From what we can tell from accounts of the time, The Matthew was an ordinary commercial ship that carried goods between Bristol, Ireland and Biscay before her famous voyage across the Atlantic.
The Matthew was a type of ship called a caravel, which was popular in medieval times due to its speed and manoeuvrability. She is described as a ‘little ship’ of 50-tons burden, which meant she was capable of carrying 50 tuns of Bordeaux wine beneath her decks. She was larger than the 10–20-ton boats typically used for navigation around the Bristol Channel but much smaller than the 300–400-ton merchantmen the port’s traders employed for the long voyages to Lisbon and Seville.
After her glory year at sea crossing the Atlantic in 1497, The Matthew was owned by the Bristol merchant, John Shipman. He was the port’s richest shipowner, being the owner or part-owner of five great ships by 1513.
According to contemporary records, The Matthew was back to her normal duties in the port of Bristol by the end of 1498. The records show that goods were seized from the vessel because the owner had failed to pay his customs duties on them – The Matthew might have been involved in smuggling! From then until about 1507, the ship was used as an ordinary merchantman, after which she seems to have gone out of service.
Many more expeditions to the New World were launched from Bristol in the decade after Cabot’s voyages but they generally seem to have employed much larger ships, such as the 120-ton Gabriel and the 130-ton Jesus Bonaventure. Bristol’s merchants probably chose to use larger vessels for the later expeditions to carry enough food, stores and goods to maintain themselves through long voyages and to trade with the people they encountered on their arrival.