Soldiers of the Sixteenth Century

Voyages Of Discovery

John Cabot embarking in full ceremonial garb on the Matthew at Bristol on 20 May 1497

Caption: John Cabot embarking in full ceremonial garb on the Matthew at Bristol on 20 May 1497

Shortly before the end of the fifteenth century, the lure of unknown lands to the west was again felt in Europe, and America was rediscovered. Europeans sought once again to establish colonies throughout the sixteenth century: the Spanish and Portuguese primarily in South America, and the English and French principally in North America. Of all these nations, only the Spanish succeeded in making large encroachments. Numerous expeditions set out for Canada during this period, from the one by John Cabot in 1497 to that of Jacques Cartier, but no permanent colony was established. Canada therefore remained the exclusive domain of the natives until the seventeenth century. Nevertheless, the land claims made by Cartier in the St. Lawrence Valley were recognized in Europe, where the territories that he discovered were identified on maps as New France.

It would have been unthinkable for these intrepid explorers to set out in search of unknown lands, inhabited possibly by natives of unknown disposition, but presumably hostile, without ensuring a minimum of security through effective weapons and men who knew how to handle and maintain them. Therefore, the sailors from all the European nations who signed on for these expeditions had to be able to become men-at-arms when danger threatened. All ships were equipped with a supply of swords, spears and harquebuses, as well as a few artillery pieces. The distinction between naval vessels and merchant vessels was rather vague. In general, ordinary ships engaging in trade one year could be equipped for war the next and sent off on military campaigns, then reassigned once again to transporting merchandise. A few notable exceptions did exist, such as the Great Harry, a large British man-of-war.

Thanks to the development of ships able to withstand long ocean voyages, sixteenth-century Europeans enjoyed a revolutionary advantage over all other peoples of the times. Not only did America come within their reach, but they also succeeded in circumnavigating Africa. The Portuguese, who were dominant in this kind of exploration at the time, reached India in 1500, and then the Far East.

Additional Images

Portuguese ships, early 16th century
The Matthew, John Cabot’s ship, 1497
Sixteenth-century galleon