John Cabot was not Bristol's only explorer
A lost 500-year-old letter has revealed details of the Bristolian who was the first Englishman to lead an expedition to North America.
Dr Evan Jones, a historian at Bristol University, has discovered that an intrepid merchant from the city, William Weston, undertook a voyage to the "New Found Land" in 1499, just two years after the first voyage of John Cabot who sailed from Bristol to "discover" North America in 1497.
Although Cabot is one of the most important figures in Bristol's history and his name adorns several city landmarks and institutions, he was an adopted son of the city, having been born in Italy.
Dr Jones believes his research makes a case for giving Weston similar recognition in his home city.
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If the research, published this week in the academic journal Historical Research, is correct it also shows Weston was the first explorer to lead an expedition to the Northwest Passage, commencing the centuries-long search to locate a sea-route around North America.
The evidence comes from a freshly unearthed letter written by Henry VII to his Lord Chancellor on March 12, 1499, which instructs his minister to suspend a court injunction against Weston because the merchant shall shortly "with God's grace pass and sail for to search and find if he can the new found land".
The letter, missing because it was not catalogued properly in the National Archives and then held on to by an academic who was waiting for a colleague to publish some research before revealing its contents, is also a world first because it contains the earliest known reference to North America as the New Found Land. The only known reference to the country previously was as the New Isle.
Cabot led a second, larger, expedition in 1498 to explore the new land discovered a year before, with support from King Henry VII, but was lost at sea.
A third expedition, the one undertaken by Weston remained unknown until now.
Dr Jones said: "Henry VII's letter is an exciting find because so little is known about the early English voyages of discovery.
"We knew that our knowledge of the first English expeditions to the New World was very incomplete. But this is beginning to show just how incomplete it is.
"Up until now, no one has ever even heard of William Weston. Yet this letter reveals him to be the first Englishman to lead an expedition to North America."
Dr Jones said while this was an independent voyage, it seems Weston was permitted to undertake it because he was one of Cabot's chief supporters in Bristol and was likely to be one of the crew on his earlier voyage.
Although the letter itself does not reveal what Weston achieved, research suggests his expedition took him up into the Labrador Sea, possibly reaching as far as the Hudson Strait, off what is now northern Canada.
Dr Jones said: "If so, this can probably be counted as the first Northwest Passage expedition."
He added: "We have never known the names of Cabot's Bristol supporters before.
"When you think of all of the places in Bristol that are named after Cabot such as the new shopping development (Cabot Circus) it is basically because we have never known the names of people who supported him on his expeditions. It would be nice to have some kind of recognition for Weston now, too."
Although the publication of the research is entirely new, Dr Jones said the letter itself was found 30 years ago, mis-catalogued among a bundle of files from the Chancery Court – to which the king's letter suspending the injunction was sent – in what is now The National Archives.
The archivist who found the letter, Margaret Condon, passed on the information to the eminent discovery historian, Professor David Beers Quinn in 1981, but he failed to publish it because he was waiting for another historian, Dr Alwyn Ruddock, to publish her research on the Cabot voyages first. This, however, never happened, leaving the letter unpublished at the time of Quinn's death in 2002.
That the letter ever came to light was only the result of a bizarre twist in events. In 2005, Dr Ruddock, died, leaving instructions that all her research notes be destroyed despite the fact that, during the 40 years she had been researching the Cabot voyages, she had apparently made discoveries that looked set to revolutionise the field.
Following her death, Dr Jones began his own research to discover just what Ruddock had found and then found out about the discoveries of Ms Condon, made decades before and the missing letter.