Tudors: Networks

Tudor roads were often unusable in winter or bad weather. Although Elizabethan laws required parishes to carry out at least six days’ repair work on them each summer, they were rarely enforced. By contrast, advances in navigation and ship design made travel and commerce abroad much easier.

Dartmouth Castle, Devon, guarding the entrance to Dartmouth port

Dartmouth Castle, Devon, guarding the entrance to Dartmouth port

SLOW COACHES, FAST COACHES

The poor state of repair of the roads made travelling on them slow and unpredictable. On foot, travellers might achieve 12 miles a day, and on a horse perhaps three times as much.

Travellers sometimes endured uncomfortable days in the lumbering wagons of professional carriers, who also transported merchandise, letters and word-of-mouth news.

The new light ‘coaches’ which began to appear early in Elizabeth I’s reign were considerably faster on a good road, but only the rich could afford to own, or even hire one. At the beginning of the 17th century, London coach-hirers charged 15 shillings (75p) a day, and would rarely venture more than two days’ journey from the capital.

Roadside inns were thought by foreigners to be unusually good, though some innkeepers were suspected of collusion with highwaymen.

Armada chest from Belsay Hall

A 16th-century iron travelling chest at Belsay Hall, Northumberland, used to transport goods from house to house. The name ‘Armada chest’ derives from a fanciful Victorian connection with the Spanish Armada.

ROAD-SPEED RECORD

The main ‘post-roads’ – from London to Dover, Holyhead, Milford Haven and Truro, and the ‘Great North Road’ from London to Berwick-upon-Tweed, with a branch to Carlisle – were better maintained.

On these routes, the Elizabethan government maintained post-horse stables at approximately ten-mile intervals, allowing messengers to cover up to 100 miles a day. Richer travellers could also change horses there and journey ‘post-haste’.

The Tudor road-speed record was probably held by Robert Carey, who left London at dawn on Thursday 24 March 1603, having just witnessed the death of Elizabeth I. By nightfall he was in Doncaster, Yorkshire, and by the next day in Northumberland.

Though his horse then fell and (perhaps understandably) kicked him, he arrived in Edinburgh late on Saturday evening. He brought to James VI of Scotland the news that he was now also James I of England. Carey’s dash of nearly 400 miles in about 60 hours was, however, entirely exceptional.

The stables at Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire, built in the 1560s. Although coaches were increasingly popular, horse travel was still ubiquitous in the 16th century, particularly in rural areas.

The Kenilworth Castle stables, built in the 1550s. Although coaches were increasingly popular, horse travel was still ubiquitous in the 16th century, particularly in rural areas.

TUDOR TAXIS

Hired rowing boats were the taxis of Tudor London. ‘Coasting’ vessels also linked smaller seaports, distributing goods traded into the bigger ports. Transport by water was more efficient than road travel, but it was not necessarily faster. Ships could be delayed for weeks by adverse winds, and (particularly earlier in the period) were also threatened by Breton, Scots or even English pirates.

Although advances in navigation and ship design made a great difference to foreign travel and commerce, the hazardous voyage to the New World could easily take months.

Engraving of bible-reading in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral, 1541

Engraving of 1541 showing an English Bible being reading in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, London. In 1539 Henry VIII ordered that an English Bible should be placed in every church across England and Wales. The invention of the printing press made it far easier for books to be circulated.
© English Heritage (Mayson Beeton Collection)

PRINT REVOLUTION

Still in its infancy in England at the beginning of the period, printing soon made books, pamphlets and proclamations ever more widely and quickly available. The printing of English Bible translations played a crucial role in religious changes. The government-sponsored ‘Great Bible’ of 1539 was placed in every English church by law, as was the Book of Common Prayer from 1549.

Printing could also work against the government, however. The clandestine ‘Marprelate tracts’ of the 1580s were Puritan attacks on Anglican bishops.

Increasingly cheaper printing likewise played a growing part in everyday life. After the Bible and John Foxe’s Protestant Book of Martyrs, the most popular printed books in Elizabethan England were almanacs (calendars including advice on practical matters, weather lore and dubious prophecies) and books of etiquette, which taught polite behaviour to the socially aspirational.

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