When we think of how people travelled in medieval England, images of nobles in coaches, knights on horseback or perhaps pilgrims on the road to Canterbury might spring to mind. We might also assume that, for most ordinary people, travel over any significant distance was largely out of the question. We might even take it for granted that most people never travelled far from their place of birth.
But how true is this? What was it really like to travel in medieval England? Why did people travel anyway? And how did they get to where they needed to be?
Royal and Noble Travellers
Throughout the Middle Ages, the royal court was itinerant to a greater or lesser extent. The court became more centred on Westminster later in the medieval period. However, even then, the king and his court would often travel across the country to visit important dignitaries, spending significant amounts of time away from the capital.
Since the court was the centre of power, anyone who wanted to petition the king would need to travel to court at some point. This included not only the senior members of the nobility but wealthy merchants, important members of the clergy and members of the gentry.
Parliaments could be called for anywhere in the country. When such a parliament was convened the king, the lords as well as the leading knights, merchants and gentry would all need to attend. Most of these people would travel with a significant entourage.
Naturally enough, large numbers of wealthy people gathered in one place represented a significant opportunity for merchants, minstrels, and other would-be hangers-on, looking for patronage. So anywhere hosting a parliament might expect to receive a significant influx of visitors.
Even poorer folk might travel to the court in search of work (whether temporary or permanent).
Indeed, there were a variety of reasons why poorer folk might want to travel. The lowlier itinerant minstrels and players would travel from town to town plying their trade. Generally, they would follow an itinerary, aiming to arrive at a particular town or city to take advantage of a particular festival or local fair. Sometimes they would even attempt to waylay the royal court on the highways and byways in the hopes of impressing the king and earning some coin.
Whilst a great many common folk were tied to the land on which they worked, this was not the case for everyone. Itinerant labourers might travel great distances if they were unable to find work locally. Those seeking to work as apprentices for craftsmen such as carpenters or brewers might need to travel from their villages into the nearest town for work. Once employed by a carpenter, brewer, or other tradesman you might well be required to travel for your work. You might need to attend a market to buy supplies or carry a message from your employer to a customer. Much of that travel would of course be local, but occasionally you might need to travel much further.
Even a poor farmer would need to travel from their village to the local town market for supplies. For some, this could be quite a journey. It could take an entire day to walk into town, buy what you needed, and walk back home. It would be unusual indeed for someone to never leave their village throughout their lives.
A significant number of people, including even the poorest, would occasionally travel on a pilgrimage. Often this might be a local affair, travelling to the shrine of a saint in a nearby city or Abbey. At other times it might be something a good deal more significant. Some people would a spend few weeks travelling across the country to make a pilgrimage to Canterbury.
A small number of poor people even made pilgrimages overseas. This they were only able to do by relying on the charity of others to provide food and places to stay. However, in an age when the medieval Church was so dominant, there were many people willing to offer aid to pilgrims following God’s calling. But, of course, there were also many people keen to exploit the faithful.
In addition to pilgrims, itinerant friars would wander between villages and towns preaching. Richer members of the clergy such as bishops might have cause to travel more regularly as they ministered to the various parishes scattered across their patch.
The richest abbotts and archbishops mixed with the ruling elite. They would travel to court on occasion and some had a permanent seat in parliament. Since parliaments could be called anywhere in the country, they, along with their entourage, would need to travel to wherever the parliament was being held.
The English medieval road network was, generally speaking, terrible.
Whilst medieval England had inherited an extensive system of paved roads from the Romans, these fell into increasing disrepair over time. As these roads became increasingly uneven and poorly maintained, they became ever more difficult to use. Locals would sometimes steal stone from the old road to re-use in local construction. Sometimes they became so uneven and poorly maintained that new dirt roads formed, running alongside the old Roman thoroughfare.
In fact, most roads and tracks used were unpaved. By the High Middle Ages, even some major roads were unpaved. Typically, English roads were just packed dirt. This was especially the case for the network of tracks and trails that linked together the many rural communities across the English landscape.
The condition of such roads might not be too bad in fine weather. However, after a prolonged wet period they often became very muddy to the point where some might be virtually impassable. Many might thread their way through wooded areas and, in this case, fallen trees impeded or even blocked progress on a regular basis.
Medieval society was violent. This was especially true during times of war and rebellion. During the Anarchy and the periods of the Barons’ Wars, travel across England would have been extremely dangerous. However, even during more peaceful times, bandits and outlaws were common hazards for travellers.
Only a fool would travel any distance unarmed and alone. Richer folk could obviously afford an armed guard. For them travel was generally reasonably safe for this reason. But humbler travellers would need to look to their own security by travelling together in numbers and carrying a weapon for self-defence.
It was quite common from travellers to carry swords. Despite this, at certain times and in certain parts of the country, travel was still very dangerous. Sometimes the only way to avoid an armed fight was not to travel at all.
Walking was the usual mode of transport for most people. If you could not afford to buy a horse, you had to walk.
As a result, most villagers travelling into town for a market would walk there and back. Of course, walking anywhere could be a long, slow journey. Even a visit to the nearest town could take an entire day. What is more, you could only really travel in daylight, unless there was plenty of moonlight. Certainly, there were no streetlights. On a moonless night, the entire countryside would be in pitch darkness.
Walking at least had the merit of being a flexible form of transport. If the road was blocked by a tree, you could climb over, it or walk around it. If the road was too muddy, you could walk through the woods beside it.
However, walking was, of course, slow. If you had to travel any distance by foot (and many people did) you could easily spend several days on the road.
However, if you walked, unless you were on a pilgrimage, it was a surefire sign that you were poor. Many inns would not allow you to stay unless you had a horse with you (for fear that you might not be able to pay for your lodgings).
Carts and Wagons
In the Middle Ages, carts and wagons were strictly for transporting cargo, not people. These were certainly not passenger vehicles.
You did not travel by cart unless you needed to carry a heavy load. For one thing carts and wagons were very slow; it was certainly faster to walk. For another, they easily became stuck or delayed by muddy tracks or fallen trees.
Aside from the labourers who drove the carts, no one else would ride in one. If you did so it would have been considered a bit weird. People would probably assume you must be too sick to walk or ride a horse.
Of course, as far as cargo transport was concerned, these vehicles were essential. They were often the only practical way to transport goods around the country in any quantity.
We have all probably seen a Robin Hood film in which Robin and his Merry Men waylay a wealthy couple travelling in a carriage through Nottingham Forest. However, such a scene would never have happened in medieval times.
The passenger carriage was eye wateringly expensive to buy and to run. These vehicles would often be richly painted and decorated with gold leaf. More British people own a high-end luxury yacht moored in the Mediterranean today than owned such a carriage in the Middle Ages.
The only people who travelled by passenger carriage were queens and duchesses. No one else could afford one. Such powerful noblewomen would travel with a very large entourage, including a significant armed guard. To witness such a magnificent convoy would have been a true spectacle indeed! If you ever saw a carriage, you’d be in luck, for there were probably fewer than half a dozen such vehicles in the country at any point in time.
Kings and Dukes could afford carriages of course (and probably owned one for the use of their wife). However, they would not use such vehicles themselves. Carriages were strictly for elite women. Kings and noblemen were expected to ride on horseback. For a man to be seen in a carriage was a shameful thing, people would think you were an invalid!
Of course, the way to travel for anyone who was anyone was by horse.
The best way to travel across country in England during the Middle Ages was certainly by horse (assuming you can afford one). It was the fastest mode of transport and those who travelled in this way were assumed to be a cut above the common traveller.
A high-quality warhorse would be very expensive, but a basic riding horse could be acquired for £4 or £5. This is still beyond the means of many. Even a skilled tradesman, like a carpenter, would struggle to earn this much in a year. However, any nobleman, knight or member of the gentry would not be seen dead travelling cross country by any other means.
Wealthier women would also travel by horseback. As with their menfolk, this was the normal mode of transport for most women of means. Even queens and duchesses would probably ride more often than take to a carriage, especially when hunting. However, contrary to what we might think, we wouldn’t see any women riding side-saddle for most of the Middle Ages. Women rode astride the horse just like their men, albeit they needed to wear a riding skirt for the sake of modesty. Riding side-saddle was unknown in England before the end of the fourteenth century. It was effectively a fashion, first introduced from the continent by Queen Anne of Bohemia, the wife of Richard II.
Given the slow speed and unreliability of transport by cart or wagon, river boats were often the preferred way to move cargo around the country. They could carry larger loads than wagons, were generally faster, and less likely to be delayed by mishaps.
Of course, not everywhere could be accessed by river by any means, so there were obvious limitations. Nevertheless, where river transport was an option, it would always be used in preference to the unreliable road network.
Ships could carry large cargos and significant numbers of passengers along the English coast faster than any other mode of transport. However, it was not always reliable. Bad weather at sea could prevent ships from sailing, sometimes confining them to port for days on end.
Sea travel was not without its dangers. If you were caught at sea in a storm, you could be blown off course or your vessel might be damaged, delaying your journey. In a worst-case scenario, you might even be wrecked and drowned!
Despite the dangers, England traded extensively by sea throughout the Middle Ages. Wool export was a major industry for medieval England. Such cargos would regularly travel across the English Channel to France, the low countries and the Hanseatic ports along the north German coast.
For most of the Middle Ages, Gascony in southern France remained part of the Plantagenet realm. Trade with its major port at Bordeaux was brisk. English ships would regularly set sail from Bristol or Weymouth bound for southern France. Wine, salt, and armour were the principal goods imported.
Sea trade with Bordeaux linked medieval England to the Mediterranean. Ships from Spain, Italy, and North Africa would bring their cargos to Bordeaux. From there, they could be transported back to England. In this way spices and more exotic goods could find their way back to England.
Of course, such cosmopolitan connections had many advantages. Trade with Europe was the lifeblood of the English economy throughout the Middle Ages. However, it also linked England with an international transport network that carried more than just cargo and people.
Just before 24th June 1348, a sick Gascon sailor was brought ashore at Weymouth seeking treatment. He was gravely ill and died shortly thereafter. He had died of a new pestilence that would soon sweep across the country like the angel of death. It was a pestilence that would be remembered in history as the Black Death.
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References and further reading
Canterbury Tales frontispiece by Walter Appleton Clark, 1914 (via Wiki commons)
Stained glass window at Canterbury Cathedral, showing scenes from the Miracles attributed to St Thomas Becket. Photo by Jules & Jenny via (Wiki Commons).
Birkenhainer Straße near Ruppertshütten, Lohr, Bavaria, Germany, Photo by Drow69 (via Wiki Commons)
Pilgrims leaving Canterbury, taken from Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes, Royal 18 D II f.148, 1455-1462. Artist Unknown (via Wiki Commons)
Sailing ship (cog) Kieler Hansekogge at the Kiel Week 2007. Replica of the Bremer Kogge from 1380 found near Bremen in 1962. Completion of the replica: 1991. (via Wiki Commons)