the event led to a long legal battle about the wreck. But that was not the suit King Henry tried to stop in 1499.

John Foster got along with William Weston well enough to allow him to marry his daughter Agnes some time before Foster’s death in 1492. However, Foster left nothing to Weston in his will, and little to Agnes. The will stated that if Agnes died before William, “her inherited property would go to the Almshouse.”

In 1493, Weston bought property with John Esterfeld, who was also the executor of John Foster’s will. By that time, William Weston and his wife, Agnes, were living in her father’s former house on Corn Street in Bristol, on the condition that they honor some financial stipulations. When William and Agnes fell short of paying their quit-rent payments, Esterfeld barred them from the house. He insisted that William and Agnes were not maintaining it according to Foster’s will.

King Henry had stepped in just in time to prevent William and Agnes from being tossed into the street.

Notes

  1. This letter was only recently uncovered by Dr. Evan T. Jones and published in 2011. Archivist Margaret Condon first uncovered the old letter thirty years ago. It was miss-cataloged in what is now The British National Archives. Ms. Condon told Professor David Beers Quinn about the letter in 1981. Professor Quinn filed the letter away to be studied later. He was waiting for Dr. Ruddock to publish her book on the explorer John Cabot, so he could see how the letter fit in with Cabot’s story. Then Dr. Quinn died in 2002, and Dr. Ruddock died in 2005. Professor Jones followed clues left in the outline Dr. Ruddock had sent to her publisher, Exeter Press, to find it again. Not only did this letter unveil that an Englishman sailed to America as early as 1499, but it revealed that Henry VII was possibly the first to use the term “Newfoundland.” The closest term used before that had been “new isle.”
  2. De la Cosa, Juan. World Map. Spain, 1500. {{PD-Old}} Public Domain. Obtained from wikimedia. Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/
    File:1500_map_by_Juan_de_la_Cosa.jpg
    Currently housed in the Museo Naval in Madrid. According to Niall Kilkenny, this map, along with a portion of the vast secret archives, was taken from the Vatican in 1810 when Napoleon invaded Rome. Napleon transferred the archives to Paris for a world library he planned to build. Not all the documents were taken back to Rome after his defeat. This priceless map was left behind and ended up in a Paris bookshop. The original piece of ox-hide parchment measures 37.5 x 72 inches (96 X 183 cm). It is illustrated in ink and water colors. The map was discovered in 1832 in a shop in Paris by Baron Walckenaer, a bibliophile and the Dutch Ambassador. He brought it to the attention of the Alexander Humboldt, a famous German scholar, who told the world about it. Upon the death of Baron Walckenaer in 1853 the map was purchased by the Queen of Spain. Though greatly deteriorated, it is the chief treasure of the Museo Naval in Madrid. (Ambrosini, The Secret Archives of the Vatican, p. 291).

Sources

  1. The Cabot Project: Bristol University, headed by Professor Evan T. Jones. Web source: http://www.bristolpost.co.uk/John-Cabot-Bristol-s-explorer/story-11239202-detail/story.html
  2. Wikipedia article submitted, most likely, by the Cabot Project. Web source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Weston_%28explorer%29
  3. “John Cabot Was Not Bristol’s Only Explorer,” from This is Bristol, online article in the Bristol Post, posted: August 28, 2009. Web source: http://www.bristolpost.co.uk/John-Cabot-Bristol-s-explorer/story-11239202-detail/story.html
  4. Douglas Hunter’s book The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost history of Discovery, Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY 100

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