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New light on the

Press release issued: 8 May 2002


of Bristol

Media release
New light on the Matthew of Bristol

New research, by Bristol University lecturer Dr Evan Jones, casts new light on Bristol's most famous ship. While everyone knows that the Matthew was the ship in which John Cabot sailed on his famous 1497 voyage of discovery to North America, almost nothing is known about the vessel that took him there.

On the basis of his extensive work on Bristol's 15th and 16th century shipping industry, Dr Jones, an economic historian, argues that the Matthew of Bristol was a regular merchant vessel, which continued to serve the city's trade long after the 1497 voyage.

"The problem with the Matthew", said Dr Jones, "is that while we know quite a lot about its 1497 voyage, we have only ever known two things about the ship - its name and the fact that it had a 50-ton cargo capacity. Now though, I believe it is possible to chart a rough outline of the ship's post-1497 history and to place the Matthew in the context of Bristol's early 16th century trade."

The key document on which Dr Jones' case is based is a surviving 1503/4 customs account, now kept at the Public Record Office in London. This official document records the entry and departure of all international ships sailing to or from Bristol in the year following 29 September 1503. This account contains no fewer than five references to the sailings of the 'Matthewe of Bristow' on voyages to Ireland, Bordeaux and Spain.

So, was the 1503/4 Matthew of Bristol the same ship that John Cabot took across the 'ocean blue'? There are good reasons for believing that it was. First, Dr Jones has discovered that 'Matthew' was an extremely unusual name for a Bristol ship prior to 1497. Indeed, he has found no references to a ship of this name at Bristol among the thousands of shipping references that survive for half century before 1497. Secondly, the 1503/4 Matthew was the same size as Cabot's ship - a fact of great significance.

"Visitors to the modern Matthew are generally told that the 50-ton ship was a typical sized vessel for its period", added Dr Jones. "But this isn't true - most Bristol ships of this time were either very small vessels (10- to 20-tons capacity), which specialised in the Irish trade, or they were large vessels (80+ tons) built to service the wine trade of France and Spain. Vessels in the region of 30- to 60-tons capacity were fairly unusual in Bristol - yet such was the size of both Cabot's Matthew and the 1503/4 Matthew. Given the coincidence of the size of the ships and their possession of the same unusual name, it is almost certain the 1503/4 Matthew was the same ship that Cabot used on his voyage, six years earlier."

All this suggests that, after its 1497 voyage, the Matthew returned to the sort of trade for which the ship would have been built and on which Bristol's fortunes were based. On its voyages, the Matthew exported English goods, such as woollen cloth. It imported woad and salt from Bordeaux, iron from northern Spain and fish from Ireland. The customs account also records the names of the ship's masters and merchants who laded on her. These included important Bristol figures, such as Hugh Eliot, who played key role in Bristol's early voyages of discovery to North America.

After 1504, the Matthew once again disappears from view. However, a hint about its end can be found in a 1513 naval survey of Bristol. This document recorded the presence of a 120-ton 'New Mathew' of Bristol (later shortened to 'Matthew'), owned by John Shipman, one of Bristol's richest merchants. While this was clearly a different ship to Cabot's vessel, the 'New' designation suggests that the old, much smaller vessel, had only recently gone out of service. It seems likely that Shipman named his ship in memory of the earlier Matthew.

"I hope", Dr Jones concluded, "that this work will help flesh out the history of Bristol's most famous ship and remind people that the vessels that took part in the early voyages of discovery were the products of trade. Cabot didn't choose Bristol at random. He chose Bristol because he knew that here he could find merchants who were rich enough, and ambitious enough, to support his ventures. He was seeking men of ruthless enterprise; in coming to Bristol you could say he made his first successful discovery."

Dr Evan Jones will give a talk on his research at Jury's Hotel, Prince Street, at 7.30 pm on Monday, May 13. The lecture is open to all, admission £2.

Translations of the 1503/4 and 1513 documents are available online at

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Copyright: 2001 The University of Bristol, UK
Updated: Wednesday, 08-May-2002 11:03:26 BST

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