Medieval Part I: Networks

By the 12th century the ‘four great roads of England’ were classified as royal roads, under the king’s direct protection. These ran from London to Exeter and to York via Lincoln; from Dover to Chester via London; and across country from Salisbury to Bury St Edmunds. All but the last followed Roman routes.

Lyddington Bede House, Leicestershire, once a lodging for the Bishops of Lincoln

Lyddington Bede House, Leicestershire, once a lodging for the Bishops of Lincoln


Monarchs of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries were familiar with these roads, for they were continuously on the move. Henry II spent the 34 Christmases of his reign in 24 different places in England, Normandy, France and Ireland. King John shifted his residence an average of 12 times a month.

Even when not travelling on campaign, kings needed to be seen – and seen to rule and be just – by as many of their subjects as possible. And they brought with them great trains of courtiers, guards and hangers-on, as well as the machinery and officials of government.

Wherever the king was, there too was the temporary capital of England. By the 12th century the financial officials of the Exchequer had taken up permanent residence in London, but most of the other ‘civil servants’ travelled with the king and his household. They issued streams of writs and royal orders, and dealt with the suitors who pursued the monarch in the hope of being granted an audience.

Enamel pendants found at Prudhoe Castle, which would have been attached to horse harnesses

These elaborate horse harness pendants from Prudhoe Castle, Northumberland, date from the early to mid-14th century and would have decorated the horse harness of a well-off traveller.


Everything needed for the court and administration had to be portable: not only the royal beds and furniture, kitchen and chapel, but also government records. These parchment documents were sewn end to end into huge rolls – hard to consult but easy to transport.

The lumbering train of carts and pack-horses which transported all this moved too ponderously for the king and his immediate followers. They rode off hunting for days at a time, halting wherever darkness overtook them. Courtiers complained bitterly of nights sleeping out in forests, with the king taking the only shelter.

In October 1216, while King John hurried ahead into Lincolnshire, his baggage train hazarded a shortcut across the Wash without a guide. It was overwhelmed by quicksands and the turning tide.


Travelling monarchs and nobles, with their usually all-male households, lodged whenever possible in their own castles and manors. Bishops similarly established series of lodgings (such as Lyddington Bede House, Leicestershire) set at convenient points around their large dioceses.

Monasteries were also favoured stopping places. Kings might take over a whole monastery – as the mortally ill Edward I did, when he stayed for five months at Lanercost Priory, Cumbria, in 1306–7.

Map illustrating the movements of Countess Joan and her household, 1296–7

Joan, Countess of Pembroke, was the wife of William de Valence, lord of Goodrich Castle, Herefordshire. This map illustrates her travels throughout the south of England between May 1296 and September 1297. She stopped at several monasteries, which were popular lodging places for pilgrims and travellers


Monasteries were thus ideally placed for gathering news and recording events. Most kept chronicles, and we owe much of what we know about the period to those that survive, such as the chronicle of Thornton Abbey, North Lincolnshire.

The most famous series of chronicles – including those written and delightfully illustrated by Matthew Paris in the mid-13th century – were compiled at the great abbey of St Albans, which lay beside the main road from London to the north-west. Inevitably, they are not without bias. Roger of Wendover’s contributions were instrumental in blackening King John’s name.

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