CROFT, THOMAS, English official who financed an early voyage of discovery; third son of William Croft of Croft, Herefordshire; b. 1442; d. 1488.
Brought up with Edward of York, Croft went to court on Edward’s accession as Edward IV. He was given various grants and minor offices by the king, being described as “the king’s servitor.” A lawyer of Lincoln’s Inn, he was also M.P. for Leominster, 1478. Among his offices were those of joint collector of customs at Bristol, water-bailiff of Bristol (1478), and joint deputy butler of Bristol and other ports (1483). He remained faithful to Richard III until late in 1484 but deserted to Henry Tudor. Though he lost his Bristol appointments at the opening of the new reign he was rewarded with others by Henry VII for service in “our last victorious field” (the battle of Bosworth) and otherwise. He died in 1488, and his will, made in 1485, has survived.
Although as a collector of customs at Bristol he was not supposed to engage in trade, he received, on 18 June 1480, with three Bristol merchants, William Spencer, Robert Straunge, and William de la Fount, royal licence to trade for three years in any goods except staple goods (wool and cloth), with two or three ships of 60 tons each or less. (It may be inferred that Croft, a customs officer, received his permission in order to engage in exploration.) On 15 July following, the first recorded English expedition to seek lands in the Atlantic left Bristol under the command of a certain Lloyd (see John Jay) in search of the Isle of Brasil. It is not clear that this expedition was one with which Croft and his associates were concerned, or whether theirs was a rival project, since it would appear that their grant was to cover voyages of exploration. The 1480 venture did not succeed.
However, on or about 6 July 1481, two vessels left Bristol on a further attempt to find the Isle of Brasil. Both are described as ships or balingers, the latter name being used for a ship of not more than 60 tons, and normally between 20 and 50. They were the George, probably the same as that described in a list of Bristol shipping of this time as of 52 tons, and the Trinity. Of each of these ships Thomas Croft owned one-eighth part. We may assume that his partners, Spencer, Straunge, and de la Fount, owned the bulk of the remainder, though John Jay, who had a share in the ship which sailed in 1480, may also have been a part-owner. Thomas Croft also played a part in equipping the ships for their voyage by contributing 40 bushels of salt, worth 20s., to their lading. This substantial amount of salt would suggest that one purpose of the voyage was to find and exploit fishing grounds. No record has yet been found of the result of the voyage, nor do we know whether or not Thomas Croft sailed on either of the vessels although he could have done so.
We know, however, that he was in Bristol on 24 Sept. 1481, when an inquiry was held into his participation in the setting out of the ships in spite of the regulation which forbade him, as a customs officer, to engage in trade. The terms of the inquiry also imply, though they do not state, that the ships had returned by that date. The result of the inquiry brought to light the names of the ships, Croft’s shares in them, and his investment in their lading. It declared that the latter was for the renewal, strengthening, and maintenance of the said ships or balingers and not by cause of merchandise “but to the intent to search and find a certain isle called the Isle of Brasile” (pro reparacione artillacione et sustentacione predictartum Navium sive Balinger et non causa mercandisandi set causa scrutandi et inveniendi quandam insulam vocatam le Ile of Brasile). On 20 Jan. 1483 a pardon was issued to Thomas Croft in the same terms for his part in the expedition.
In view of the statement by John Day in 1498 (see John Cabot) that “in times past” the English had discovered the Isle of Brasil before Cabot’s voyages, it may reasonably be suggested that the expedition of 1481 could have discovered land across the Atlantic adjacent to a fishing ground, such as the Newfoundland Banks. This makes Thomas Croft of more potential significance in American discovery than has hitherto been thought, but until further evidence appears the full achievement (if any) of the 1481 expedition cannot be authoritatively assessed.
Biography in J. C. Wedgwood and A. E. Holt, History of parliament: biographies of the members of the Commons house, 1439–1509 (3v., London, 1936), 239–40 (omits Croft’s activities at Bristol). The overseas trade of Bristol in the later Middle Ages, ed. E. M. Carus-Wilson (Bristol Record Soc., VII, 1937), 157–58, 161–65, for the documents of 1480–81 with commentary. See also W. E. C. Harrison, “An early voyage of discovery,” Mariner’s Mirror, XVI (1930), 198–99. Oleson, Early voyages, 124. D. B. Quinn, “The argument for the English discovery of America between 1480 and 1494,” Geog. J., CXXVII (1961), 277–85; “Edward IV and exploration,” Mariner’s Mirror, XXI (1935), 277–84. Carl V. S
plver, Imago mundi: skitser fra de store opdagelsers tid (K pbnhavn, 1951). L.-.A. Vigneras, “The Cape Breton landfall: 1494 or 1497? Note on a letter by John Day,” CHR, XXXVIII (1957), 219–28. Williamson, Cabot voyages (1962).