Tudors and Stuarts - M. B. Synge

Henry VII, Columbus, and Cabot. The Age of Discovery

Children of Henry Tudor


Henry VII, the first Tudor sovereign, came to the throne in 1485, at the end of the Wars of the Roses. He was busy, during the first twelve years of his reign, in and the making sure of his throne; he had to put down two "pretenders," Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, and he determined to get rid gradually of all those whose Yorkist blood made them dangerous rivals. The young Earl of Warwick was beheaded after an imprisonment of fourteen years—his only crime was that he was the last prince of the House of York.

As soon as his throne was safe, Henry was anxious to make England a real power abroad, which she could not be during the Wars of the Roses, and he did this mainly by peaceful and tactful dealings with foreign kings and without fighting a single battle. The time was now ripe to arrange two important marriages which would further strengthen his position and his family. In those days, countries were treated as if they were princes' estates, and they often passed from one ruler to another by marriage. So the marriages of princes and princesses were very important events. The way in which Henry VII managed the marriages of his children shows us much of his own character and that of the times in which he lived. Months were spent in deciding how much money the bride should bring to her future husband, and Henry VII took care to gain every penny he could in this way.

After the victory of Bosworth over Richard III, and after the murder of the Earl of Warwick, the Spanish envoy could report to his royal master that "not a doubtful drop of royal blood" was left in England. So a marriage treaty with Spain could be settled; and there was a solemn betrothal of Prince Arthur of England and Princess Catharine of Aragon at Woodstock, and later on the marriage was celebrated at St. Paul's. London gave itself up for ten days to the enjoyment of jousts and masques, mummeries and dancing, bowls and archery, feasting and banqueting.

But Arthur died the next year, and arrangements were then made to betroth Catharine to the English king's second son, who afterwards became Henry VIII. This alliance with Spain lasted for forty years, until Henry VIII got tired of Catharine.

Lady Margaret


Let us now turn our attention to Scotland. The disorder of the Middle Ages lasted longer in Scotland than elsewhere. There was no unity in the country. The Lowlands were peopled by the children of the old Angles and Normans and were still ruled by feudal lords. The Highlands were the homes of the children of the fierce old Picts and Scots and were still under the sway of tribal chiefs. These lords and chiefs were the real rulers of the country. Although kings of the House of Stuart had been on the Scottish throne for more than a hundred years, its kings were not much stronger than some of the great Scottish lords. The bitterness caused by Edward I's war with Scotland had never died out. The old quarrels went on—always on the borders and on the seas, and now and then in set battles, especially when England was at war with France. Thus, Scotland and England were still separate kingdoms, each having its own king and fond of fighting each other on every possible occasion.

Henry VII wisely aimed at a lasting peace with Scotland which would end the long friendship of Scotland with France. It was decided that Henry's daughter Margaret should be married to the Scotch King James IV. From this marriage was descended James VI of Scotland, who became later James I of England. In this way Henry VII made the most important step towards the real union of Great Britain since Parliament was set up in the reign of Edward I.

[Illustration] from Tudors and Stuarts by M. B. Synge


It is not unlikely that Henry had in his mind the dream of that Plantagenet king—a union of the two crowns—though there could be no immediate prospect of this being realised, But under his successors there was a break in the friendship and good relations which Henry established with Scotland; the Scotch were severely defeated at the battle of Flodden in Henry VIII's reign, and there was a renewal of the long Scottish alliance with France.

But by far the most famous events of Henry VII's reign were the great discoveries and the great increase in trade and commerce. English trade in those days was in its earliest and humble stages. English ships did little more than ferry goods across the narrow seas between this island and the Continent—exporting Cornish tin and Derbyshire lead, and especially wool to Flanders, and importing wine from Gascony and cloth from Flanders. But even much of this trade, and all the trade with distant parts, was in the hands of foreign shippers, except that the men of Bristol carried on some business with Iceland.

[Illustration] from Tudors and Stuarts by M. B. Synge


But now a time of stir and adventure was beginning. In all directions the English merchants found foreigners to oppose them and they had to struggle hard to get a footing. The products of South Europe and the riches of India and China in the East were brought to England each year in the fleets of the merchants of Venice. The Mediterranean trade was in the hands of the large ports of the South of Europe—Barcelona and Marseilles, Pisa and Genoa, Florence and Venice. The Baltic trade was jealously guarded by the German merchants, who had their factories or stations all over North Europe—even so far north as at Bergen in Norway and at Novgorod in Russia. The Steelyard, situated where Cannon Street Station now stands, was the Germans' headquarters in London. The English merchants hated these Germans, and so strong was the feeling against the foreigners that at one time they dared scarcely show their faces in the streets of London.

But English trade and shipping was now receiving a great stimulus from voyages of discovery, It was in Henry VII's reign that the most important discovery in all history was made—when Columbus reached the Discovery; West Indies and thus opened the way to a New World, and won for Spain the largest share of the riches of this New World. Five years later, John Cabot sailed into the "sea of darkness" (as the Atlantic was called) and reached the mainland of North America, and Henry VII showed his interest in these wonderful over-sea voyages by rewarding Cabot. The next year Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese mariner, found a sea-route to India round the Cape of Good Hope.

[Illustration] from Tudors and Stuarts by M. B. Synge


Let us see what these great discoveries meant to Europe and England. Almost all parts of the world are now known to us, except the South Pole. This makes it very difficult for us nowadays to realise that five hundred years ago very little of the world was known to men in Europe. Men's exact knowledge of geography at that time did not go beyond Europe and the countries round the Mediterranean, and the West Coast of Africa.

The huge Continent of Asia was still unknown except by hearsay and by the reports of the famous travellers of the Middle Ages, the brothers Polo of Venice. Their accounts of the strange lands they visited in the thirteenth century we can still read. The Atlantic had been "a sea of darkness," and nobody knew what lay beyond it, but the discovery of America soon made it a highway between the Old and the New World.

The last quarter of the fifteenth century was a great age of discovery. Portugal and Spain, who had for many centuries been crusading against enemies in their own lands, now became eager to discover new lands, and to make Christians of the heathen peoples. The sailors of Portugal ventured eastwards over the sea round the west coast of Africa towards India, While Spain made for the west in the opposite direction.

The Portuguese sailors had already got as far south as the mouth of the Gambia River in West Africa. But in the year after Henry VII came to the throne, the Portuguese sailor, Bartholomew Diaz, got much further south and found a Cape of Storms, as he had good reason to call it, at the extreme southwest coast of Africa. The supposed great wealth of India still tempted the Portuguese mariners. Their king decided that the Cape of Storms must be called the Cape of Good Hope, and twelve years later Diaz found his way round South Africa right across the ocean to India, and the good hope  was at last realised.

Meanwhile, the famous navigator of Genoa, Christopher Columbus, had been making up his mind that as the world was round, it must be possible to reach India more easily by sailing West, instead of East as the Portuguese were doing. It was now very important to find another and easy way to India, as the hated Turks barred the way to it overland. At last, after much disappointment and trouble, he found a friend in the Queen of Castile (Spain). In 1492, his three little ships sailed from Palos near Cadiz to try their fortunes on the "sea of darkness." Columbus himself commanded the largest vessel, the Santa Maria, which had a crew of fifty men. About two months from the date of setting out, Columbus sighted a little island, which he thought was a part of India or Cathay (China), and the group of islands to which it belongs has ever since been called the "West Indies." But though he did not know it, he had really found a New World—America, as you will see if you look at a map of the world.

Santa Maria


It was not till after his death that men realised what the great discovery meant, and the brave Columbus was badly treated by the nation he had made wealthy.

These wonderful discoveries had far-reaching effects. Italy and the Mediterranean were no longer the centre of the world, and their great merchant cities would no longer have the rich trade of the East all to themselves.

Up till now the luxuries of the East—its spices, silks and velvets, gems and jewels, scented woods, etc.—had been brought to Europe overland from China and India by Arab traders. From the Arabs, these Eastern goods reached Venice by way of Egypt and the Red Sea, and Genoa by way of Constantinople and the Black Sea. From Venice and Genoa they were sent through Central Europe to the North German traders, and by them they were handed on to the nations of the north.

But the Turks took Constantinople in 1453 and Egypt came under their rule some fifty years later. The European traders were afraid to go by the old routes where they would meet the cruel Turks. The nations therefore who could reach India quickest by the new sea routes would now reap the rewards of the Eastern trade. Spain drew great wealth from the newly-found mines of America, and Portugal founded a brilliant if short-lived empire in India and grew fat on its trade.

What was England doing while all this was going on? She was not yet ready for her full share in the New World. For she was troubled by the Wars of the Roses, and later on by the religious strife of Henry VIII's reign. It was not till Elizabeth's time that England was ready to enter the race with Spain and Portugal, never to turn back again. But even now England showed great interest in the story of these marvellous voyages. Sir Thomas More goes so far as to say that books about these discoveries were in every man's hands. Henry VII himself helped and rewarded the Cabots, father and son.

John Cabot was born in Genoa, but he lived his early life in Venice. He tried, but without success, to get Spain or Portugal to help him in his adventures over the seas. So he left Venice for Bristol, which was then the second town in England and the port most interested in discoveries. This town was already famous for its voyages in search of the famous "Seven Cities of the East" and the "Island of Brazil," which were said to be immensely wealthy.

Henry VII sent the Cabots on a voyage of discovery, and the next year they returned with the report that they had found land on the other side of the ocean. Whether this land was Labrador or the Island of Newfoundland is not quite clear. They had at any rate discovered a part of the mainland of North America, but they thought it was the land of the great Khan, that is, the Emperor of China.

Think a moment what these discoveries meant in those days! This voyage was made with one small sailing ship and eighteen men of Bristol. They had for many a long day and night to brave without charts the terrors of unknown seas and the icy winds, just as the men of Columbus had had to do. Then they only found dreary shores where they saw no human beings, although they did find a kind of fishing net. Well might the men of Bristol make a great fuss of Cabot on his return. "He is styled the great Admiral," writes the Venetian envoy, "vast honour is paid to him; he dresses in silk and the English run after him like mad people." In the next year Cabot again crossed the ocean to try and find a North-West Passage  from Europe to India, but the ice and the snow off the coasts of Greenland drove him back, as they did many another brave sailor who followed his example, even to our own days.

The Cabots were not solely in the service of England. Sebastian Cabot, the son, was employed by the King of Spain, and by the Emperor Charles V, and the Venetians; and he made several voyages of discovery for them. He was map-maker to King Henry VIII, who sent him to try again to discover the North-West Passage. Edward VI made this great Venetian the Grand Pilot of England, and gave him a pension. The merchants of London were now growing in wealth and influence, and Sebastian Cabot settled a great dispute between them and the merchants of Germany. Later came Elizabeth, who not only gave Charters to numerous trading companies, but also shared in the gains from their voyages and in the treasure seized from Spanish ships by her "sea-dogs."

Thus all the Tudor sovereigns showed their interest in the new lands and new trades across the great ocean. All this time, ships were being made, and sailors and pilots were being trained. Such were the tiny beginnings of our great Empire.