Columbus and Henry VII:

Everyone has heard that Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain commissioned Columbus for his 1492 voyage of exploration. Perhaps few remember that he had struggled for many years to interest other monarchs and rich nobles in Europe in his venture without success. Columbus even sent his brother Bartholomew to Henry VII of England in 1491 looking for money and support.

Henry was a known penny-pincher whose principal preoccupation, as the final victor of the interminable Wars of the Roses, and the first of his royal line, was in founding a solid Tudor dynasty on the English throne. He may have been intrigued by the idea, but had far more important demands on his time and money. But what if Henry VII had agreed, and the conquest of the Americas had gone to the English crown?

There is a historical precedent that tells us England and its monarch were not completely averse to voyages of discovery. “On 5 March 1496 King Henry VII of England gave Giovanni Caboto, known as John Cabot, letters patent with the following charge:

…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 quality 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.” (Wikipedia)

Cabot was financed partly by Bristol merchants and sailed from Bristol. He is credited with being the European discoverer of North America and believed to have landed in what later became Newfoundland. (Here I will forbear from telling any Newfie jokes.) Bristol mariners had long had an interest in discovering or rediscovering an island in the ocean they knew as Hy-Brazil, which they held to be a source of a valuable red dye, so Atlantic voyaging wasn’t completely unknown to them. It’s also believed by many that Portuguese fishermen were already fishing the Grand Banks off Newfoundland before Columbus sailed – they just didn’t hire the right PR firm.

Henry may have had a political reason to authorize the voyage in 1496. Wikipedia again – “Like his contemporary, King Francis I of France, who would send Giovanni da Verrazzano to reconnoiter the eastern seaboard of North America, Henry VII may in part have been motivated by the perceived insolence of the division of the world into two halves by Pope Alexander VI in the Bull Inter Caetera in 1493, which followed the success of Columbus’s first voyage.” While this doesn’t prove that it was possible to persuade Henry to charter the first ocean exploration, it does give an example of what might have transpired from such an undertaking.

Some years ago I wrote a possible first chapter of a novel that had three ships under the Italian navigator Cristoforo Columbo returning up the Thames to report to his patron, Henry VII. I don’t have the material now but I remember anglicizing the names of the actual ships. St Mary is an easy translation; Nina translates roughly as Girl, but its proper name was Santa Clara; Pinta was probably a variant of its owner’s name, Pinzon, which translates as the English chaffinch. Actually the Santa Maria also had a nickname, La Gellega.

The reason for the name varieties probably stems from the impossibly pompous names the Spanish Dons gave to their ships. An aside – the galleon captured by Sir Francis Drake off the South American Pacific coast in 1578 was named “Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion”, but known to the sailors as the “Cacafuego” – the “Shitfire” in plain English.

What would an English Terra Firme have looked like – or the English Main? The alternate history novelist has a tabula rasa for almost any invention desired. I would suggest that Columbus would still have followed his southern route that used the Trade Winds. So the early colonies would still have been Caribbean and Central American. This may well have meant that Giovanni Caboto would have followed a southern route too if he had still made his way to sell his services to the merchants of Bristol. That would probably have made France and Verrazzano undisputed developers of North America – for a few critical years at least.

The history of Cabot and the later English mercantile corporations suggest that the enterprises that followed would have been commercial rather than military – not that English merchants were any more civilized, or less brutal, than Spanish Conquistadors. Henry VIII’s early warships would have been ocean going rather than high-charged carracks of the Mary Rose type, that capsized in battle just off Portsmouth. Where would this alternate history have left Sir Francis Drake, Queen Elizabeth, and the Spanish Armada? The possibilities for the nautical author are almost endless.

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3 Responses to “Columbus and Henry VII:”

  1. joylene Says:

    I think you missed your calling. You should have been a history professor. I would have learned a lot more.

  2. kester2 Says:

    I wanted to study history, but the Brits wanted engineers and made that direction much more promising.

    Chris.

  3. Charli Says:

    Hi There,
    If you wouldn’t mind sending me your email address, I think you and your Tudor History loving readers would be interested in the Mary Rose and her previously unseen artefacts recovered from Henry VIII’s flagship. Fascinating musical, medical and military artefacts were recently revealed by the Mary Rose Trust to launch its first ever public appeal, to help fund an ambitious new £35 million museum project, preserving the great ship for future generations.
    With your permission I’d like to send you more information and some pictures of the artefacts and the spectacular new museum.
    Best wishes
    Charli

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