The Nuremberg Connection

The kings and queen of Castile, Aragon, Portugal, and England kept the details of their explorers’ discoveries so secret from each other that today there are few official records to tell us exactly what they were up to. One of the mysteries is how John Cabot acquired the experience and materials needed to convince King Henry VII of England to grant him a patent to claim lands west of the Ocean Sea. Cabot did not have the shipping experience that Columbus had. He did not have family connections, such as brothers-in-law who lived in the Azores and were familiar with the North Atlantic. He was not a cartographer, nor did he have access to Portugal’s cartography studio.

The most logical theory historians have come up with so far was developed by author Douglas Hunter(1) with the help of Dr. Alwyn Ruddock and Dr. Evan T. Jones. All three historians have spent much of their lives researching John Cabot. Hunter believes that in 1494, after Cabot arrived in Seville, he connected with Jerome Muenzer of Nuremberg, Bavaria, who in turn connected Cabot with Martin Behaim of Nuremberg. Both scientists, world travelers, and scholars did have the required knowledge, connections, and experience.

We introduced Martin Behaim when he interviewed Diogo Gomez in Portugal in the early 1480s. We’ve already told you that Behaim claimed he was a student of the Bavarian mathematician and astronomer Regiomontanus, and that in 1484, Behaim participated with King João II’s Junta Matemático on the “sun-sight problem,” for which he carried out experiments with Diogo Cão at the Equator in 1485. The experiments were based on Ptolemy’s instructions to determine longitude by measuring the position of the sun in various places. And we have already noted that based on the results of those experiments, Behaim made improvements to the astrolabe that would help Portuguese explorers navigate on the open sea when out of site of Polaris

On September 17, 1485, King João II dubbed Martin Behaim a Knight of the Order of Christ(2), probably for his scientific contributions. Henceforth, the explorer and cosmographer was referred to as Lord Behaim. It was probably Lord Behaim who, on March 1, 1487, was listed as the “German Knight” on a patent with Fernão D’Ulmo of Terceira and Afonso de Estrieto of Madeira to explore the Northern Atlantic for the mainland in the west. But Martin Behaim is most famous for the globe, Erdapfel, he created in 1492.

Behaim was born in Nuremberg in 1459 – that means he was nine years younger than Cabot and Columbus. Martin’s father, also named Martin, was a successful textile merchant and served the city of Nuremberg as a councilor. The father’s business dealings took him frequently to Flanders and Venice. A couple of years after the father died, in 1474, the family business sent young Martin to Flanders. By 1479, he lived in Antwerp, and, as we know, he was in Portugal by the early 1480s.

Spanish chronicler Antonio Herrera y Tordesillas (1559-1625) wrote that Martin Behaim and Christopher Columbus knew each other. There are many reasons they would have. Behaim worked with King João at the same time Bartolomé Columbus worked in Portugal’s royal cartography studio. It was probably in that studio that Behaim obtained the experience he later needed to build his globe. Both Christopher and Martin were well versed on Paolo Toscanelli. They would both pursue western explorations based on Toscanelli’s advice. In 1487, Martin Behaim, as the German Knight, applied for the patent with Fernão D’Ulmo of Terceira and Afonso de Estrieto of Madeira to sail west across the North Atlantic.

Between 1486 [before the patent] and 1489 [after the patent],Martin Behaim married Joanna, the daughter of Jos d’Utra [known in Flanders as Joss van Huerter]. D’Utra was a wealthy Flemish nobleman who had been granted the captaincies of Faial and Pico Islands. Faial and Pico are part of the same middle cluster of the Azores Archipelago as Terceira Island.

Jos D’Utra’s home country of Flanders [today’s Belgium] had become part of the Duchy of Burgundy in 1477, governed by the Duke of Burgundy and Holy Roman Emperor, Maximillian I. Jos d’Utra must have been a Knight of the Order of Christ. In 1466, Henry the Navigator’s heir, Fernando of Viseu, granted him the property on Faial Island. Two years later, in 1468, Fernando awarded d’Utra the captaincy of Faial Island. As you will recall, in 1470, Fernando died and his widow, Beatrice of Portugal, governed the Azores in the name of their son Diogo of Viseu [then age twelve]. In 1482, Beatrice awarded Jos d’Utra the captaincy of Pico Island.

Jos D’Utra was an influential man and well entrenched in Portugal’s royal court. Besides his home on Faial, he spent a lot of time at his impressive manor in Lisbon that was part of King João II’s royal estate. It is not clear if D’Utra’s daughter Joanna lived in her father’s mansion in Lisbon, on Faial Island, or on Pico Island. Behaim may have met Jos D’Utra in Burgundy when he was living in Antwerp in 1479 and then followed him to Lisbon. Perhaps Jos D’Utra helped Behaim obtain his position in King Afonso V’s court.

Martin Behaim’s marital connection to Jos D’Utra either gave him a connection to the Azores or indicated that he already had one. The connection is another clue that Behaim was the German Knight listed in the 1487 patent. The marriage also connects Martin Behaim to João vas Corte-Real because Corte-Real’s daughter, Izabel Corte-Real, married Martin Behaim’s wife’s brother, Joz D’Utra the Younger.

Put more simply, the captaincies of Terceira, Faial, São Jorge, and Pico Islands were connected through marriage. Joz D’Utra, Joanna D’Utra, and Isabel Corte-Real were born on the islands – Isabel on Terceira, and Joz and Joanna on Faial.

[By the way, Christopher Columbus was connected, through his wife Felipa, to the capitão of the most northern island in the cluster, Graciosa, Pedro Correia da Cunha. Da Cunha was married to Felipe’s half-sister, Ineu Perestrello.(4) Da Cunha and João vas Corte-Real’s oldest son VasqueAnes Corte-Real would have known each other in the royal court in Lisbon. Da Cunha worked for King João II as one of his twenty-five bodyguards, and VasqueAnes served as a courtier. But if Christopher Columbus was estranged from his wife and from the Portuguese, he probably did not take advantage of this connection to his brother-in-law.]

John Cabot of Venice had none of these connections whatsoever.

In 1489, Martin Behaim’s mother passed away, so he returned to Nuremberg to take care of his family’s estate. Even though Behaim left Joanna and their son, Martin III, in Faial [or maybe Lisbon], Behaim stayed in Nuremberg for two to three years.

We know that in 1492, he constructed Erdapfel. During the first part of 1493, he helped a friend of his named Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514)(5) finish a beautifully illustrated history of the world titled the Nuremberg Chronicles [Liber Chronicarum], which was published in July of that year. In our article on Judaism, we showed you this image of the Destruction of Jerusalem from that book.

The destruction of Solomon's temple by the Babylonians, Nuremberg Chronicle, Illustrated by Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, Nuremberg, Germany, 1493.(6)

The Chronicles included an account [probably submitted to Schedel by Martin Behaim] of Behaim’s excursion with Diogo Cão to the Equator in 1485 to carry out the sun-sight experiments. The Chronicles also included information submitted by the man who will become Behaim’s accomplice in contacting John Cabot, Jerome Muenzer.

Jerome Muenzer(7) (1437/47-1508), also from Nuremberg, worked for Maximillian I, who held two important positions. Maximillian became the Holy Roman Emperor when his father died, and he became the Duke of Burgundy when he married Mary of Burgundy(8). Nuremberg [written Nürnberg in German] was considered the intellectual, power center of the Holy Roman Empire. [Ironically, it will become a center of the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500s after Martin Luther launches the movement in 1514.]

Muenzer [written Münzer in German] was either twelve or twenty-two years older than Martin Behaim (1459-1507). Records indicate his birth to be 1437 or 1447. [Either records differ or they are hand written and difficult to decipher.] Muenzer was closer in age to Cabot and Columbus. He may have been more of a mentor to Behaim than a friend.

On July 14, 1493, four months after Christopher Columbus returned to Spain from his first voyage, Jerome Muenzer, as the representative of Maximilian I, wrote a letter to King João II of Portugal. In that letter, Muenzer asked King João to accept an audience with Martin Behaim. Behaim wanted to pitch a westward expedition across the North Atlantic to Cathay.

As we know, this was Behaim’s second attempt to lead an expedition across northern waters. The 1487 attempt was aborted when João vas Corte-Real superseded Fernão D’Ulmo as the capitão of Terceira and chief explorer.

Douglas Hunter pointed out that Muenzer made no mention of Christopher Columbus in his letter. It was as if Muenzer and Behaim did not know Columbus had already crossed the Ocean Sea and returned. Muenzer’s description of Behaim’s proposal differed from Columbus’ expedition. Behaim’s destination was Cathay, or northern China. Columbus’ destination had been the Indies. Behaim suggested launching his voyage from the Portuguese-owned Azores, which were, according to his globe, near the latitude of Quinsay [Marco Polo’s favorite trading port in Cathay, China]. Christopher Columbus had launched his voyage from the Spanish-owned Canary Islands.

Both explorers expected to stop at Cipangu along the way. Muenzer and Behaim must not have learned that Columbus had not yet found Cipangu.

Muenzer wrote to King João about the competent sea captains in the Azores. He did not specifically name the pilot of Lord Behaim’s fleet. But, Behaim’s friends and relatives were likely candidates. Terceira’s João vas Corte-Real had two grown sons, Gaspar or Michael, who had probably sailed with the expedition that in 1472 or 1474 came upon Terra de Bacalhoa. Gaspar and Michael would have been about eleven and fifteen years old at the time. Michael Corte-Real was two years older than John Cabot. Gaspar was the same age. Both men knew the northern waters of the Atlantic very well.

Their older brother VasqueAnes(9) still lived in Portugal. VasqueAnes’ would live to be ninety years old and inherit the captaincy of Angra when his father died in 1496(10). But records do not indicate he ever visited the islands, let alone live there. His position as a courtier to King João II in Lisbon, allowed him to lobby for his brothers, Gaspar and Michael, for his father, João, and for the two men from Nuremberg, Martin Behaim and Jerome Muenzer. Behaim would have known other captains familiar with the northern waters through his father-in-law’s connections on Faial and Pico Islands.

Historians calculate that Behaim made his pitch to King João in the autumn of 1493. The record stated that he “made a globe for the king” to illustrate how a route across the North Atlantic was shorter than a route along the equator. The record does not reveal if Behaim had his full-sized Erdapfel with him or a mini version. Unfortunately, Behaim made the same mistake Columbus did. He thought the earth was smaller than it is, and that there was much less sea to cross between the Azores and Cathay than there is – even without the still-unknown American continents. Muenzer wrote to King João that Behaim thought he could accomplish his voyage “in less than a week.”

Behaim and Muenzer’s efforts were for naught. By the time Behaim reached Portugal, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had pronounced Columbus Admiral of the Ocean Sea and were in the middle of negotiations with King João that would result in the Treaty of Tordesillas. King João was preoccupied with looking for Prester John in Abyssinia. He was also diverted by his campaign to prevent his cousin Manoel, Duke of Viseu from succeeding him as king.

Since the King of Portugal would not sponsor Behaim, he and Muenzer needed to find another monarch who would. How about King Henry VII of England? England was not tangled in the Treaty of Alcáçovas-Toledo.

Behaim wrote a letter to his brother stating that at the end of that year, Maximilian I sent him to Bruges in the Burgundian Netherlands to meet up with Maximilian’s son, Philip. Philip was slated to become the Archduke of Burgundy when he turned sixteen in July of 1494. On his way to Flanders, an English ship captured Behaim and accused him of piracy before “transferring him to England.” [Douglas Hunter suspects Behaim was purposefully trying to reach England to pitch his plan to King Henry VII.] Behaim remained a captive for three months “with all my servants and money for provisions that easily came to 160 Gulden [Dutch German gold coins].”

The English accused Martin Behaim of piracy and treason because they thought he was Burgundian. For the past three years, all Burgundians had been considered traitors or spies – especially Burgundians related to the Duke of Burgundy, Maximilian I, whose mother-in-law was Margaret of Burgundy.

Three years earlier, in 1490, Margaret of Burgundy pronounced that she had found her lost nephew, Richard, Duke of York. Richard was one of two princes – Edward V [age twelve] and Richard, Duke of York [age nine] – who England’s King Richard III had locked up in the Tower of London a decade earlier, in May of 1483. Richard III had pronounced the two princes to be illegitimate heirs to the throne so that he could take the throne himself. The boys mysteriously disappeared. Their bodies were never found. Most people thought Richard III had them secretly executed. But rumors circulated that the prison guard had let little Richard of York escape.

Henry VII would spend his life fearing pretenders, which meant that even he was not certain the boys had been killed. Henry had only won England’s throne for the House of Tudor by killing Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth five years earlier, in 1485. Henry VII married the sister of the princes, Elizabeth, then had the missing boys pronounced legitimate so that Elizabeth could rightfully take the throne with Henry VII as her king consort. One of the reasons Henry was so anxious to have Arthur [his oldest son and the heir-apparent] wed Ferdinand and Isabella’s youngest daughter, Catherine of Aragon, was to drive another bolt in his family’s throne to the palace floor. But it would not do if the real Richard of York was alive and came forward, since Henry himself had declared him a legitimate heir to the throne.

Just as Martin Behaim was leaving for Flanders in 1493, Maximilian I invited the Pretender [who would later state his name was Perkin Warbeck, and who had been living under the protection of Margaret of Burgundy] to his father Frederick III’s funeral, recognizing Warbeck as Richard IV, the true king of England. That was a painful slap in the face to King Henry VII of England.

At Frederick III’s death, Maximilian became the Holy Roman Emperor(12). His recognition of the Pretender as the true king revealed that he did not honor Henry VII as King of England. Henry was really angry – as you might expect. To spite Maximillian, Henry cut off shipments of wool [England’s most valuable product] to Burgundy and relocated the wool market from Antwerp to Calais, which was still an English stronghold on the French Coast [the yellow portion on the map below].

King Henry then deported all Flemish merchants from England and seized their properties. This action prevented trade between England and Flanders for the next two years. It would also give King Henry a reason to accept John Cabot’s offer to find a new shipping lane to China.

Martin Behaim wrote in his letter to his brother that he had managed to escape from the English soldiers, only to get abducted by French pirates. He had to pay a substantial sum for his own ransom [or possibly he had to pay the French to help him escape]. He finally reached Bruges in August of 1494.

After a very short stay in Flanders, Martin Behaim returned to Lisbon and stayed for several months with his father-in-law Jos D’Utra. He would have told his father-in-law about any plans he might have had for contacting Henry VII. His letter stated that he planned to visit Genoa next [maybe to seek financing for an expedition], return to Lisbon, and then sail to Madeira, and from there continue to Terceira, where the Corte-Reals lived, not Faial or Pico, where his in-laws lived. [An inscription on his globe Erdapfel, written in 1493, stated that he planned to retire in the Azores.]

Behaim ended his letter to his brother, which he wrote on March 11, 1494, but did not post until he reached Lisbon months later, “Doctor Jerome [Muenzer] will not fail to give you my news.”

No one knows what happened after that? Martin Behaim’s letter to his brother is the last known document we have about him until his death certificate announced that he died a pauper in Lisbon in 1506 at the age of forty-seven. We are left to wonder what Jerome Muenzer planned to tell Behaim’s brother. We are not told why Behaim died a poor man even though he had received a substantial inheritance from his mother.

Once again, Douglas Hunter has a theory. He suggests that when Behaim returned from Flanders, he hooked up with Jerome Muenzer, who had developed a new scheme.

During the year 1494, while Behaim was in England and Flanders, Jerome Muenzer and three companions, also from Nuremberg, traveled by foot and horseback through Europe as emissaries of Maximilian Ilike on a good will tour. We know about Muenzer’s activities because he left a journal(13) about the road trip. As mentioned, Muenzer met with the Catholic Monarchs in Barcelona. He met with Father Buyl, who had had the horrible experience with Christopher Columbus in Española. He dined with King João IIfour times at the king’s palace in Évora, eighty-three miles(14) west of Lisbon and spoke of “war, of navigation, or other sciences.”(15) And he traveled to Lisbon, where he stayed at the home of Martin Behaim’s father-in-law Jos d’Utra. We do not know if the visit was after Behaim had been there, before, or at the same time. Muenzer most likely discussed Behaim’s dream of launching a western voyage from the Azores with Behaim’s father-in-law.

According to Douglas Hunter, while Muenzer traveled as Maximillian’s emissary, he collected information about what Columbus was doing wrong and what Martin Behaim could do right. When it appeared that Behaim could not make the voyage for political reasons, Muenzer searched for someone who could take Behaim’s place. Traveling through Seville for a second time, Muenzer connected with Johan Cabato.

Cabato had just returned from Española [assuming he went there with Columbus] and was trying to negotiate his contract with King Ferdinand to build the stone bridge across the Rio Guadalquiver. Columbus was still sailing around the West Indies, surveying land to claim for Spain and searching for gold. Cabato was ambitious and good at talking his way into things. He could sail for Henry VII without being considered a traitor to his own country. All Cabato needed was help from Martin Behaim and Jerome Muenzer. Jerome Muenzer could instruct him on how to proceed. Martin Behaim could provide a globe, invest his fortune in Cabot’s expedition, and accompany the newly-made explorer on the voyage that should have made Martin Behaim’s dream come true.


  1. Hunter, Douglas. 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 1001
  2. Something is a bit odd about this. King João was the Grand Master of the Order of São Tiago.
  3. Jos d’Utra was also known in Flanders as Joss van Huerter.
  4. As we noted in a footnote in our article Columbus First Voyage, Pedro Correia da Cunha, 1st Captãio of Graciosa Island-Azores, was married to Izeu Perestrello, the daughter of Felipa Perestrello Colon’s father’s third wife Brites Furtado de Mendonça, who was the aunt of King João II’s mistress Ana de Mendonça who was the mother of Jorge of Lancaster, João’s bastard son.
  5. Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514) was a humanist scholar and physician.
  6. The destruction of Jerusalem under the Babylonian rule.” Nuremberg  Chronicle, Illustrated by Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, Nuremberg, Germany, 1493. Manuscript held in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in the University of Toronto. {{PD-old}} Book in Public Domain in US, Germany, Canada, and Austria. Image source:
    File:Nuremberg _chronicles_f_63v_1.png. 
  7. Jerome Muenzer was also known by his Latin name Hieronymus Münzer.
  8. Mary of Burgundy was a second-cousin of both King João of Portugal and Queen Isabella of Castile. She was the granddaughter of Philip II of Burgundy, who had married King João’s great-aunt, Isabella of Portugal, who was the great-aunt of both King João II of Portugal and Queen Isabella of Castile, and the sister of Henry the Navigator. Later, Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughter, Joanna, married Philip the Handsome, Emperor Maximilian I’s son. [See family tree below.]
  9. VasqueAnes fought in the defense and conquest of the Algarve and Africa. He married Joana de Silva, daughter of Garcia Mello [Alcaide of Serpa] and Philippa Pereira da Silva [daughter of Henry Pereira, the Capitão of São Tiago Island, and the finance minister for Fernando, Duke of Beja, and Izabel Pereira. VasqueAnes died in 1548. More than five generations of Corte-Reals after him would serve as the Donatario of Terceira. King Manoel I granted VasqueAnes Corte-Real many favors. VasqueAnes received all the titles that had been awarded to his father including the monopoly of trade in salt on Terceira.
  10. João vaz Corte-Real and his wife Maria Abarca were buried with other distinguished figures: Paulo da Gama, Afonso Gonçalves Baldaia, Joanna vaz Corte-Real [his daughter] and her husband Guilherme Moniz Barreto [son of Henry Moniz, Alcaide of Silves] in the Church of St. Francis Convent on Terceira, which the Franciscans built.
  11. In 1674, the skeletons of two children were recovered in the Tower of London in a place that resembled More’s description of their first burial place. Richard III of England’s remains were discovered under a car park two years ago, where they had been hastily buried after he was killed in the battle of Bosworth in 1485 and superseded by Henry VII.
  12. At his father’s initiative, Maximilian had already been crowned on April 9, 1486 at Achen as King of the Romans. He co-ruled with his father until his father’s death seven years later.
  13. The title of Muenzer’s book was: Itinerarium siue peregrinatio excellentissimi viri artium ac vtriusque medicine doctoris Hieronimi Monetarii of Feltkirchen ciuis Nurembergensis [The itinerary or pilgrimage of Doctor Jerome, Monetarii of Feltkirchen, citizen of Nuremberg, prominent in both the arts and medicine] It was written entirely in Latin.
  14. 83 miles = 133.6 km
  15. Hunter, Douglas. ibid, p.128

Next Article: John Cabot in England