William Weston (explorer)

William Weston
Borncirca 1445
Diedcirca 1504/5
Known forleading a voyage to Newfoundland
Home townBristol
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

William Weston is believed to have been born in Bristol, where he became a fairly minor merchant, trading mostly with Lisbon.[1] He undertook one of the earliest English trading voyages to Madeira, a Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic.[2] 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 this period he also have served as a purser or factor on the Trinity of Bristol, which was used for an expedition looking for the 'Isle of Brasil' in the Atlantic.[3].

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.[4]

By 1492 Weston married Agnes Foster, daughter of merchant John Foster.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7] The will included clauses that ensured that, if Agnes died before William, her inherited property would go to the almshouse rather than her husband. By the late 1490s the Westons were in trouble for failing to pay the 'quit rent' on the Corn Street property, which Foster had ordered should be paid to help fund the almshouse. The executor of Foster's estate had prosecuted Weston successfully, which was to result in William and Agnes' eviction. It was to avoid this fate that William Weston appealed to the King, asking for a suspension of the legal proceedings until after he had undertaken his expedition to the new found land.

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