The modern Matthew was built between 1994–1996 on Redcliffe Quay, in preparation for the 1997 voyage to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Cabot’s most famous journey to Newfoundland and back. She is owned by The Matthew of Bristol Trust, a registered charity – all money raised from donations and profits made from public and private trips are used to maintain the ship and her legacy.
The Matthew of Bristol was designed by Colin Mudie, a specialist ship designer and naval architect who led a team of 12 local shipwrights. Amongst his many other achievements during his career, Colin also managed the restoration of the Tudor warship, Mary Rose.
The project was given a royal endorsement by its patron HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who laid the keel and also donated the ship's main mast. Following an old medieval tradition, when the mast was stepped (raised) a genuine medieval gold coin was placed beneath it.
She was launched in September 1996 by Lady Wills on behalf of Prince Philip, who smashed a bottle of Bristol Cream Sherry on the bow rather than the traditional champagne.
After completing sea trials to London, The Matthew set sail for Newfoundland on 2 May 1997. Skippered by David Alan Williams, she successfully made landfall in Bonavista on 24 June, where she was welcomed into port by Queen Elizabeth II. Since then she has enjoyed many voyages, featured in a number of films and television programmes, and is welcomed at maritime festivals across Europe.
In Cabot’s day, shipwrights didn’t produce plans to build their ships as they do today, so the reconstruction was based on archaeological evidence of ships and shipbuilding at the time, alongside contemporary illustrations and documented descriptions of The Matthew. We know from contemporary records that she was large enough to carry 20 men and 50 tuns – a standard measurement of the day showing how many wine casks (tuns) a ship could carry. We also know that a standard formula was used to build ships almost 100 years later and this was used to estimate the modern Matthew’s size.
The original Matthew would most probably have been made of oak, larch and pine – all strong and durable woods suitable for long voyages. The modern Matthew is built from oak and Douglas fir.
In medieval times the size of a ship was determined by the keel, which had to be made from one piece of straight hardwood. In 1995 there were no oaks big enough, so her keel is made from a single piece of opepe, an African hardwood.
Building ships from wood is very different from building ships from steel. In medieval times, the shipwrights would have faced the same challenges as the modern Matthew team did – for example, having to bend the 6.5 cm thick stern planking 90 degrees in one direction and then 30 degrees in another without the wood splitting. Television footage from the build shows the shipwrights running with a still-steaming plank so that it could be bent into shape before it had time to cool down!
Some features of The Matthew have had to be modernised to comply with safety regulations, and also to reflect her new life as a public charter vessel and unique heritage attraction. She is now able to self-right without the aid of the crew, some of her fittings are made from different materials than would have been available in medieval times, she has been fitted with hatches, and of course, she has a diesel engine and ship's radio.