Post-classical history


HENRY VII WAS IMPRESSED by the artful Venetian who had already talked Fernando into a harbor scheme for Valencia and assuredly had enjoyed the Spanish coregent’s support in landing the Seville bridge contract. In taking his gifts of persuasion to England, one cannot discount how valuable it would have been to Cabot to hail from Renaissance Italy, as Henry relied on Italian advisors and was well informed on the peninsula’s tediously complex, mercurial affairs. Properly equipped and coached, Cabot would have dazzled Henry with his insights and alleged experience while evoking the land of Michelangelo and Leonardo. There is no reason to believe that Henry would have any knowledge of Cabot’s fairly obscure misadventures in Spain, especially the debacle of the Seville bridge project, let alone his earlier flight from Venetian creditors. Whatever truth there was about Cabot’s participation in the second Columbus voyage, he struck Henry as someone with sufficient knowledge and experience to warrant the generous terms of the letters patent conferred on him and his sons. Cabot was entrusted to achieve what Henry evidently did not believe any Englishman could.

Although no record survives of the presentation John Cabot made to Henry VII, we can be certain that he employed the northern-latitude argument that had already been crafted by Münzer and Behaim and made to João II of Portugal in late 1493 and that he deployed the globe and chart he was reported in late 1497 to have possessed.

The concept of a passage to a major trading center like Quinsay in Cathay, in the northern reaches of the empire of the Great Khan, likely was new to Henry VII. Martin Behaim might have hoped to present it in 1494, but the atrocious relations between England and Maximilian’s realm evidently got in the way. If we can believe the Fernando biography of Columbus, Bartolomé already had proposed a voyage to Henry, and Henry had been prepared to employ Columbus to that end in 1493, when it was too late to do so. But it is doubtful that any plan presented by Bartolomé would have involved sailing in northern waters, as his brother Christopher was consistently wary of attempting any passage above temperate latitudes.

England was ideally positioned to reach the Indies’ riches by sailing west to a trading port in Cathay, thus freeing itself from having to deal with the bothersome intermediary of Venice, which was still denying Henry the Flanders Galleys service. Scholars have debated how much Henry knew about the foreign treaties and bulls pertinent to the Cabot plan that preceded his reign, but Portugal’s exclusive right to southerly latitudes under the bull Aeterni Regis of 1481 had been made explicitly clear to Henry by the Penamacor affair. In 1488, Lopo de Albuquerque, Count of Penamacor, a Portuguese refugee of João II’s brutal suppression of the Braganza conspiracy (his brother Pero was arrested, tried, and executed), turned up in London. He tried to persuade Henry to mount an English trading voyage to Guinea, in part as vengeance against João II. The Portuguese ambassador got wind of it and warned off Henry, as the initiative would violate Aeterni Regis. Henry obligingly tossed the count in the Tower of London, where he lingered for a few years until being released at the behest of Fernando and Isabel. As it happened, two of the count’s children developed intimate links to Columbus’s family and career.

The proposal by Cabot must have persuaded Henry that nothing further issued by the Vatican (namely the bulls of 1493) denied him the right to seek his own westward route to Asia north of the Canaries. We don’t know what João II’s attitude would have been to an English voyage, or what he might have expressed to Jerome Münzer about the bulls and Tordesillas during their series of dinners in December 1494. In any event, João II had died in October 1495, and it would be left to his successor, Manoel I, to respond to any news of Cabot’s activities or discoveries.

Henry nevertheless showed he was sensitive to Portugal’s rights, at least as far as he understood them to extend. The patent he awarded to Cabot and his sons was for “all parts, regions and coasts of the eastern, western and northern sea.” There was nothing, in other words, about the southern sea. Henry was being careful to have the Cabots and their rights steer clear of southern latitudes that had been set aside for Portugal by Aeterni Regis in 1481.

But that still left the objections of Fernando and Isabel, who had thought a Cabot voyage sanctioned by Henry would intrude on the rights of Spain as well as Portugal. Through their letter of March 28, 1496, they expected Roderigo de Puebla to set Henry straight without delay, even use their rights to lever from Henry an agreement to go to war with France. It was, to be sure, a tremendously risky time for Henry to attempt such an official undertaking without Spain’s blessing. He was already deep in negotiations with Spain over his entry into the Holy League and, above all, over the final terms of the on-again, off-again union between Arthur and Catherine. Fernando and Isabel were also virtually alone among the royal houses of Europe in categorically refuting Perkin Warbeck’s claim to his throne as the supposed duke of York. And Henry needed the trade war with the Burgundian Netherlands to end, which Spanish diplomacy was helping to resolve by advancing his rapprochement with Maximilian and Philip IV.

Henry in short did not have a more critical ally than Spain at that moment. Yet by dispatching Cabot on a voyage of discovery, he was risking a breach with Fernando and Isabel, whatever they thought of Columbus’s performance and the relative value of their exclusive hold on landfalls to the west of the Tordesillas meridian. Had Henry been properly informed about Spain’s likely response, he presumably would have turned Cabot away, much as he did Penamacor after a Portuguese ambassador got to him. And if he was briefed by Puebla on Inter cetera and Tordesillas, as Fernando and Isabel had desired, after the Cabots had been granted the letters patent, Henry might have been expected to tear it up—even toss Cabot in the Tower of London, as he had with Penamacor.

That Henry did no such things suggests he was either grossly misinformed or informed all too well. The latter seems most likely; Henry was a shrewd ruler and diplomat. He was also acutely aware of the pain being inflicted on his kingdom by the suspension of the Flanders Galleys. The dour, even threatening message from the doge Agostino Barbarigo on November 9, 1495, about the peril of future trade in precious Oriental goods carried by the suspended galleys most certainly made him consider Cabot’s timely scheme to be something beyond geographic fantasy and more like an economic necessity. And by early 1496, the world well knew Columbus had found something to the west, although whether it was actually the Indies or some intermediary landfall was wide open to debate.

To accept Cabot’s scheme, and then not to cancel the patent under objections from Spain, Henry would have required reassurance that the venture wouldn’t ruin his good standing with Fernando and Isabel. A learned legal opinion about the bulls of 1493 and Tordesillas that favored Henry and Cabot would not have been enough. Henry would have wanted to be comfortable knowing that whatever he did wasn’t going to upset the Spanish monarchs. He could be entirely in the right, and the wedding between Arthur and Catherine could be canceled regardless; worse, his isolated allies in Spain denying Warbeck’s claim to the throne would be lost.

Of all the people who could have assured Henry that he was both within his rights and not to be worried about the Spanish reaction, the most plausible was the Spanish ambassador, Dr. Roderigo Gondesalvi de Puebla.

PUEBLA WAS AN INTENSELY polarizing figure in the Spanish diplomatic corps. His own monarchs were sorely tried by him. By 1498, he would be an almost obscenely disreputable character by some accounts. He was also considered physically repulsive; his precise disfigurement is not known but may have involved a missing limb.

Puebla’s greatest failing was said to be his lack of fidelity to Fernando and Isabel; he also served as an ambassador to Henry for the pope as well as for Maximilian I, which was known and accepted, but he was suspected of having Henry’s interests at heart more than those of his own sovereigns. At the least, he was routinely remiss in not keeping his monarchs properly informed of significant events in England.

Puebla was castigated several times in messages from Fernando and Isabel: Their chiding in the March 28, 1496, letter that he had not more forcefully refuted the slanders of the French ambassadors was a mild example. Although many of his reports (including, unfortunately, the one of January 21, 1496, which mentioned Cabot) have gone missing, periodic rebukes by his monarchs showed that he could go long periods without informing them about anything and that sometimes when he did write, he declined to mention the most stunningly important developments.

And yet Fernando and Isabel continued to employ him. He was a doctor of both civil and canonical law, and his expertise must have been (or seemed) valuable in negotiating important treaties. He had first been employed as one of two Spanish ambassadors to Henry (a commission dates from April 1488) to negotiate the marriage between Arthur and Catherine. But he would also stumble badly when he took it upon himself to strike another dynastic marriage agreement, offering Scotland’s James IV the hand of Fernando’s illegitimate daughter, Doña Juana. Puebla knew James would never agree to the match if he knew the truth of her status, and tried to pass her off as the legitimate offspring of a secret marriage by Fernando that preceded the union with Isabel. When Fernando and Isabel discovered the unauthorized ruse, they were furious that Puebla would attempt something so clumsy and doomed to exposure.

Puebla had traveled with the English delegation to Medina del Campo, the walled Castilian city that was home to the Spanish monarchs during the great national trade fair, for the signing of the marriage treaty binding Catherine to Arthur in 1489. Puebla might never have returned to Henry’s court, but for the fact that, for some reason, Fernando and Isabel’s preferred choice as ambassador in 1494 could not or would not accept the posting, so Puebla was sent in his stead. The importance of reviving the marriage plans in concert with the Holy League alliance likely recommended him, for good or ill, to the assignment, as the endless negotiations would benefit from his legal expertise and familiarity with the intricate agreements relating to dowry and hereditary title.

But Fernando and Isabel were careful not to entrust Puebla with any further missions to Scotland’s James IV; Pedro de Ayala instead was chosen to deal with Scotland. Ayala ended up spending much time in London, beginning in September 1497, infuriating Puebla with his presence and an alleged conceit that he was an ambassador to Henry’s court as well. Puebla hated Ayala, and the feeling was mutual. The men had nothing to do with each other, and each made it their goal to have the other one recalled from Henry’s realm, in as much disgrace as possible.

Unfortunately for Fernando and Isabel, the man they should have had at Henry’s court in early 1496 when Cabot and his voyage scheme surfaced was not Puebla but Ayala, because Ayala had been one of two Spanish delegates at the preliminary round of negotiations for Tordesillas in 1493. Ayala would have known the various bulls of 1493 and the issues of Tordesillas as cogently as anyone. But Ayala was then in Scotland, and the highly unreliable and unpredictable Puebla was at Henry’s court.

Fernando and Isabel provided firm instructions to Puebla to dissuade Henry from accepting Cabot’s scheme, or use their approval as leverage to get Henry to agree to go to war with France, but there is no evidence that he ever did a thing about it. Granted, the instructions came too late to prevent the patent being issued. One might give the much-maligned Puebla the benefit of the doubt and credit him with surmising that trying to dissuade Henry from supporting Cabot after the fact would only risk unhappy repercussions in the ongoing effort to draw him into the Holy League—both sides had something to lose in this diplomatic game.

Nothing further from Puebla survives with respect to Cabot’s activities in 1496 and 1497. The ambassador seems to have decided that news of Cabot and his voyage plans—and eventually of his actual voyages—was best left unaddressed. It was assuredly in Fernando and Isabel’s interest that they be informed, but apparently not in Puebla’s own. As events would prove, his other allegiances may well have effectively if not literally bought his silence and convinced him to assure Henry that Cabot’s enterprise posed no problems with Fernando and Isabel.

THE LETTERS PATENT (translated from the original Latin) was awarded to “John Cabot, citizen of Venice, and to Lewis, Sebastian and Sancio, sons of the said John, and to the heirs and deputies of them, and of any one of them.” They were granted

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 quantity they may be, and with so many and with 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.

The patent Cabot and his three sons secured from Henry VII was almost charming in its simplicity when compared with the intensively detailed capitulations Columbus had negotiated with Fernando and Isabel in 1492 and renewed at Barcelona in 1493. Nevertheless, it was replete with unmistakable echoes of the writs Columbus secured from the Spanish monarchs.

Cabot had proposed to Henry to make much the same voyage as Columbus on essentially the same terms. The Columbus blueprint, which spanned from Seville to Española, only needed to be shifted north, and almost everything in Cabot’s efforts for Henry proved to draw their inspiration from Columbus, to the point of bald mimicry. However, some aspects of the Cabot patent recalled the 1486 Portuguese Dulmo-Estreito patent that involved Martin Behaim. Whoever drafted the Cabot patent was quite familiar with Columbus’s capitulations and also seemed to know of the Dulmo-Estreito patent. That said, we have already seen that it is unclear if the Columbus capitulations themselves drew on the 1486 Dulmo-Estreito patent, or if the Dulmo-Estreito patent instead had drawn on a proposal Columbus made to João II around 1484.

The Spanish monarchs had kept secret Columbus’s original capitulations before he sailed in 1492; how well known the capitulations would have been after his successful return is a matter for debate. Cabot might have acquired his own verbatim copies of the capitulations while he was in Seville, the administrative heart of the Indies venture, but otherwise he must have apprised himself of their essential terms through word of mouth. Jerome Münzer, for that matter, could have gained knowledge of them during his week in Seville, out of ostensible diplomatic interest as an envoy of Maximilian.

The Cabot patent echoed the earlier Portuguese and Spanish grants in referring to titular awards and authority, stating that Cabot and his sons would serve as “our vassals, and governors lieutenants and deputies.” As with the Columbus capitulations, these rights were hereditary in the Portuguese model used for the colonization of the Atlantic islands and exploration for additional suspected landfalls. The inclusion of Cabot’s three sons by name in the patent suggests that at least one must have reached the age of majority (twenty-one) by then (thus creating the need to name all three), as neither the Dulmo-Estreito patent or Columbus’s capitulations mentioned an heir by name. (Columbus’s only legitimate heir, Diego, was about twelve years old in 1492.)

Cabot’s patent addressed the discovery of “the islands and mainland” (insularum ac terre firme). The conjoined terms were central to Columbus’s privileges and found throughout them (las ylas y tierra firme) and were repeated in the papal bulls of 1493 (insulas et terras firmas). They had a precedent in the Dulmo-Estreito patent and its objective of “the grand island or islands or mainland” (grande ylha ou hylhas ou terra firme). In Cabot’s case, Columbus’s capitulations were the probable source, although if Behaim and Münzer were involved with him, the concept could have been borrowed from whatever proposal Behaim had made to João II in 1493, building on his familiarity with the Dulmo-Estreito patent and knowledge of standard practice for Portuguese privileges.

There was similar language about conquering settled territories. The Granada capitulation referred to “all the cities, towns, and villages [of those kingdoms and domains] that you may conquer and acquire.” Cabot and his sons were given the right to “conquer, occupy and possess whatsoever towns, castles, cities and islands by them discovered.”

The activities of both Columbus and Cabot were expected to benefit a specific port. None was named in Columbus’s 1492 capitulations, but as soon as he had returned with news of his discoveries, Cadíz was chosen, with Seville granted the administrative authority. Cabot was “bound and holden only to arrive” at Bristol, which was to benefit from all imagined trade from the Indies. Vessels could depart from anywhere presumably en route to the Indies but had to land their goods at Bristol. The use of staple ports already was well known to the English from other trade ventures, but the similarity of the roles of Bristol and Cadíz are still worth noting.

There were suspiciously familiar provisions for rendering assistance to the explorers. The Barcelona capitulation promised Columbus that “all citizens, residents, and other persons who are now and in the future may be on the islands and mainland” as well as those “who travel on the seas described above . . . shall give and cause to be given to you all the consideration and help that you ask of them and may need.” Cabot’s patent “strictly command[ed]” all of Henry’s subjects “as well by land as by sea, that they shall render good assistance to the aforesaid John and his sons and deputies, and that they shall give them all their favour and help as well in fitting out the ships or vessels.”

One clear similarity to the Dulmo-Estreito patent was that Cabot’s entitlements to the lands he found or conquered were positively feudal. Fernando and Isabel in contrast were crafting a transoceanic extension of the Castilian state, notwithstanding Michele da Cuneo’s claim in 1495 that Columbus gave him Isla Saona. La Isabella was being run by Columbus as a royal property essentially on the model of a Portuguese trading station. Under regulations drawn up in 1497, a renewed colonization plan would adopt the organizational model of Castilian towns, thus firmly denying the introduction of a seigneural system that had never been mandated.

According to the Milanese ambassador who met Cabot on his return in 1497, Henry had extended to the Venetian the most extravagant powers, including the ability to confer titles of nobility on men of his own choosing, including the unnamed Burgundian who was expecting a gift of an island (much as Cuneo said he received from Columbus) and already considered himself a count. Cabot, who would call himself a prince as well as a Great Admiral on his return from the 1497 voyage, was on the verge of establishing his own state with titled nobles within the suzerainty of England.

Where the Columbus and Cabot agreements differed hugely was in compensation. Columbus’s activities were essentially left to others to fund: the Spanish monarchs, and merchants and financiers. Columbus had an option to invest but wasn’t required to do so. The initial Santa Fé capitulation stated that Columbus was entitled to one-tenth of net proceeds from “any and all merchandise” in the resulting trade, in addition to whatever profits he generated from his own trading as well as from his titular and administrative duties. Columbus was further entitled to reserve one-eighth of all shipping to and from the Indies for his own activities (as the controversial April 1495 liberalization reaffirmed). Cabot in comparison was accorded 80 percent of the net profits and was further exempted from customs duties on goods landed at Bristol. Cabot was accorded a significantly higher reward than Columbus because he was assuming a significantly higher risk. Cabot was expected to mount the voyage at “his own costs and charges (sui . . . propriis sumptibus et expensis).

This was a key condition found in the original 1486 Dulmo patent for the voyage to be undertaken with the German knight who could only have been Martin Behaim. Dulmo was to mount it at sua propria custa e despesa—his own costs and expenses, or charges. The condition of “own costs and charges” had already appeared in agreements for English royal privileges that had nothing to do with seafaring more than a decade before Cabot came along, with propriis sometimes erroneously interpreted as “proper” as well as “own,” as in the case of standard modern English translations of the Cabot patent. Although Henry’s court thus may have insisted on the condition, the author of the Cabot patent nevertheless could have been adopting the Portuguese voyage scheme with which Martin Behaim had been allied or, more concretely, the lost proposal Behaim had made to João II in 1493.

It is tempting to see the Cabot patent as a product not only of the Columbus and Dulmo-Estreito precedents but as a reflection at least in part of the lost proposal we know Behaim made to João II with Münzer’s help, which then would have been refined for an English voyage through the ensuing activities of both Nürnbergers. After being rebuffed by the Portuguese king, Behaim had made his curious visit to England, which as noted reads as plausibly as a star-crossed attempt to sell the concept to Henry VII as it does a cockeyed diplomatic mission for Maximilian I gone awry. A patent proposal would have been prepared for Henry, even if Behaim never had the chance to present it. A few months later, Behaim’s close associate Münzer was traveling through Spain and Portugal on what amounted essentially to a fact-finding mission on the Columbus enterprise. With the aid of Cabot, the elements of Columbus’s capitulations would have updated and elaborated whatever Behaim had already proposed to João II in 1493 and perhaps had intended to pitch to Henry VII. There could well have been a side deal between Behaim and Cabot, entitling the old Columbus compatriot and chief architect of the Erdapfel to discovery benefits based on his contribution of the basic scheme and cartography. This would not have been unusual; English royal patents routinely involved licensing of entitlements to people never mentioned in the original document, and for that matter Columbus suit deponents insisted a deal had existed between Columbus and the Pinzóns to profit from the royal privilege the Genoese had secured.

Unfortunately for Behaim, Cabot proved to be an unnecessary complication. Persistently cursed by bad timing, Behaim would have seen Cabot nearing success in the English pitch just as trade and diplomatic relations between Henry and Maximilian began to thaw. Only a week before Cabot secured his patent, the countervailing embargoes between England and Burgundy were lifted with the so-called intercursus magnus of February 27, 1496. By July, with Henry formally welcomed into the Holy League, Maximilian and Henry were allies. Behaim could have safely initiated—or resumed—his own voyage proposal then. But Cabot was already at sea in his first attempt to prove the northern passage strategy conceived by Münzer and Behaim.

So little is known about the 1496 voyage that we cannot say if Cabot’s Burgundian companion was along for the ride. Regardless of whatever agreement might have been struck between them, the rights for the English search were now in the unlikely possession of this fugitive Venetian hide trader and property speculator cum failed marine engineer.

Moreover, as Cabot sailed on his first voyage for Henry, Columbus returned to Spain and found himself hard aground, unable to secure the necessary backing or royal permission to resume his own explorations. Bartolomé Columbus’s plans to sail far to the north from Española in search of Cathay had been firmly crushed by the two destructive hurricanes of 1495, and Fernando and Isabel’s hope to encourage fresh explorations by liberalizing their regulations for the Indies had produced only one flotilla, which was destroyed in a storm soon after leaving Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The Americas, both north and south, were waiting to be discovered. A Venetian had emerged from within the logistical margins of Columbus’s own enterprise to test for the English a northern passage-making concept that two Germans originally had intended to benefit the Portuguese.

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