Skip to main content Accesibility Help

I The Accounts of John Balsall, Purser of the Trinity of Bristol, 1480–1

  • T. F. Reddaway and Alwyn A. Ruddock

A set of shipping accounts kept by the purser of an English ship, the Trinity of Bristol, on a voyage to the ports of Andalusia and North Africa in 1480–1 was discovered recently in the Mercers' Hall in London. It is a very early example of this type of record, for accounts of privately-owned merchant vessels are rarely found in English archives before the files of the High Court of Admiralty begin in the reign of Henry VIII. Its value is enhanced still further, however, by the fact that the ship in question was a vessel of outstanding importance in the early history of English exploration overseas. The Trinity of Bristol was one of the first English ships known to have set out in search of land across the Atlantic more than a decade before Columbus made his first landfall in the New World. This document shows the Bristol men aboard the Trinity in personal contact with the Franciscan friary of Santa Maria de la Rábida, near Huelva, where Columbus found his earliest and most devoted supporters in Spain for his own projected expedition across the western ocean. New lines of speculation are opened up on links between the earliest English and Iberian voyages of discovery, making this a document of great interest to historians of trans-atlantic exploration.

Hide All

page 2 note 1 We are endebted to Miss J. Imray, archivist to the Mercers' Company, for this information, and to the Wardens of the Company for permission to publish this document. Miss Imray first discovered these accounts in the archives of the Company and drew our attention to them.

page 2 note 2 Williams, E. E., The Chantries of William Canynges in St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol (Bristol, 1950), p. 73. Thomas Balsall became warden of the College of Stratford-on-Avon. He died in 1492 but makes no mention of any relations in his will. See P.C.C., 4 Doggett; Early Chancery Proceedings, file 260, no. 33; Victoria County History of Warwickshire, ii. 123.

page 3 note 1 Ricart, Robert, ‘The Maire of Bristowe is Kalendar’, Bristol City MS., fos. 128v., 130; Return of Members of Parliament (London, 1878), i, 363; Wedgwood, J., History of Parliament (London, 1938), i. 460.

page 3 note 2 Tolsey Court Book, 1489–97, Bristol City MS., p. 37.

page 3 note 3 Wyrcestre, William, ‘Itinerarium’, Corpus Christi College, Camb., MS. no. 210, p. 133. Nasmith has omitted the Trinity's name from this list in his edition of Wyrcestre's MS. published in 1778.

page 3 note 4 Morison, S. E., Admiral of the Ocean Sea. A Life of Christopher Columbus (Boston, 1942), i. 151–2; Williamson, J. A., Maritime Enterprise, 1485–1558 (London, 1913), p. 343.

page 4 note 1 P.R.O., Treaty Roll 148, m.14. This grant is calendared but incorrectly dated in The Overseas Trade of Bristol in the Later Middle Ages, ed. Wilson, E. M. Carus (Bristol Record Society, 1937), p. 133.

page 4 note 2 Wadley, T. P., Notes or Abstracts of the Wills in the Great Orphan Book and Book of Wills at Bristol (Bristol, 1886), pp. 142–3.

page 4 note 3 Cal. Pat. Rolls, 1467–77, p. 471.

page 4 note 4 Wilson, E. M. Carus, op. cit., pp. 130–1, 133; Early Chancery Proceedings, file 30, no. 60.

page 5 note 1 Ricart, , op. cit., fo. 126v.; Itineraria Symonis Simeonis et Willelmi de Worcestre, ed. Nasmith, J. (Cambridge, 1778), p. 267; Wilson, E. M. Carus, op. cit., p. 146.

page 5 note 2 Nasmith, , loc. cit.; Ricart, , op. cit., fos. 130v., 133v., 138.

page 5 note 3 Wilson, E. M. Carus, op. cit., p. 155; Cal. Pat. Rolls, 1467–77, p. 471.

page 5 note 4 Ricart, , op. cit., fos. 124v., 126, 127v.; The Great Red Book of Bristol, ed. Veale, E. W. W. (Bristol Record Society Publications, 19311953), iii. 152–4; iv. 94–6.

page 5 note 5 Ricart, , op. cit., fo. 126v; Veale, E. W. W., op. cit., ii. 148–9.

page 6 note 1 Wilson, E. M. Carus, op. cit., pp. 260–4, 281–2; Exchequer records, K.R. particulars of customs for Bristol 19/4, 19/7, 19/10.

page 7 note 1 Wilson, E. M. Carus, op. cit., p. 157; Ricart, Robert, op. cit., fos. 130v., 132v., Return of Members of Parliament, i. 357; Wedgwood, J., op. cit., i. 488, 507.

page 7 note 2 The Cabot Roll, ed. Scott, E. and Hudd, A. E. (Bristol, 1897); Weare, G., Cabot's Discovery of North America (London, 1897), pp. 129seqq.

page 7 note 3 The merchants' marks used by Jay, Strange, Westcott and Spencer are described and illustrated by Hudd, A. E., ‘Bristol Merchant Marks’, Proceedings Clifton Antiquarian Club (Exeter, 1912), vii, pp. 194seqq., figs. 253, 470, 260, 431. The rest have not been found.

page 8 note 1 Burwash, D., English Merchant Shipping, 1460–1540 (Toronto, 1947), p. 50.

page 8 note 2 Early Chancery Proceedings, file 871, no. 13.

page 8 note 3 See below, pp. 15–17, 24.

page 9 note 1 Connell-Smith, G. E., Forerunners of Drake (London, 1954), pp. 23seqq.

page 9 note 2 Longfield, A. K., Anglo-Irish Trade in the Sixteenth Century (London, 1929), pp. 39, 51–2, 145.

page 9 note 3 See map of this area in 1492 in Morison, S. E., Admiral of the Ocean Sea. A Life of Christopher Columbus (Boston, 1942), i. 109.

page 9 note 4 de Mas Latrie, J., Relations et commerce de l'Afrique septentrionale ou Magreb avec les nations chrétiennes au moyen âge (Paris, 1886), pp. 514, 527; Bovill, E. W., ‘North Africa in the Middle Ages’, Journal African Society, xxx, 133–8passim.

page 10 note 1 Braudel, F., ‘Les espagnols et l'Afrique du Nord de 1492 á 1577’, Revue africaine, lxix (1928), 207seqq.

page 10 note 2 de Mas Latrie, J., op. cit., p. 500.

page 11 note 1 Quinn, D. B., ‘Edward IV and Exploration’, Mariner's Mirror, xxi (1935), 277–80.

page 12 note 1 Vigneras, L. A., ‘New Light on the 1497 Cabot Voyage’, Hispanic Historical Review, xxxvi, 507–9.

page 12 note 2 Harrison, W. E. C., ‘An Early Voyage of Discovery’, Mariners' Mirror xvi, 198–9.

page 13 note 1 Lunardi, E., ‘L'importanza del monastero di Santa Maria de la Rábida nella genesi della scoperta d'America’, Studi colombiani (Genoa, 1952), ii. 456–61; Morison, S. E., op. cit., i. 108–11, 132–3.

page 13 note 2 Lunardi, E., op. cit., p. 452.

page 13 note 3 Vigneras, L. A., loc. cit.; Ruddock, A. A., ‘John Day of Bristol and the English Voyages across the Atlantic before 1497’, Geographical Journal, cxxxii (1966), pp. 225–33.

page 15 note 1 Minehead, co. Som.

page 15 note 2 reales—silver Spanish coins.

page 15 note 3 Probably Baldwin Cross, above the main slip to the River Avon on the Back at Bristol, where ships tied up to take their cargo.

page 15 note 4 maravedis—copper Spanish coins.

page 15 note 5 cruzado—a gold Portuguese coin.

page 15 note 6 Huelva.

page 15 note 7 A pair of shoes for his cabin-boy?

page 15 note 8 i.e. freight.

page 15 note 9 Bristol.

page 15 note 10 The binding of the volume has partly obscured some of the last symbols and figures at this side of the page.

page 15 note 11 Kinsale, co. Cork.

page 15 note 12 Puerto de Santa Maria, generally called St. Mary de Port or simply ‘the Port’ by Tudor seafarers.

page 16 note 1 i.e. silver Spanish reales.

page 16 note 2 A florin—a gold coin first minted in Florence in 1252.

page 16 note 3 See p. 8.

page 16 note 4 Balsall uses a symbol to denote one half.

page 16 note 5 See above, p. 8.

page 16 note 6 i.e. the bo'sun.

page 17 note 1 Gibraltar.

page 17 note 2 Hungroad—a deep-water anchorage in the River Avon about three miles down the river from Bristol bridge.

page 17 note 3 i.e. Soldiers.

page 17 note 4 See above p. 11.

page 18 note 1 An enrique—a gold Spanish coin.

page 18 note 2 Member of a well-known family of Bristol merchants. Perhaps one of the merchants or factors travelling on board the Trinity? See above, p. 9.

page 18 note 3 Milford Haven, co. Pembroke.

page 18 note 4 i.e. gunners.

page 18 note 5 See above, p. 11.

page 19 note 1 Hungroad.

page 19 note 2 Left blank.

page 19 note 3 Two illegible scrawls.

page 20 note 1 Fardel—a bundle, a small pack. N.E.D.

page 20 note 2 Cotton russetts—a coarse cloth of reddish brown or neutral colour. N.E.D.

page 20 note 3 Merchant marks, see above, p. 7.

page 20 note 4 Robert Strange, see above, p. 7.

page 20 note 5 i.e. the merchant mark sketched in the margin of the schedule, or remembrance.

page 20 note 6 John Esterfeld, see above, p. 7.

page 20 note 7 i.e. lodging.

page 20 note 8 A fee for storage or warehousing.

page 21 note 1 The straits of Gibraltar.

page 21 note 2 From the Spanish carretáge—a brokerage fee.

page 21 note 3 i.e. sales.

page 21 note 4 i.e. a Jew of Huelva.

page 21 note 5 i.e. a dark-green cloth.

page 21 note 6 A blue-colour cloth.

page 21 note 7 ? reckoning at.

page 21 note 8 An unidentified type of cloth. The meaning is not clear but this seems a reference to shearmen's folds or pleats. See N.E.D. under ‘plait’ or ‘pleytes’ and Veale, E. W. W., op. cit., ii, 66 for use of this phrase elsewhere in Bristol records.

page 21 note 9 ‘Novembre’ crossed out.

page 21 note 10 Unidentified. See n. 8 above.

page 21 note 11 The vare was a Spanish linear measurement containing an English ell less a nail; the nail was one-sixteenth of a yard. See The Marchants Avizo, ed. McGrath, P. (Harvard, Mass., 1957), pp. 20, 62, n. 41.

page 22 note 1 Truck, i.e. in barter for wine.

page 22 note 2 Trigueros.

page 22 note 3 Spanish sack—a general name for a class of white wines formerly imported from Spain. N.E.D.

page 22 note 4 Palos.

page 22 note 5 i.e. butts, a measure of wine containing 126 gallons.

page 22 note 6 The contador or factor of the Duke of Medina Sidonia.

page 22 note 7 Wine called Bastard.

page 22 note 8 A dark blue dull colour [cloth].

page 22 note 9 i.e. Drink for the crew and passengers.

page 22 note 10 Moguer.

page 23 note 1 Sic. Perhaps casks for baling out water. See ‘to lave’—N.E.D.

page 23 note 2 i.e. Port St. Mary, the English name for Puerto de Santa Maria.

page 23 note 3 Balsall's totals are wrong in several places here.

page 23 note 4 An unidentified charge on the merchandise.

page 23 note 5 Brokerage, see above, p. 21, n. 2.

page 23 note 6 See above, p. 11.

page 23 note 7 Before the organization of regular port services the crew of a ship were paid extra money known as primage for loading and unloading their ship in port. Burwash, D., English Merchant Shipping, 1460–1540 (Toronto, 1947), p. 51.

page 24 note 1 Kingroad, an anchorage at the mouth of the R. Avon about seven miles from Bristol.

page 24 note 2 18th October.

page 24 note 3 i.e. hoops for casks.

page 24 note 4 ? a funnel.

page 24 note 5 Twists and hasps [bought] in Minehead for the ship's doors.

page 24 note 6 Either Harford, S. Devon or, more likely, Haverfordwest, co. Pembroke, Welsh name Hwlffordd, since the ship appears to have put in at S. Wales. See above, p. 18, n. 3.

page 24 note 7 Fish for the ship's victuals.

page 24 note 8 i.e. to rosin the ship. To close up leaking seams by filling them with oakum or old untwisted rope, pushed hard into the leaks and sealed with hot melted rosin to keep it from rotting. See Falconer, 's Universal Dictionary of the Marine (London, 1815 edn.) under ‘Caulk or Calk’.

page 24 note 9 Artificial fire which burns even under water, made of a mixture of sulphur, pitch, gum and bitumen. Falconer, op. cit.

page 24 note 10 A mizzen mast.

page 24 note 11 From the verb douen—to provide or endow; past participle—doghte. See Kurath, H. & Kuhn, S. M., A Middle English Dictionary.

page 24 note 12 i.e. the gunner of the George. See above, p. 10.

page 25 note 1 Caulking a ship is the same process as rosining. See above, p. 24, n. 8.

page 25 note 2 Caulkers.

page 25 note 3 Iron.

page 25 note 4 Oakum—unpicked rope used for caulking a ship.

page 25 note 5 Trunnion fittings, to fix the chambers to the barrels of the guns. See Callender, G., ‘Miches, Capsquares and Trunnion Bands’, Mariners' Mirror, v. (London, 1919), pp. 36–8.

page 25 note 6 Some type of bindings to lash the gun barrels to their wooden carriers.

page 25 note 7 Topmasts.

page 25 note 8 Oars.

page 25 note 9 Broadcloths.

page 25 note 10 A castellano—a gold Spanish coin bearing the armorial shield of Castile.

page 25 note 11 The Spanish kintall or hundred weight was equivalent to 102 English pounds—The Marchants Avizo, pp. 19–20.

page 25 note 12 An unidentified local dignitary of Puerto de Santa Maria.

page 25 note 13 A pleasure, i.e. a gift or token.

page 25 note 14 Unidentified. The text would seem to suggest some type of port charge.

page 25 note 15 For striking or lowering the mast.

page 25 note 16 Lerings or mast carlings, stout blocks of wood usually fitted in pairs in a fore-and-aft direction. See Sandhal, B., Middle English Sea Terms, i. The Ship's Hull (Upsala, 19511958), pp. 75–6.

page 26 note 1 Orlop—a gangway or platform running the length of the ship to connect the fore- and after-castles. There were probably two of them on most substantial ships in the late fifteenth century— Sandhal, , op. cit., i. 198.

page 26 note 2 Spikenails.

page 26 note 3 Calfat-nails. It is not clear what these were. The derivation seems to be from calefato—a caulker. Perhaps small nails for holding in place canvas securing the oakum when the ship was caulked.

page 26 note 4 This seems to be a port charge. See above, p. 25, n. 14.

page 26 note 5 Loadsmanship, i.e. pilotage.

page 26 note 6 Canvas.

page 26 note 7 Wax for crossbow strings.

page 26 note 8 Gimlet—a kind of boring tool. N.E.D.

page 26 note 9 Probably a feasting. See the obsolete verb ‘convive’, to feast together. N.E.D.

page 26 note 10 Oran.

page 26 note 11 To rummage—to arrange cargo in the hold of a vessel. N.E.D.

page 26 note 12 Scuppernails—short nails with very broad flat heads. Sandhal, , op. cit., i. 156157.

page 26 note 13 Rom-nails. Nails used when stowing wine casks in the ship's hold, ibid., i. 153.

page 26 note 14 The Berlengas islands off Cape Carvoeiro, Portugal.

page 26 note 15 Sic. Unidentified.

page 27 note 1 Panniers, i.e. baskets.

page 27 note 2 The friars of the Franciscan convent of Santa Maria de la Rábida, near Huelva.

page 27 note 3 Dogfish. From the Anglo-Saxon húnd-fisc. Smyth, W. H., The Sailor's Word Book (London, 1867), under Houndfish.

page 27 note 4 To dight—to prepare, to get ready for use. H. Kurath and S. M. Kuhn, A Middle English Dictionary.

page 27 note 5 Unidentified.

page 27 note 6 Twine.

page 27 note 7 Hourglasses or sandglasses for keeping the watches and timing the courses sailed.

page 27 note 8 The harbour bar at Huelva.

page 27 note 9 Skins to make mops to lay on pitch, rosin or tallow. See Naval Accounts and Inventories of the Reign of Henry VII, ed. Oppenheim, M. (Navy Records Society, 1896), p. 16—‘iiij shepe skynnes for mapoldes’.

page 27 note 10 i.e. fetching of materials for burning. A ship's hull wascleaned, when beached, by singeing with burning reeds, furze or gorse to soften the pitch, so that shells, barnacles and other rubbish adhering to it could be swept off and the hull made ready for recaulking.

page 27 note 11 A pulley.

page 27 note 12 See p. 26, n. 9 above.

page 27 note 13 i.e. at Puerto de Santa Maria on New Year's Day.

page 28 note 1 To marl—to fasten with marline or small line or to wind marline or other small stuff around a rope to strengthen it, every turn being secured by a certain sort of knot. Falconer, op. cit.

page 27 note 2 Perhaps commons, i.e. an allowance of food.

page 27 note 3 Perhaps ‘4 vares of odd clot’.

page 27 note 4 The pilot's food at Gibraltar.

page 27 note 5 A messenger sent to the Duke of Medina Sidonia.

page 27 note 6 Unidentified.

page 27 note 7 i.e. a skiff to bring me aboard.

page 27 note 8 i.e. our soldiers' lodging.

page 27 note 9 Seville.

page 27 note 10 Oakum, pitch and vinegar for the gunners. Wildfire is extinguishable by vinegar mixed with sand. Falconer, op. cit.

page 27 note 11 All this last page is crossed out and the account ends abruptly here.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Royal Historical Society Camden Fifth Series
  • ISSN: 0068-6905
  • EISSN: 2051-1701
  • URL: /core/journals/royal-historical-society-camden-fifth-series
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed