John Cabot in London

Johan Caboto the Venetian turned up in London some time before January 21, 1496. That is when Ferdinand and Isabella’s ambassador to London, Roderigo de Puebla, witnessed him presenting his plan to cross the Ocean Sea to King Henry VII. DePuebla described Cabot as “one like Colón, … one from the Indies.” Historian Douglas Hunter(1) has interpreted that to mean Cabot had been to the Indies with Colón [Columbus]. Cabot displayed “a chart and other reasonable demonstrations” to prove to King Henry that the North Atlantic route was a viable one. De Puebla wrote that Cabot claimed he could “succeed in a voyage across the Atlantic that would obtain the wealth of the Orient in a way that Colón had failed.” Where did Cabot learn about Columbus’ failure? From Jerome Muenzer, who had been hobnobbing with the monarchs of Portugal and Spain?

We also learn from DePuebla that Cabot stopped by Lisbon on his way to England “looking for people to aid him in discovery.” That statement confirms that Cabot had his plan in mind before he reached England. Jerome Muenzer wrote in his journal that he was in Lisbon at about the same time Cabot would have passed through. Since there is no documentation indicating that Cabot had an audience with King João II, perhaps it was Muenzer from whom Cabot was seeking aid?

Henry VII had other things on his agenda. The reason De Puebla attended his court that day was because King Charles VIII of France had just invaded Italy and was threatening to attack Florence, Venice, and Rome. Ferdinand and Isabella had sent De Puebla to convince the King of England to join Milan, Spain, Portugal, and the Papal States in their army called the Holy League. The Duke of Venice had organized the League to push the French back over the Alps.

Henry VII did not want to join the League because he did not want to contradict a recent treaty he had made with the King of France. To join the League, Henry would be obliged to patch things up with Philip, the Archduke of Burgundy, which meant solving the problem of Perkin Warbeck the Pretender.

The Catholic Monarchs had instructed De Puebla to use, as a lever, the marriage of their daughter Catherine of Aragon to Prince Arthur of England, something we know King Henry wanted very much.

With no records to tell us what John Cabot was doing during the eighteen months between November 1494, when he was in Seville, and his meeting with the king of England on January 21, 1496, we can only surmise from circumstantial data how Johan Cabato morphed from being a civil engineer running from his creditors in Seville, to John Cabot planning a voyage to the “new lland.”

Some historians suggest Cabot had traveled to London to trade, and that he took his oldest son, Sebastian, with him. We know Cabot was experienced as a merchant. He bought and sold wool. But who was he representing? There was no such thing as an entrepreneur merchant in those days. And we already know that he had come up with his North Atlantic scheme by the time he “passed through” Lisbon.

A second explanation is that Cabot came up with the scheme all by himself. Maybe he got the idea when he hanging around Ferdinand and Isabella’s court in Barcelona. He might have heard about Columbus’ false promises. But where did Cabot obtain his maps? And how did he know about the land-sightings in the northern Atlantic?

John Cabot could not have sailed for Spain like Columbus did because of the New Permissions issued in April of 1495. The New Permissions allowed only “Spanish subjects and citizens to conquer, claim, and trade in the new lands” for Spain. Cabot was not a subject [a native-born Spaniard residing in Spain but not sworn to the monarchs for religious reasons]. He was not a citizen [a native-born Spaniard]. Nor could he become a naturalized citizen because he was not married to a citizen, and he had not lived in Spain for at least ten-years. But there was nothing preventing Zuan Chabato, a citizen of Venice, from sailing for England.

A third explanation for why Cabot ventured to England was, according to Douglas Hunter, because Jerome Muenzer and Martin Behaim sent him there. Behaim had conceived the idea of traveling to the Indies via the North Atlantic as early as 1486. Behaim had the cartographic resources to illustrate to King Henry why such a trip was a brilliant idea. And Jerome Muenzer had learned everything there was to know about what Columbus did wrong and what Cabot should do right.

King Henry was a willing subject. He had already tried to support Columbus, but the Spanish beat him to it. He did not think the Treaty of Tordesillas applied to him as long as his ships stayed north of the Spanish-controlled Canaries and Portuguese-controlled Azores. The patent Cabot ultimately received clearly specified, “all parts, regions and coasts of the eastern, western and northern sea.” The southern sea was excluded. Henry did not even worry that he might jeopardize his negotiations with the Spanish monarchs regarding the marriage of his son to their daughter.

However, Henry had some very good reasons for finding a northwest route to the Indies. He had closed off trade with Flanders during his quarrel with the Duchy of Burgundy. He had also alienated the Venetians, who since November of 1495 [the year before], were withholding their trade flotillas from English ports.

Henry first got in trouble when he “borrowed” [without asking] from the Venetians two of their galleys to transport his soldiers to France during his fight against King Charles. He returned the galleys to Venice, however he did not pay for the damage his soldiers did to the galleys. Matters grew worse when French pirates attacked and stole some of the galleys while they were trading in Southampton. The Doge of Venice accused the English of not providing protection and was still trying to get the galleys back. That left the English people with no way to purchase herbs and spices, and no way to sell wool, tin, and lead.

When John Cabot appeared with a new alternative for trading with China and India, Henry was all ears. On March 5, 1496 [following the old Julian calendar], Henry VII, King of England and Lord of Ireland issued a letter of patent to Cabot and Sons. The patent [written in Latin, of course] granted ...

“... to our well beloved John Cabot, citizen of Venice, and to Lewis, Sebastian, and Sancio; sons of the said John and to their heirs full and free authority, faculty and power to sail to all parts, regions and coasts of the eastern, western and northern sea, under our banners, flags and ensigns, with five ships or vessels of whatsoever burden and quality they may be, and with so many and such mariners and men as they may wish to take with them in the said ships, at their own proper costs and charges, to find, discover and investigate whatsoever islands, countries, regions or provinces of heathens and infidels, in whatsoever part of the world placed, which before this time were unknown to all Christians.”

Cabot was to give one fifth of any “fruits, profits, emoluments, commodities, gains and revenues accrued” from his voyage to the English crown. No other English subjects would be allowed to frequent or visit the new lands without permission from John Cabot or his family.

The patent was issued six months before Bartolomé Columbus founded Santa Domingo for Spain, the first permanent European settlement in America. It was similar in format to Columbus’ contract with Spain, written in 1492, and to the patent granted to Fernão D’Ulmo, Afonso de Estrieto, and the German Knight in 1486. It was similar to the format established by Henry the Navigator when he sent his explorers into the Atlantic to find new lands. [You will know the format by heart by the time you read the patents for Martin Frobisher, Humphrey Gilbert, and the Massachusetts Bay Company a century later in our next webBook.]

Unlike Columbus, who did not fund his expedition, Cabot was expected to cover “his own costs and charges.” The risk he undertook provided him a larger percentage of the profits – the remaining four-fifths [80 percent].

News of the patent infuriated King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They thought Columbus had claimed all western lands in the name of Spain. They applied to Pope Alexander to issue a papal bull preventing the English venture. Evidently, the Papal bull did not stick because King Henry VII, who did not think the Pope had any right to interfere with political decisions, continued with his plans.

By April of 1496, Cabot was obtaining financing from Italian adventurers for his expedition. A recently found 514-year-old ledger(2) from the London branch of an Italian investment firm called Bardi(3) [possibly an Anglicized version of Berardi] contained two entries regarding Cabot. One stated “John Cabot, of Venice, on 27 April [1496], is debited for 10 pounds sterling, paid in cash … so that he could go and find the new land.” The second entry recorded another payment to Cabot of “6 pounds, 13 shillings, and 4 pence.” [If you want an idea of how much money that was, imagine a block of solid sterling silver that weighs six pounds.]

As we have seen, adventurers from Genoa, Milan, and Florence were like today’s venture capitalists. They were involved in all aspects of European commerce and well connected to the Vatican. They ran offices in Seville in Castile. They did their business in Lisbon in Portugal. And they had a large Italian presence in London centered on Lombard Street, named after the Lombardy region of Italy surrounding Milan.

The Bardi Adventurers were interconnected to the financial dealings of the Vatican through the Pope’s legate [representative] in London named Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis. Carbonariis arrived in London in around 1489, working as an envoy for the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. [You will recall that the Duchy of Milan governed Genoa.] Records show Carbonariis was conveying messages between the Duke to King Henry about the Genoese adventurer Benedetto Spinola.

By 1490, Carbonariis had risen in stature. He was serving as the Deputy to the Collector of Papal Revenues. [The real Collector resided in Rome.] That meant that Carbonariis was in charge of collecting the taxes paid by church members in England to the mother church in Rome. Since the Bible required tithing [a tax of ten percent] and since by English law, every person was required to belong to the Catholic Church, Carbonariis was collecting a lot of money.

In November of 1494, Ferdinand and Isabella’s ambassador to London, Roderigo de Puebla noticed Carbonariis in Henry VII’s court lobbying for Cabot’s expedition. De Puebla referred to Carbonariis as “another Friar Buyl.” You may remember that Friar Buyl was the priest who visited La Isabella to check on Columbus. When he returned to Seville, he gave the devastating report to the Spanish Monarchs. Carbonariis served as the Pope’s representative to King Henry in the way Friar Buyl served as the Pope’s representative to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

Carbonariis will later sail with Cabot to America. Since the Church had their nose in everything, Carbonariis was probably involved with the expedition at an early stage. He may have helped Cabot obtain his financing. He may even have encouraging King Henry VII to grant the Venetian an audience to present his plan in the first place.

Carbonariis’ support of Cabot carried a lot of weight with the Italian investors. The investors were as frustrated with Columbus as the Catholic Monarchs were. Columbus’ enterprise had drained the Spanish treasury, not added to it. The Italians were eager to finance a voyage along a different route. How about a route north of the hurricanes? How about an expedition to the real Cathay, not just the Antilles that Columbus had found? How about finding the fabulous market center described by Marco Polo in his grand city of Quinsay?

Cabot planned to sail from Bristol Harbour on England’s western coast, England’s second largest port. Many Italian seamen flourished there. Back in the 1300s, the port thrived exporting England’s woolen cloth, which was woven in the Cotswolds, then shipped along the rivers to Bristol for finishing and dying. Red cloth(4) was the most coveted, and England was one, if not the only place to obtain it. Bristol’s ships transported the cloth to Gascony in the south of France near Bordeaux. On their return trip, the ships transported wine. But by the time Cabot reached England, with Portugal’s African trade dominating the Atlantic, English trade was on the decline.

More importantly, Bristol was the closest major port to the west [Milford Haven did not become a significant port until the 1790s]. In order to sail out of Bristol, John Cabot was required to present himself and his plan to Bristol’s prestigious and powerful Society of Merchant Adventures. They regulated every ship that left or entered Bristol Harbour. Members listened eagerly to his plan. Like King Afonso V, they had heard the Irish legends about Ilha de Brasil and the Island of Seven Cities. In fact, the Society had sponsored a small fleet to find the illusive Brasil just eleven years earlier.

Even earlier, in 1480, a John Jay, Junior left Bristol in search of the Isle of Brasil in a vessel of eighty tons burden under master Thomas Lloyd. Lloyd was noted to be “the most knowledgeable seaman of the whole of England,”(5) but he did not find the island. In 1483, a Thomas Croft headed another search for the Isle of Brasil to no avail.

The Bristol Society of Merchant Adventures was equally interested in searching for plentiful fishing grounds. The port depended highly on fishing. The waters around Iceland were already crowded with fishermen from England, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, France, Portugal, Biscaya, and Spain, and becoming fished out. Denmark [which included Norway] thought she owned Iceland and her water rights. After all, her ancestors, the Vikings, had laid claim to Iceland and Greenland in the 900s. In 1467, some Englishmen murdered the Danish governor of Iceland over the matter. In 1496 the English and the Danish were still quibbling about what type of fishing should be licensed.

In order to avoid the Danish fees, fishing fleets from Bristol were probably fishing the Newfoundland Banks already. But they would not have wanted anyone else to know about their finds. Fishermen were only interested in the banks offshore. They did not explore the land, let alone survey it for cartographers in Majorca and Flanders to place on contemporary maps.

The Society of Merchant Adventurers provided Cabot with the financial boost he needed. In return, he agreed to pay the Society a large percentage of any profits he earned, or riches he found, and to deliver all goods to the port of Bristol.

With investment money in hand, Cabot rented a sixty-three-foot caravel [referred to sometimes as a navicula or bark] of about 50 tons. He named her the Matthew(6), probably after his wife Mattea. Then he fitted her out with a crew of eighteen – “nearly all Bristol men.”


  1. We obtained most of the information for the article from Douglas Hunter’s recent 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 1001.
  2. The ledger was re-discovered by Dr. Evan T. Jones of Bristol University in 2010. It was originally uncovered by Dr. Alwyn Ruddock. For more information, see the article by Guy Gugliotta, “Discovery of a £16 Advance Sheds Light on John Cabot’s Adventures,” in the New York Times, June 18, 2012. Web source: science/
  3. Douglas Hunter states there were no other bankers with the surname Berardi. However, there were plenty of bankers named Bardi. The Italian Berardi helped fund Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Vasco da Gama, and Bartolomeo Dias.
  4. This red was probably the “Dragon’s Blood” red procured from the “dyewood” tree. The Spanish would later discover the Cochineal beetle in Mexico and South America that would provide a valuable red dye. They would hold the monopoly for 300 years.
  5. Hunter, Douglas. Ibid, p. 176
  6. Ships are referred to in the feminine even when they have masculine names.

Next Article: John Cabot’s First and Second Voyages