Richard Hammond and the Discovery of America
There's a surprising link between the Grand Tour's resident American (no, not that one) and the continent's name
We’ve all been told the story of how the continent of America got its name. An Italian explorer called Amerigo Vespucci undertook at least two voyages of discovery, and later claimed to have realised in 1501 that the land we now know as Brazil was connected to the rest of the continent then known as the ‘New World’. In recognition of this, the continent was called ‘America’ in his honour, and the rest is history.
Or is it?
Leaving aside questions over the veracity of Vespucci’s claims, and the way that, if named after their discoverer, places are more often given the discoverer’s surname, there is another claim to the origin of name of America - and it has a surprising link to the Grand Tour’s resident wannabe American.
If you’re Bristolian like me (and James May), you will be familiar with the voyages of John Cabot, another Italian explorer, who made the earliest known voyage to North America by a European since the Vikings. He landed in Newfoundland, in modern-day Canada, having sailed from Bristol in 1497. This is five years after Christopher Columbus (yet another Italian explorer) crossed the Atlantic, but news flash, although he is credited with the discovery of the Americas, he never actually reached the continental mainland and never set foot in modern-day North America. Instead, he made landfall on San Salvador, an island in the Caribbean.
With me so far? WAKE UP!
So America ‘proper’ was not discovered by Columbus, and the continent was named after an Italian bloke called Vespucci. Or possibly not. But what does this have to do with Richard Hammond?
Back in the 15th century (around the time when Jeremy Clarkson was born), voyages were backed by wealthy patrons, and their names were often given to the discoveries made on the voyages they sponsored in gratitude for their patronage. One of John Cabot’s most generous backers happened to be a merchant called Richard Ameryk. Ameryk was also a Royal Customs Officer, and at the end of his life, he was sheriff of Bristol… but he wasn’t Bristolian. Richard Ameryk - also spelled ‘Amerike’ - was Anglo-Welsh, and originally called Richard ap Meurig (Welsh for ‘Richard son of Maurice’).
Richard ap Meurig is believed to have been born in 1445 in a house called Meryk Court, on the border of Wales and England. This house still stands, and his birth is the earliest recorded event in its history. The oldest parts of the house date back to that period, although it has been substantially rebuilt over the intervening centuries, mostly in the eighteenth century. Coincidentally, the family shield featured stars and stripes, although I’m pretty sure Betsy Ross wasn’t aware of this when George Washington asked her to sew a flag in 1776.
During the intervening centuries, the house also got a new name: Bollitree Castle.
Long story short, America was named* after a bloke who was born in Richard Hammond's house.