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 taking place most likely in 1499 or 1500. The fact of Weston's leadership has been discovered only in the early 21st century, and it changes interpretations of the discovery era.

He also is believed to have been part of John Cabot's landmark 1497 expedition, the first European expedition to North America since the Vikings 500 years before.

Life and background[edit]

William Weston is believed to have been born in Bristol, where he became a fairly minor merchant. He undertook one of the earliest English trading voyages to Madeira, a Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic.[1] This took place in 1480 and was likely intended as a way of gaining direct access to the sugar plantations of what was developing as an important Portuguese colony.

In February 1488 Weston was acting as the 'attorney' to the prominent Bristol merchant, John Foster. At this time Weston managed 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 maritime disaster on the negligence of the master. While it is unclear whether Weston was blamed, he subsequently became embroiled in a legal dispute relating to the wreck.[2]

By 1492 Weston married Agnes Foster, daughter of merchant John Foster.[3] Her father was known in Bristol as the founder of Foster's Almshouses. Weston and his wife lived at what is now 41 Corn Street.[4]

It appears that Foster did not approve of his daughter's marriage to Weston, as Foster's 1492 will left nothing to his son-in-law and comparatively little to his daughter.[5] The will included clauses that ensured that, if Agnes died before William, her inherited property would go to the Almshouse rather than her husband. Additional information about Weston can be found in an unpublished 2007 MA dissertation by Annabel Peacock.[6]

Voyages of discovery[edit]

Course of William Weston's voyage of c.1499, based on Ruddock

It is not certain that Weston accompanied Cabot on his expeditions but seems likely as his own expedition was probably related to Cabot's assigning patent rights to him for exploration in 1499. In a December 1497 letter to the Duke of Milan, the Milanese 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 [North America] he had discovered in the summer of 1497. Weston may have been one of his companions.[7] The ambassador further noted that the leading men in the voyage to be undertaken in the coming year "are from Bristol, and great seamen."[7]

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 had 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.[8] Since the evidence on which she based this claim has not been located, scholars can not yet determine if she was correct about the extent of Weston's voyage.


The main evidence for Weston's expedition is found in a letter from Henry VII to his Lord Chancellor, John Morton, which was discovered in the late 20th century and first published in 2009.[9] 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".[9]

Historian Evan Jones and his research associate Margaret Condon suggest that William Weston was probably operating under the Letters patent granted to the Venetian explorer John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto in Italian), which could be assigned to third parties.[10] 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 to China. One of the stipulations of the patent was that Cabot should sail only from Bristol. He reached North America in 1497 and is believed to have landed at Newfoundland or Cape Breton Island before his return. He was the first European to do so since the Vikings had gone to Vinland 500 years before.

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 Henry VII's having made a 40-shilling reward to Weston in January 1498.[11] Historians take this to mean that Weston was on Cabot's 1497 voyage. At that time, Cabot was in London sorting out business related to a pension he had been granted by the King and making preparations for a new voyage.[12] Details of the reward were first reported in the Canadian press in August 2009.[13] Following the expedition the King paid Weston a £30 reward, as a way of recompensing him for expenses incurred in his voyage to the New World.[14]

This document has been published as a result 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.[15] This project, with participation of several international scholars, has also been working with researchers in Newfoundland on archeological excavations in Carbonear, identified as a potential site for a 15th-century church that may have been started by an Augustine friar accompanying Cabot's 1497 expedition. He is believed to have stayed in Newfoundland to start the mission.



  1. ^ 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
  2. ^ Margaret Condon and Evan T. Jones (eds.), 'William Weston v Thomas Smith: Chancery Petition, 1490',(PURE, 2012)
  3. ^ 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)
  4. ^ Evan T. Jones, (2009), 'Henry VII and the Bristol expeditions to North America: the Condon documents', Historical Research, 27 Aug 2009, p. 8, n. 29
  5. ^ Evan T. Jones (ed.), 'Will of John Foster, merchant of Bristol, 6 August 1492' (Bristol Repository of Scholarly Eprints (ROSE), 2008)
  6. ^ Annabel Peacock, The Men of Bristol and the Atlantic Discovery Voyages of the Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Centuries (MA Dissertation, Bristol, 2007)
  7. ^ a b J.A. Williamson, The Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery under Henry VII (Hakluyt Society, 2nd series, cxx, 1962), pp. 209–11.
  8. ^ Evan T. Jones (2010), Henry VII and the Bristol expeditions to North America: the Condon documents. Historical Research, 83: 444–454, pp. 1–4
  9. ^ a b Evan T. Jones (2009), 'Henry VII and the Bristol expeditions to North America: the Condon documents', Historical Research, 27 August 2009.
  10. ^ Evan T. Jones, "The Matthew of Bristol and the financiers of John Cabot's 1497 voyage to North America", English Historical Review (2006)
  11. ^ Evan T. Jones and Margaret M. Condon, Cabot and Bristol's Age of Discovery: The Bristol Discovery Voyages 1480-1508 (University of Bristol, Nov. 2016), p. 42.
  12. ^ 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)
  13. ^ "Fee for discovering Canada: 40 shillings", The Gazette
  14. ^ Evan T. Jones and Margaret M. Condon, Cabot and Bristol's Age of Discovery: The Bristol Discovery Voyages 1480-1508 (University of Bristol, Nov. 2016), pp. 57-8.
  15. ^ 'The Cabot Project'

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