It’s often supposed that Henry VIII had little interest in exploring the Americas but England’s second Tudor king sent at least two expeditions to the New World. In 1516 Henry VIII authorised Sebastian Cabot (whose father John had discovered Newfoundland for Henry VII) to explore the West Indies and Brazil. Sadly this voyage didn’t produce the vast riches enjoyed by the Kings of Spain, and Cabot defected to the Spanish in 1522, but in 1527 Henry agreed to sponsor another transatlantic expedition.

This new voyage was the brainchild of Robert Thorne, a Bristol merchant who, like Columbus, hoped to find a new route to China by sailing west. The Thorne family had invested in both John and Sebastian Cabot’s previous expeditions and Robert was convinced there was a ‘North West Passage’ to the Orient around, or through, North America. Thorne did not make the voyage himself, instead he persuaded Henry to finance two well-armed ships: the Mary Guildford commanded by Essex mariner John Rut and the Samson captained by a man known only as ‘Master Grube’.

Rut and Grube left Plymouth on the 10th of June 1527 but, halfway across the Atlantic, they encountered icebergs and heavy storms. Several of Rut’s sailors froze to death, and the Samson vanished in the rough seas, but the Mary Guildford reached the Labrador coast safely.

Rut was not the first Englishman, or even the first European, to reach North America. Thirty years earlier, the aforementioned Cabots had explored Newfoundland and the rich fishing grounds, known as the Grand Banks, were now being regularly visited by adventurous fishermen. When Rut arrived in the natural harbour of St. John’s, he found no less than 14 ships at anchor and he took the opportunity to write a dispatch to Henry. This letter, the first sent from North America, begins:

“Pleasing your Honourable Grace to heare of your servant John Rut with all his company here in good health thanks be to God”

and concludes:

...this third day of August [1527] we entered into a good harbour called St. John and there we found Eleuen Saile of Normans and one Brittaine [Breton] and two Portugal barks all a fishing and so we are ready to depart towards Cap de Bras that is 25 leagues as shortly as we have fished and so along the Coast until we may meete with our fellowe and so with all diligence that lyes in me toward parts to that Ilands that we are command at our departing and thus Jesu save and keepe you Honourable Grace and all your Honourable Reuer. In the Haven of St. John the third day of August written in hast 1527, by your servant John Rut to his uttermost of his power…”

After leaving St. John’s, Rut waited at Cap Espar [Cape Spear] in the hope the missing Samson would turn up but when there was no sign of their sister ship he began to search for Thorne’s fabled route to the east. He sailed down the whole of the North American eastern seaboard, from Cape Breton to the Florida Channel, (the first English ship known to have done so) before crossing the Caribbean to the Spanish held island of Hispaniola.

Rut dropped anchor in Santo Domingo, hoping to trade his stores of linen and pewter for supplies, but though the English were initially made welcome, someone fired a shot from the fort’s canon. Rut panicked and sailed away but he was desperately short of food and water so he put into the port of Ocoa. Again the Spaniards refused to trade so Rut took what he needed by force and set sail for home. He arrived back in England in the spring of 1528.

Though Rut didn’t find the North West passage, Henry seems to have forgiven him for his failure as his next voyage, made in the autumn of 1528, was to fetch the King’s wine from Bordeaux. After this Rut disappears from history and though Thorne planned a second expedition to find the North West Passage he died before his new ship was ready to sail.

For his part, Henry had become preoccupied with his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and he sent no more expeditions to the New World. English merchants also turned their backs on the Americas, and began to look towards Muscovy to make money, so it was nearly fifty years before a Tudor monarch sponsored a voyage of exploration across the Atlantic.

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