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Italian merchants fund England’s discovery of North America; and Medieval merchant banking records found behind coat of arms.

Italian merchants funded England’s

discovery of North America

 Dr Fancesco Guidi-Bruscoli, a member of a project based at the University of Bristol, indicates that the Venetian merchant John Cabot (alias Zuan Caboto) received funding in April 1496 from the Bardi banking house in London. The payment of 50 nobles (£16 13s. 4d.) was made so that ‘Giovanni Chabotte’ of Venice, as he is styled in the document, could undertake expeditions ‘to go and find the new land’. With a royal patent from Henry VII of England, Cabot went on to lead expeditions from Bristol during the summers of 1496 and 1497. The second of these was to result in the European discovery of North America – Christopher Columbus not having ventured beyond the Caribbean islands. Dr Evan Jones, who leads the project in Bristol, describes the new evidence as a “fantastic find”. He adds, “We have long known that Italy’s great merchant banks were key to the success of the ventures launched by Portugal and Spain. But it always seemed that the English ventures were an exception. Now it is clear that they too were part of network of Italian-financed expeditions to explore beyond the limits of the known world.”

QM historians discover medieval

banking records hidden under coats

of arms

Among the pages of a bound collection of traditional English crests held at the London College of Arms – the headquarters of British heraldry – are several papers belonging to a book of debtors and creditors for Florentine merchant-banking company, Domenicio Villani & Partners.
Credit: College of Arms
The coats of arms are estimated to have been painted in 1480, during a time when good quality paper was scarce and anything that was available was re-used. The banking records, only half-covered by the design, date from 1422-24 and hint at the extensive trade in wool and other commodities produced in Britain during the era.
Dr. Francesco Guidi-Bruscoli, who is based at the University of Florence and also a Research Fellow at Queen Mary, and Professor Jim Bolton of Queen Mary’s School of History have spent more than a decade working on the Borromei Bank Research Project, documenting the activity of Italian merchant bankers operating from London in the late medieval period. Dr. Guidi, who was alerted to the Villani ledger’s location by QM historian, Professor Kate Lowe, comments:
“What makes the discovery of these pages so surprising is that, usually, the foreign offices of the Florentine companies periodically sent the books back home so they could be checked.
“In this case, the books remained in London, where they gradually lost their documentary value and some 55 years later were considered scraps of good quality paper to be re-used for the drawing of coats of arms.”
Cross-checks with documents held in the Florentine States Archives allowed Dr. Guidi to identify the otherwise anonymous ledger. He has translated the documents from their original Italian, with the results of the find published earlier this year (but bearing the date of 2010) in the Italian journal Storia economica.

First English-led expedition to North


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
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’.


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