William Weston (explorer)

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William Weston
Born circa 1445
Died circa 1504/5
Nationality English
Occupation merchant
Known for leading a voyage to Newfoundland
Home town Bristol
Spouse(s) Agnes (née Foster)

William Weston was a 15th-century English merchant from Bristol, who was probably the first Englishman to lead an expedition to North America, the voyage itself taking place in either 1498, 1499 or 1500. The main evidence for the expedition is found in a letter from Henry VII to his Lord Chancellor, John Morton first published in 2009.[1] An annotated transcript, accompanied by an introduction and a photograph of the document was published in 2011.[2] The King's letter provides for a suspension of legal action against Weston because it was the King's intent that Weston would 'shortly with goddes grace passe and saille for to serche and fynde if he can the new founde land'.

Dr Evan Jones, who first published the letter, and his research associate, Margaret Condon, suggest that William Weston was probably operating under the Letters patent granted to the Venetian explorer John Cabot. In March 1496 Cabot had been awarded the monopoly right in England to undertake voyages across the Atlantic, in search of new lands or trade routes. One of the stipulations of the patent was that Cabot should sail only from Bristol. That Weston was a deputy or assign of Cabot, seems likely given the King's personal support for the Bristol explorer. That Cabot and Weston were working together is further supported by the discovery of a 40 shilling reward made by Henry VII to the Bristol merchant in January 1498, at a time when Cabot was in London sorting out business relating to a pension he had been granted by the King and making preparations for a new voyage.[3] While details of the reward have not yet been formally published, they were reported in the Canadian Press in August 2009.[4] Since that time Jones and Condon also claim to have found that the King later paid Weston a much larger reward, as a way of recompensing him for expenses incurred in his voyage to the New World. This is one of the finds of a research programme dubbed The Cabot Project at the University of Bristol, to find more information about the Bristol discovery voyages of this period.[5] It is hoped that the reward itself, along with a much more detailed study of William Weston, will be published in an academic journal.

Weston's Background[edit]

Weston appears to have been a fairly minor Bristol merchant, whose most noteworthy early venture was the undertaking of one of the earliest English trading voyages to Madeira.[6] This took place in 1480 and was presumably intended as a way of gaining direct access to the sugar plantations of what was becoming an important Portuguese colony. In February 1488 Weston was involved in a major maritime disaster while acting as the 'attorney' to the prominent Bristol merchant, John Foster. At this time Weston was responsible for the management of Foster's ship, the Anthony of Bristol, a vessel of about 380 tons burden. The greatest vessel in the Bristol fleet, the Anthony sank at Kingroad (Avonmouth) at the very end of a voyage to Lisbon, with Weston on board. Bristol's merchants blamed the event on the negligence of the master and, while it unclear whether Weston himself received their opprobrium, he subsequently became embroiled in a legal dispute relating to the wreck.[7]

By 1492 Weston had married Agnes Foster, daughter of John Foster,[8] known in Bristol as the founder of Foster's Almshouses. Weston lived at what is now 41 Corn Street.[1] It appears that Foster did not approve of his daughter's marriage to Weston. This is reflected in John Foster's 1492 will, which left nothing to his son-in-law and comparatively little to his daughter.[9] Indeed, the will included clauses that ensured that, if Agnes died before William, her inherited property would then go to the Almshouse. Some further information about Weston can be found in an unpublished 2007 MA dissertation.[10]

Voyages of discovery[edit]

Whether Weston accompanied Cabot on any of his expeditions is unclear. On the other hand, it seems likely that Weston was one of the Bristol merchants who the Milanese Ambassador reported on in December 1497. In a letter to the Duke of Milan, the ambassador noted that some of Cabot's Bristol companions on his recent voyages had accompanied the Venetian to Court and had testified to the truth of the explorer's claims about the lands he had discovered in the summer of 1497.[11] The ambassador further noted that the leading men in voyage to be undertaken in the coming year 'are from Bristol, and great seamen.'

While the exact year of Weston's independent voyage has yet to be determined, Jones and Condon suggest that it most likely took place in 1499, a year after Cabot's final voyage. Dr Alwyn Ruddock, who worked on the Cabot voyages for many years and had earlier uncovered information about Weston, suggested that Weston's voyage went far up into the North West Atlantic, possibly reaching as far as the Hudson Strait. On her death in December 2005, however, Dr Ruddock left instructions for her research notes to be destroyed.[12] Since the evidence on which she based this claim has not been located, it is not possible, at present, to determine whether she was correct about this.


  • Evan T. Jones and M. M. Condon, 'Weston, William (d. in or before 1505)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, May 2010 accessed 30 Oct 2010


  1. ^ a b Evan T. Jones, (2009), 'Henry VII and the Bristol expeditions to North America: the Condon documents', Historical Research, 27 August 2009.
  2. ^ Evan T. Jones and Margaret Condon (eds.), 'Henry VII’s letter to John Morton concerning William Weston’s voyage to the new found land' (University of Bristol, Bristol Repository of Scholarly Eprints (ROSE) , 2011)
  3. ^ Margaret Condon and Evan Jones (eds.), 'Warrant for the payment of John Cabot’s pension, 22 February 1498' (Bristol Repository of Scholarly Eprints (ROSE), 2011)
  4. ^ 'Fee for discovering Canada: 40 shillings', The Gazette
  5. ^ 'The Cabot Project'
  6. ^ E.M. Carus-Wilson (ed.), The Overseas Trade of Bristol in the Later Middle Ages (Bristol Record Society Publications, Vol. VII, Bristol, 1937), p. 285; D.B. Quinn, England and the Discovery of America, 1481–1620 (1973), p. 57
  7. ^ Margaret Condon and Evan T. Jones (eds.), 'William Weston v Thomas Smith: Chancery Petition, 1490'(PURE, 2012)
  8. ^ Evan. T. Jones (ed.), ‘John Esterfeld vs. William Weston of Bristol: Chancery petition transcript, c.1499’, The National Archives, C1/199/76 (University of Bristol, Bristol Repository of Scholarly Eprints (ROSE) , 2009)
  9. ^ Evan T. Jones (ed.), 'Will of John Foster, merchant of Bristol, 6 August 1492' (Bristol Repository of Scholarly Eprints (ROSE), 2008)
  10. ^ Annabel Peacock, 'The Men of Bristol and the Atlantic Discovery Voyages of the Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Centuries' (MA Dissertation, Bristol, 2007)
  11. ^ J.A. Williamson, The Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery under Henry VII (Hakluyt Society, 2nd series, cxx, 1962), pp. 209–11.
  12. ^ Evan T. Jones (2010), Henry VII and the Bristol expeditions to North America: the Condon documents. Historical Research, 83: 444–454, pp. 1–4

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