Post-classical history


AROUND NINE in the morning on May 19, 1499, John Arundel, Bishop of Coventry and Litchfield, turned to address Arthur, Prince of Wales, in the chapel of Bewdley Manor, the residence of the heir to the English throne. The bishop informed the twelve-year-old son of Henry VII that it was well known how much King Henry wished that the marriage between him and the Princess of Wales, as Catherine of Aragon was now to be known, should be contracted per verba de prœsenti. The thirteen-year-old princess was still in Spain; she would not come to England until after Arthur had turned fourteen in September 1500. But the marriage was proceeding as a new treaty of friendship was concluded between England and Spain. Catherine had authorized a Spanish diplomat to appear in her stead at Arthur’s side.

The bishop asked the diplomat if he possessed the necessary power to serve as Catherine’s proxy. Roderigo de Puebla duly presented the power, and it was read aloud to the assembled group. Puebla and Arthur then clasped their right hands. The prince declared that he accepted Puebla in the name and as the proxy of Princess Catherine, and Princess Catherine in his person as his lawful and undoubted wife. Puebla declared, in the name of Princess Catherine, that she accepted Arthur as her lawful and undoubted husband.

Arthur and Catherine were now indissolubly united, although more than two years would pass before the newlyweds met. Puebla, clutching the prince’s hand, had survived the withering assault on his credibility and loyalty in the evidence against him assembled the previous July by the investigating envoys, Sanchez de Londoño and Johannes de Matienzo. Puebla would still be serving as Spain’s ambassador in London after Fernando and Isabel, after Henry VII—after even young Arthur—had died.

Only six days after the bundle of letters and depositions that seemed to doom Puebla’s ambassadorship was sent in July 1498, Fernando and Isabel had conveyed to him their surprising decision to recall his hated rival, Pedro de Ayala. A grateful Puebla had replied on September 25 that he “kisses their hands and feet for the favour they have done him. . . . It is for their own good.”

Where his failure to report critical events was concerned, Puebla had continued to insist that he did write regularly. The same day he expressed his gratitude for the recall of Ayala, Puebla professed he wasastonished that his letters to Spain have not arrived. Is always very careful in sending them; and if he be in fault, it is not from carelessness, but from too great zeal.”

Puebla’s career may have been spared by the profound distraction of a fresh tragedy in the lives of the Spanish royal family. Fernando and Isabel’s daughter, Princess Isabel, had died on August 27, 1498. The princess had lost her first husband, the Portuguese heir Afonso, soon after their marriage in 1490 and had been persuaded to marry his successor, Manoel. Now Isabel had died giving birth to Miguel. Having also lost Crown Prince Juan in October 1497, Fernando and Isabel’s plans to secure dynastic alliances through the marriages of their children were unraveling. Only their daughter Joana remained both alive and married, to Burgundy’s archduke, Philip IV, but her behavior was so disturbing that the two envoys who had investigated Puebla’s behavior in London before visiting her in Flanders had chastised her. “Told her, among other things, that she had a very hard and obdurate heart, and no piety—as is the truth,” Matienzo reported to Isabel. A tongue-lashing proved not to be the required cure. Joana would be saddled with the pejorative el Loco—“the Mad.”

After the loss of her daughter Isabel, Queen Isabel was virtually incapacitated by grief until the following March, when the proxy for Catherine’s marriage to Arthur was issued. Having been involved in the negotiations for the marriage since the Treaty of Medina del Campo, Puebla was again considered indispensable, regardless of the litany of misbehavior gathered by the investigating envoys.

But Puebla did not entirely escape censure. He seriously mishandled the treaty renewing the friendship between Spain and England, overstepping his authority. Fernando and Isabel informed him on March 12, 1499, that they were “very angry and very much astonished to see in what manner he has concluded the treaty.” The pact was supposed to exempt the Holy Roman Empire, Burgundy, and France from its provisions of mutual defense. If this went uncorrected, their and Henry’s treaties with these other parties “would be directly dissolved, and the peace of Christendom endangered.” They expected Puebla to negotiate a new treaty with Henry “without transgressing his instructions by a single word.”

Because of his grave misstep, Puebla was compelled to accept an odious new condition for his posting. Pedro de Ayala, whom the monarchs initially had decided to recall, would now serve as Puebla’s joint ambassador to Henry. In all matters except the renegotiations with Henry over the botched treaty, Puebla was to inform and involve Ayala. “For, as he alone has made the blunders,” Fernando and Isabel reprimanded him, “he alone must mend them.”

Ayala had been cooling his heels in London since notifying Fernando and Isabel of Cabot’s activities in July 1498, awaiting new instructions. In the same letter that had carried news of Cabot’s latest voyage for England, Ayala advised Fernando and Isabel that his hopes to secure a lasting peace between Scotland and England were foundering on the lack of a suitable dynastic marriage. He doubted Henry’s daughter Margaret would make a match with twenty-five-year-old James IV: She was not yet nine years old, a tiny child. Ayala had suggested that Fernando and Isabel consider offering the hand of their eighteen-year-old daughter, Maria, instead. Catherine’s marriage to Arthur would mean two Spanish sisters in the British royal houses could work to keep their husbands on friendly terms. But the death of Princess Isabel had made that impossible; Maria was required as a replacement wife for the Portuguese king.

With Ayala now empowered in England, there was some chance that the Spanish diplomatic corps would take proper note of Henry’s ongoing interest in new lands across the Ocean Sea. But Ayala was instead busy brokering a lasting peace between Henry and James IV—Henry’s daughter Margaret would have to serve as the Scottish king’s bride, and they would marry in 1503, when Margaret was fourteen. We can only wonder if the months of bleak despair into which Isabel plunged following the death of her daughter contributed to the conspicuous diplomatic silence on the 1498 Cabot voyage. Yet the silence lasted much longer. After his brief and misleading note of July 25, 1498 to Fernando and Isabel, which reduced the third Cabot voyage to a search for Brasil, nothing further from Puebla survives on the matter of English exploration. As it happened, nine days before Fernando and Isabel ordered Puebla to accept Ayala as his co-ambassador and Catherine named Puebla her proxy for the marriage to Arthur, Henry took an unusual step to ensure his continued probing of the newly discovered lands. And John Cabot, contrary to the later assurances of Polydore Vergil, had not gone to the bottom of the Ocean Sea in 1498.

THE IDEA THAT JOHN CABOT vanished on the 1498 voyage would be reinforced by a letter written on October 19, 1501, by Pietro Pasqualigo—brother of Lorenzo, who had written from London with some of the first news of Cabot’s 1497 voyage. As secretary to the Venetian ambassador to Portugal, Pietro was writing home from Lisbon to his brothers of the return of one of the vessels in a two-ship voyage by Gaspar Corte-Real.

Terceira continued to be the centrifuge of Portuguese voyages in search of lands across the Ocean Sea, spinning off one exploration effort after another. Gaspar Corte-Real made his first known attempt in 1500. His endeavor likely encouraged his fellow Terceiran, João Fernandes, who had secured a patent from Manoel I entitling him to discoveries in 1499 but probably had made his first in a series of voyages in 1498, to take his services instead to England, in the company of Francisco Fernandes and João Gonsalves, who were also from the Azores and were probably fellow Terceirans. The trio teamed up with three Bristol merchants in securing an exploration patent in 1501 from Henry VII. Those three merchants could well have been involved in the Cabot voyages.

On his first known attempt to locate Cabot’s discoveries in 1500, Gaspar Corte-Real seems to have sailed so far north that he cruised up the east coast of Greenland. His second effort at last brought news of success for Portugal in reaching Cabot’s landfall, but only one of his two ships had returned. Gaspar himself was never seen again.

The news carried by the surviving vessel indicated the Portuguese had seen a considerable amount of northeastern North America. The ship had also returned with seven captive natives; Gaspar was supposed to be on the way with another fifty, which suggests he thought he had found a new source of slaves. “In their land there is no iron,” Pasqualigo reported, “but they make knives out of stones and in like manner the points of their arrows. And yet these men have brought from there a piece of broken gilt sword, which certainly seems to have been made in Italy. One of the boys was wearing in his ears two silver rings which without doubt seem to have been made in Venice.”

Cabot’s 1498 voyage was a logical source of the broken sword and rings, as the 1506 evidence of Pero de Barcelos indicated that the three years of explorations he undertook with João Fernandes, which must have been from 1498 to 1500, had been fruitless. The broken sword suggested a calamitous end to Cabot’s 1498 voyage, which would have been consistent with the dire pattern then set by the Corte-Reals. After Gaspar vanished in 1501, Miguel set out after his brother in 1502; he was never heard from again either. When the eldest brother, Vasqueanes, attempted to mount a search expedition, Manoel I refused him permission as a key member of his staff to depart, having lost enough Corte-Reals already. But archival finds in England in 2009 indicate that, unlike the unfortunate Corte-Reals, the 1498 Cabot flotilla did not vanish, at least not entirely, and that Cabot himself returned alive.

It has long been known that the forty-shilling rent on Cabot’s house in Bristol was paid for the year from Michaelmas 1498 to Michaelmas 1499. His pension was also paid for the same period out of Bristol custom revenues. His wife or one of his sons could have handled these transactions in his absence. After Michaelmas 1499, the known paper trail on Cabot’s Bristol activities cease. But we now know he did return to England and was alive in May 1500, although he may have died that year in Bristol or London.

The details of the final voyage and of Cabot’s ultimate fate remain unresolved. Henry VII’s actions in the spring of 1499, as final preparations were made for the proxy marriage between Arthur and Catherine, only complicate the picture of what became of Cabot’s last expedition and his ambitions to reach Cathay—and of who might have left behind a broken sword and rings on the far side of the Ocean Sea.

ON MARCH 12, 1499, Henry wrote his lord chancellor, John Morton, to order a stay of judicial proceedings in a suit involving two Bristol merchants, John Esterfeld and William Weston. Henry had already given Weston the forty-shilling award in January 1498 for services that must have been related to Cabot’s 1497 voyage and quite possibly involved the king’s personal interest in the voyage of 1498.

Henry VII ordered Morton to pause the legal action in order to free up the services of Weston, who “shall shortly with goddes grace passe and saille for to serche and fynde if he can the new founde land.” It evidently was not to be a matter-of-fact return to a landfall that had already been visited but rather was an undertaking of considerable uncertainty. It was either a mission of rediscovery or a voyage intended to expand on what Cabot had previously found. Weston would receive a further reward from Henry VII in the year ending at Michaelmas (late September) 1500 that likely was for the successful completion of this 1499 assignment, although it could have been for a voyage that concluded in the summer of 1500.

Weston almost certainly had participated in both the 1497 and 1498 Cabot voyages. Precisely when the 1498 flotilla returned—either in whole or in part—and whether it remained intact or split up to pursue different prerogatives remain open questions. Some ships could have returned by the autumn of that year, while others remained in North America into 1499 or even reappeared in Bristol in the spring of 1500. If Weston participated in the 1498 voyage, he must have been back by the winter of 1498–99. Thirkill and Bradley must also have returned, if they accompanied the ships of theirs that were pressed, as a recently discovered suit by the king to recovered monies he loaned them in 1498 for a voyage to the “new isle” dates to June 1500.

As for what the 1498 Cabot voyage found, the evidence may lie in a landmark mappa munde that incorporated an original chart of the Western Hemisphere drawn by Juan de La Cosa, a respected Basque pilot and cartographer who had a long association with Columbus. After the Admiral of the Ocean Sea chartered La Cosa’s Santa María (and wrecked it) on the 1492–93 voyage, in which La Cosa participated, the Basque went along on the second voyage as a cartographer. La Cosa joined Alonso de Hojeda and Amerigo Vespucci (the lone partner in Seville’s House of Berardi after the 1495 death of Columbus’s financier of the Santa María charter) for their 1499–1500 voyage. It was one of the first in a flurry of forays out of Andalusia to South America and the southern Caribbean inspired by Columbus’s discoveries on his third voyage in 1498.

La Cosa drew the portion of the map describing the New World at Puerto de Santa María in 1500, on his return from the voyage with Hojeda and Vespucci. The map is full of surprises, among them Cuba shown clearly and rather accurately as an island, several years before it supposedly was first circumnavigated and six years after Columbus had threatened the mariners (including La Cosa) on his 1494 cruise with the loss of their tongues if they ever said it was not a peninsula of the Asian mainland. The map illustrates a dawning comprehension of a continental landmass distinct from the true Indies, as not a single label on this western shore evokes Asia. It hints at a continuous continent running from the Caribbean coast of South America in a rough arc consistent with the Gulf of Mexico and extending northward and eastward. The uncertainty over an actual Central American connection between North and South America is cleverly cloaked by a portrait of St. Christopher, the patron saint of voyagers, carrying the infant Jesus across the waters, which strategically conceals where the coastlines promise to link.

What we now know to be North America is an enormous landmass overhanging Columbus’s Caribbean, along which are planted five English flags. They begin at a cape in the east bearing the label cauo de ynglaterra (cape of England) and follow westward along a southern shore to an indentation labeled mar descubierto par inglese (sea discovered by the English). The coast’s orientation cannot be considered reliable—indeed, the apparent latitudes of some well-known European features are significantly wrong. It is a tribute to the seductive vagueness of the map that experts have alternately identified cauo de ynglaterra as Greenland’s Cape Farewell and Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton. Its revelations are in the eye of the beholder: The lands attributed to the English may include only Newfoundland and Labrador, or they may extend as far south as Florida.

In seeking an explanation for the details of La Cosa’s map, historians have routinely turned to the chronically unreliable and self-serving Sebastian Cabot, who created considerable confusion about his father’s discoveries by claiming John’s voyages as his own and merging them with a voyage he probably did make, in 1508–09, in search of the Northwest Passage. In his Decades III of 1516, Pietro Martire published an account of a voyage by Sebastian, who he knew personally. Martire had Sebastian ranging all the way south to the Caribbean, leaving Cuba on his left. Some historians concluded that this must have been his father’s 1498 voyage. However, Martire in the first book of his Historia dell’ Indie Occidentali,published in Venice in 1534, struck all mention of Sebastian having reached Cuba on this undated voyage. Instead, after Sebastian sailed as high as latitude 55°, he made his way down the coast “which runs at first for a while in the southerly direction, [and] then turns west.” Although this still leaves it possible that Sebastian in 1508–09 or John in 1498 sailed all the way to the Caribbean, it also sounded like a voyage that made a westward jog farther north—below Newfoundland, into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, below Nova Scotia, toward the Maine shore, or below Cape Cod, toward New Jersey.

The La Cosa map has long been thought to depict Cabot’s discoveries in 1497, with perhaps some knowledge of the 1498 voyage that made it home on a surviving ship. There is now good reason to believe that La Cosa indeed was informed of Cabot’s 1498 discoveries, and perhaps of what William Weston saw, presumably in 1499, as the flagged coast suggests a different cruise than the one Cabot made in 1497 from around Cape Bauld to the Avalon Peninsula. The series of five flags implies shore parties that actually staked separate claims, and Cabot went ashore only once in 1497.

The intelligence reached Spain by unknown channels. Was Roderigo de Puebla actually doing his job? Did Ayala eventually send a map, as he initially promised in July 1498? Perhaps the helpful Hugh Say passed one along, as he had already given Columbus a sketch map showing Cabot’s 1497 discoveries.

Leaving aside any possible presence of John Cabot in the Caribbean in 1498 or 1499, the map helps explain what concerned Fernando and Isabel when they drafted the capitulations for Hojeda’s second voyage, on June 8, 1501. Hojeda was told by Fernando and Isabel to continue sailing westward from Coquibaçoa, the region around the Golfo de Venezuela and the islands of the Netherlands Antilles, along the South American coast “because it goes towards the region where it has been learned that the English were making discoveries; and that you go setting up marks with the arms of their Majesties, or with other signs that may be known, such as shall seem good to you, in order that it be known that you have discovered that land, so that you may stop the exploration of the English in that direction.” The monarchs promised Hojeda a gift of six leagues of land on Española “for what you shall discover on the coast of the mainland for the stopping of the English.”

La Cosa’s cartography presciently suggested that the shore marked as having already been discovered by the English might be connected to the Caribbean coast of South America, and Fernando and Isabel had no doubt Henry VII would keep pressing in that direction. Henry was adamant that Tordesillas posed no restrictions on his own exploratory ambitions, and he was no longer so needful of the goodwill of Fernando and Isabel. The marriage of Arthur and Catherine had been secured, and on November 23, 1499, Henry had extinguished the most persistent threat to his throne, which had once made him so dependent on Spanish support. Perkin Warbeck was hanged, with his head then struck from his body and displayed on London Bridge.

To curtail Henry’s activities across the Ocean Sea, Fernando and Isabel expected Hojeda in 1501 to continue pressing west, and then north, around that speculatively curving shore toward the coast bristling with English flags, and mark the land clearly so that the English would not extend their claims any farther south. The instructions, when paired with the La Cosa map, suggest that the English had not yet reached the Caribbean but were surely on the way. By 1500, however, the Spanish no longer had to be concerned that the English interloper would be John Cabot.

CABOT’S ABILITY TO MOUNT the five-ship voyage in 1498 indicated there had been some belief in his geographic notions—although not enough belief to fulfill his licensed quota of six ships. Certainly there had not been the enthusiasm to warrant a true mirroring of Columbus’s second voyage, with enough ships equipped to establish a trading colony along the lines of La Isabella. Say had expected ten or twelve vessels would be sent, and he was not given to hyperbole. The idea that Cabot’s discoveries represented Cathay was in serious doubt if not already firmly discarded. A Weston voyage in 1499 could have been born of the rift first hinted at by Hugh Say. Even before the 1498 flotilla sailed, Say’s letter to Columbus had indicated a fundamental disagreement in England over what Cabot had found. The Venetian had been telling people he had reached the land of the Great Khan while Say’s letter contended Cabot had shown that a landfall previously located by Bristol mariners called the Isle of Brasil actually was part of some mainland. Say’s unwillingness to employ the terms Cathay or Indies further suggested Bristol skepticism that Cabot had achieved his goals.

Henry’s letter ordering a stay of proceedings against Weston employed the words new founde land, which is the first known appearance of a direct precursor for Newfoundland. Did that mean the king himself disagreed with Cabot’s claims of having reached Cathay? The portentous words may have been only clerical shorthand for phrases already employed in support of Cabot. The August 10–11, 1497, reward in Henry’s household books went to “hym that found the new Isle.” Cabot’s 1498 patent had empowered him to press ships to sail to the “londe and Iles of late founde by the seid John.”

Such mentions of new lands or islands would have upheld Cabot’s entitlement to what he had discovered, regardless of whether they were actually the land of the Great Khan—or, according to Bristol mutterings, represented a rediscovery of Brasil. Even so, the language in English records was failing to embrace terms evoking the Indies, as Columbus’s renewed capitulations and other legal documents did. From the beginning of the English experience of what proved to be the New World, there was a strong reservation about formally crediting Cabot with reaching anything like the Indies.

Whatever Cabot’s 1498 voyage managed to achieve in fresh exploration, it did not find a market in Cathay for its English goods or return with riches of the Orient. The 1498 Cabot expedition indeed could have been almost immediately forgotten to history—and ignored by Spanish diplomacy—because it was so resounding a commercial failure. Henry may have experienced a wavering or an outright loss in confidence in Cabot’s vision, not unlike the one that had come over Fernando and Isabel in April 1495 when they marginalized Columbus’s role in the Indies enterprise without tearing up his capitulations. Although Weston’s voyage could have been undertaken with a sublicense of Cabot’s rights and the Venetian’s full approval, it also could have been an effort by Henry to independently verify what Cabot claimed to have found, in the face of disappointing results from the 1498 voyage, in which the king had invested personally. After all, whatever Cabot had found was within Henry’s realm. The king was free to send anyone he wished there, provided they did not infringe on Cabot’s patent rights through commercial activity.

“Henry has aged so much during the last two weeks that he seems to be twenty years older,” Pedro de Ayala informed Fernando and Isabel on March 26, 1499, two weeks after the king ordered the stay of proceedings against Weston. Henry was becoming very devout, hearing a sermon every day during Lent and continuing his devotions for the rest of the day. But his love of money remained unchanged. His riches were increasing daily. “I think he has no equal in this respect,” Ayala concluded. Once a gold coin entered one of his strongboxes, Ayala assured, it never came out again.

Henry had arranged to pay Cabot his annual pension out of customs revenues at Bristol “for the time being.” If Cabot’s discoveries had no real hope of increasing trade, then Cabot was going to be an unnecessary financial burden to the crown. In early 1499, the king appeared duly motivated to employ a fact-checking Weston.

Some Bristol merchants in 1498 had banked on Cabot being correct in that he had found a profitable route to Cathay. Others suspected Cabot had found only what men in Bristol had already discovered, a distant wooded shore they called Brasil. There was another, emerging option: The Isle of Brasil was in fact mainland, as Hugh Say conveyed to Columbus, but was not Cathay. In that case, Cabot had discovered—rather, had rediscovered—a massive impediment to reaching the Indies by sailing west. Some way around it would have to be found. Weston’s 1499 voyage could have been the first to probe for a Northwest Passage. The Portuguese voyages of the doomed Corte-Reals also seem to have been an early effort to determine if this new landmass could be surmounted to the north.

If Henry had lost confidence in Cabot’s claim to have found a quick and easy route to Cathay in northern waters, the reversal of fortune nearly coincided with Columbus’s own renewed plunge in stature with Fernando and Isabel. On March 21, 1499, nine days after the English king ordered the stay of proceedings against Weston, the Spanish monarchs granted Francesco de Bobadilla, brother of Columbus’s former lover, a commission with sweeping powers for investigating the rapidly deteriorating state of Española, where colonists were in revolt at Santo Domingo.

Columbus had sailed on to a rude welcome in Española after his discovery of the Caribbean coast of South America in the summer of 1498 and was still there when Bobadilla arrived. It had taken fourteen months for Bobadilla to depart for the Indies, his preparations possibly disrupted by Columbus loyalists in Spain. Bobadilla already had earned a reputation for harshness as a commander of several Castilian towns that belonged to the military order of Calatrava and had been sued by residents of two of them for malfeasance. When he reached Santo Domingo on August 23, 1500, he immediately installed himself as governor, imprisoned Columbus, and then sent the explorer home in irons.

It would take Columbus until 1501 to regain limited standing with his monarchs and launch a fourth and final voyage, in 1502. When he arrived at Santo Domingo that June, the new viceroy and governor, Nicolás de Ovando, refused him permission to anchor. Columbus’s nemesis, Bobadilla, was departing with a fleet carrying the entire year’s haul of gold. A hurricane in the Mona Passage all but destroyed the fleet and drowned Bobadilla. The only ship to survive was the one carrying Columbus’s personal share of the gold. His Genoese partners in Seville, Francisco de Riberol, Francisco Doria, Francisco Catanio, and Gaspar de Spinola, were financially devastated by the hurricane, but Columbus was finally able to call himself a wealthy man.

Departing Santo Domingo on his further explorations, Columbus reached the Yucatán peninsula of Central America, thus filling in a crucial portion of the La Cosa map concealed beneath the portrait of St. Christopher. The essential evidence for the Americas was now in hand. Columbus still argued he was in Asia.

NOTWITHSTANDING THE LA COSA MAP, we still have no certain idea of what Cabot’s enigmatic 1498 flotilla saw or what Weston found that warranted his subsequent reward. But the geographic regimen of Ptolemy, of Pierre d’Ailly, of Marco Polo, and of Toscanelli that had inspired Portuguese adventurers and a German knight named Martin Behaim and that had fueled the ambitions of both Columbus and Cabot could not continue to dictate the nature of the world. There was no port of Quinsay, no empire of the Great Khan full of precious goods on the far shore of the Ocean Sea. Nor was that far shore an island called Brasil. Beyond the horizon these adventurers dared to chase, another world, a new world, anew founde land was rising.

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