The Historical Matthew

The Historical Matthew

From what we can tell from accounts of the time, before her famous voyage across the Atlantic The Matthew was an ordinary commercial ship that carried goods between Bristol, Ireland and Biscay.

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 in the Atlantic, the Matthew was owned by the Bristol merchant, John Shipman. He was the port’s richest shipowner, being owner or part owner of five great ships by 1513.

According to contemporary records, by the end of 1498 The Matthew was back to her normal duties in the port of Bristol. 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 when 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 supply them through long voyages and to trade with the people they encountered on their arrival.