As noted in previous posts, I recently researched – as part of my book The Tudor Empire – the John Cabot voyages for Henry VII during the 1490s (you can read about the myths of phantom islands of the Atlantic ocean, as well as the legend of the disappearance of John Cabot himself). What I found very intriguing was how before sailing off across the Atlantic on behalf of the Spanish crown, Christopher Columbus had hoped to secure the backing of Henry VII and the English. This, then, suggests an interesting “what if”: what if Christopher Columbus discovered America for the Tudor dynasty?
The Age of Discovery began with the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus. He sailed west into the Atlantic with the hope of establishing direct trade route to the riches of the Asian kingdoms, notably China. As well all know, Columbus was disappointed that a considerable bulk of land stood in his way, and although he protested otherwise, he had discovered a new giant landmass that later became known as America. This established a Spanish presence in the New World, which would eventually lead to their domination of the Caribbean islands in the early 1500s, the conquest of the Aztec Empire in the 1520s, and then in the 1530s the downfall of the Incan Empire in Peru. Such actions transformed Spain into a superpower.
However, in an alternate history, it is England who were transformed into the world power. This is because Columbus initially had the idea to come calling at Henry VII’s court before obtaining the support from Spain. In this “what if” scenario, it is the Tudors who surge full-speed ahead in their conquests of these strange new lands, leading to a confident and financially muscular Henry VIII – his coffers brimming with gold and silver – realising his dream of launching an unstoppable invasion of France. The two crowns – of England and France – would be united, as they had once briefly been under Henry V, but the Tudors would not simply stop there. They would become the European juggernaut, crushing any opposition or dissent, becoming the dominant rulers of all worlds.
However, real history did not play out that way, for in a sliding doors moment Henry did not endorse Christopher Columbus’ plans to sail out into the Atlantic. Instead, his natural cautious character urged him to pass on the offer. This refusal was to cost Henry VII and the English kingdom very dear.
This counterfactual history is not entirely fanciful; Bartholomew Columbus – brother of Christopher – was dispatched to England with the aim of obtaining funding for a transatlantic enterprise. Bartholomew was armed with several maps of enticing legendary far-away lands to win the interest of Henry, however, the younger Columbus brother’s travel plans turned to disaster: he suffered shipwreck, illness, and – if the legend is true – capture by pirates. However, he managed to finally arrive in England, and at which point his plans were examined by Henry and his council. Henry rejected the proposal, which led to Bartholomew to move on to France in the hope of securing patronage. But such attempts were, by this point, entirely moot: his older brother had already obtained funding from the Spanish crown and had completed his first historic transatlantic mission. Without the use of records, we can only surmise Bartholomew’s feelings on being left out of history being made, especially having suffered such hardship, however, he would get to taste voyages to the New World in later years.
Spain and Portugal carved out the world between themselves – as illustrated with the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas. This essentially provided carte blanch for Spain and their newly claimed territories in the Caribbean, leading to their vast expansion on the mainland in Central and South America. As for Portugal, they held the keys to the east, which included African lands to be exploited and the prize assets of links to India. And as for the Tudors? There was no mention of England in this treaty, thereby confirming that Henry and his family remained the unestablished upstart rulers of a second-rate power. Henry VII had missed the boat, and as a result England’s empire ambitions were set-back by the best part of a century.
There is one footnote to this counter-factual. Even if Henry VII had sponsored Columbus’ voyage, it is not entirely likely to have ended in the great success outlined earlier in this post, due to a key factor: Christopher Columbus would likely left Europe at a higher latitude. As such, he would have missed out on discovering the Caribbean islands, and therefore England would not have a foothold to allow them to press their advantage on the Aztec and Incan empires. Instead, Columbus would have encountered the same icy backwater that confronted John Cabot in 1497: the relative obscurity of Newfoundland. There would be no thriving civilizations to exploit and no silver to cherish. But it is intriguing to consider a potential shift in the geo-political dynamics of the early-modern period; in this “what if” Henry VIII finally fulfils his dream of conquering France!
I enjoyed your counterfactual musings here – it is interesting to ponder also whether a massive influx of gold would have been “good” for England / Britain?
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I think an influx of money would have helped Henry VIII with his war plans against the French, but there was also potential for the silver to destabilise the economy. During the reign of Philip II in the second half of the 1500s the Spanish crown became bankrupt, seemingly due to inflation and being too speculative with regard to fighting wars on so many fronts. There is an argument that it is a good thing that Henry VIII never had such large resources: perhaps it would not have been such a good thing in the long run! (Although, a side-note, if he was the dominant player on the European scene, perhaps he would have got his divorce through with the pope, which may have seen England remain within the Catholic Church… but that is a speculative what-if on top of another speculative what-if!).
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