The lost voyage: First English-led expedition to North America

August 27, 2009
The lost voyage: First English-led expedition to North America
A personal letter - now in The National Archives - written by Henry VII to his Lord Chancellor on 12 March 1499 in which he writes that William Weston shall shortly ‘with God’s grace pass and sail for to search and find if he can the new found land’. Photo by Dr Evan Jones

( -- Evidence of a previously unknown voyage to North America in 1499, led by a Bristol explorer, is to be published this week in the academic journal Historical Research.

The article by Dr Evan Jones, a historian at Bristol University, suggests that a Bristol merchant, William Weston, undertook a voyage to the ‘New Found Land’ just two years after the first voyage of Venetian explorer John Cabot who sailed from Bristol to ‘discover’ North America in 1497.

Cabot led a second, larger, expedition the following year (1498) to explore the new land, with support from King Henry VII. However, a third expedition undertaken by Weston in 1499 with the support of the King, has remained unknown until now.

The main evidence for the voyage comes from a personal letter written by the King to his Lord Chancellor on 12 March 1499. In this, Henry VII instructs his minister to suspend an injunction served against Weston in the Court of Chancery because Weston shall shortly ‘with God’s grace pass and sail for to search and find if he can the new found land’.

While this was an independent voyage, it seems that Weston was permitted to undertake it because he was one of Cabot’s chief supporters in Bristol. This meant that, although Cabot had received monopoly rights for westwards exploration from England, Weston was covered by the terms of Cabot’s royal patent.

Dr Evan 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 till 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.”

Although the letter itself does not reveal what Weston achieved, research suggests that his expedition took him up into the , possibly reaching as far as the Hudson Straits. “If so”, Dr Jones continued, “this can probably be counted as the first Northwest Passage expedition, commencing a centuries-long search to locate a sea-route around North America.”

Although the publication of this research is entirely new, Dr Jones is keen to stress that the letter itself was found thirty years ago, miscataloged among a bundle of Chancery files in what is now The National Archives. The archivist who found the letter, Miss Margaret Condon, passed on the information to the eminent discovery historian, Professor David Beers Quinn in 1981. He, however, failed to publish the information because he wanted to wait 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 Alwyn Ruddock died, leaving instructions that all her research notes be destroyed. This was despite the fact that, during the forty 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 commenced a search to discover just what Ruddock had found, his investigations being published in a earlier edition of Historical Research. Ruddock had apparently uncovered evidence that Cabot and his supporters had explored a large section of the coast of North America from 1498-1500 and, moreover, that an offshoot of his expedition established the Continent’s first Christian community in Newfoundland. It was while investigating Ruddock’s claims that Dr Jones found out about the discoveries of Margaret Condon, made decades before.

Jones and Condon have now teamed up with researchers in Canada to carry out more work on the early voyages. “When I first started investigating Ruddock’s claims’, Dr Jones said, “some people were somewhat sceptical about her claims. It was perhaps easier to think that she might have gone a bit ‘batty’ in her old age than to believe that her extraordinary claims might be true. Now though, with the bits and pieces of evidence falling into place, the hunt to relocate the material that she found, is certainly on.”

More information:

• E. T. Jones, 'Henry VII and the Bristol expeditions to : the Condon documents', Historical Research. This paper will be made freely available on ‘Early View’ this week.
• E. T.Jones, 'Alwyn Ruddock: John Cabot and the Discovery of America', Historical Research Vol 81, Issue 212 pages 224-254, 5 Apr 2007

Provided by University of Bristol (news : web)

Explore further: Researcher finds El Nino may have been factor in Magellan's Pacific voyage

Related Stories

Moderation in cell phone use is urged

July 12, 2005

A Canadian public health official is urging people to moderate their use of cell phones until uncertainties about long-term health effects are resolved.

Comet impact theory disproved

January 26, 2009

New data, published today, disproves the recent theory that a large comet exploded over North America 12,900 years ago, causing a shock wave that travelled across North America at hundreds of kilometres per hour and triggering ...

Archaeologists explore Peruvian mystery

May 22, 2008

Indiana Jones may be flying over the Nazca Lines in Peru in his latest Hollywood adventure, but two British archaeologists have been investigating the enigmatic desert drawings for several years.

Recommended for you

Metacognition training boosts gen chem exam scores

October 20, 2017

It's a lesson in scholastic humility: You waltz into an exam, confident that you've got a good enough grip on the class material to swing an 80 percent or so, maybe a 90 if some of the questions go your way.

Scientists see order in complex patterns of river deltas

October 19, 2017

River deltas, with their intricate networks of waterways, coastal barrier islands, wetlands and estuaries, often appear to have been formed by random processes, but scientists at the University of California, Irvine and other ...

Six degrees of separation: Why it is a small world after all

October 19, 2017

It's a small world after all - and now science has explained why. A study conducted by the University of Leicester and KU Leuven, Belgium, examined how small worlds emerge spontaneously in all kinds of networks, including ...

Ancient DNA offers new view on saber-toothed cats' past

October 19, 2017

Researchers who've analyzed the complete mitochondrial genomes from ancient samples representing two species of saber-toothed cats have a new take on the animals' history over the last 50,000 years. The data suggest that ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Aug 27, 2009
"Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney and feudal baron of Roslin (c. 1345 %u2013 c. 1400), was a Scottish nobleman. He is sometimes identified by another spelling of his surname, St. Clair. He was the grandfather of William Sinclair, 1st Earl of Caithness, the builder of Rosslyn Chapel. He is best known today because of a modern legend that he took part in explorations of Greenland and North America almost 100 years before Christopher Columbus." -wiki

-How long before mainstream can admit to evidence, of which there is plenty, that Templars and others were here even earlier? This article shows how evidence can indeed be lost, discredited, ignored by orthodoxy until that generation has passed.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 28, 2009
"In 2005, Dr Alwyn Ruddock died, leaving instructions that all her research notes be destroyed."

Is there a way to have someone's degree posthumously revoked?
not rated yet Aug 28, 2009
Out of curiousity why aren't research notes joint property of the educational institution or funding body as well as the researcher?
Isn't asking for ones lifes work to be destroyed upon death a bit batty - a kind of scorched earth policy?
not rated yet Aug 28, 2009
The universe doesn't allow knowledge to be lost- why should we? It is our most valuable possession.
not rated yet Aug 28, 2009
Open Qin's Tomb NOW! We demand it.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.