What traveling in medieval England was like

traveling medieval England
Medieval Chester

Assume you’re in London and need to get to Chester. How do you go about doing it? You might believe that you only have two choices: ride a horse or take a ship all the way around the coast. However, when you consider the realities, it isn’t nearly so straightforward. If you have sufficient funds to travel by road, you will require protection. If you elect to go by ship, you risk being wrecked or attacked, particularly in the Irish Sea, where Scottish pirates like Thomas Dun are on the loose during Edward II’s reign. Long-distance travel must be meticulously planned. Even when many peasants travel across the country to fight in the Scottish or French wars, no one will harm them, especially if they travel in a band with longbows and swords—at least not for the sake of a few pence. You, on the other hand, are a walking liability, sauntering around, humming an odd tune, with enough silver in your pocket to lure any crook who saw you at the last inn. traveling medieval England

The first issue you’ll face is deciding which direction to take. You would consult a map in the current world. That is not an option in this situation. There are few maps of the country available, and those that do exist aren’t scaled. They’re also not designed to assist passengers. Medieval maps are reference works for use in libraries, not for use on the road, and they are a way of documenting knowledge in a geographical context. The best map, the so-called Gough Map, does include highways and cities, but it is too huge (about the size of a door) and constructed of stiff vellum to be folded and stuffed into a traveler’s pouch. It was most likely created as a reference work for some big household’s office, most likely the royal palace at Westminster.

traveling medieval England
Detail of the South-East England section of the Gough Map, c.1400, (c) Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Because there aren’t enough maps, you’ll have no choice but to ask for instructions. But how does a Londoner who has never been to Chester know his way around? The most important aspect of navigation is to get started in the right direction. Because Chester is located in Cheshire, a northwest county, it makes sense to begin your journey along the northwest highway. It’s not the compass’s actual points that serve as your guide (the compass has yet to be adopted in northern Europe, although it is used in the Mediterranean). traveling medieval England

Rather it is the itinerary—the series of towns between you and the country of your destination—which will guide you. A dialogue book gives the following example: “Good people; I go to Chester. At which gate shall I go out? And at which hand shall I take my way?” “On the right hand, when ye come to a bridge, so go there over; ye shall find a little way on the left hand which shall bring you in a country where you shall see upon a church two high steeples. From thence shall ye have but four miles unto your lodging. There shall ye be well eased for your money.

So, if you ask a well-informed Londoner how to get to Cheshire, he will tell you to head out by Aldersgate; go across Smithfield; take the road north towards Islington, Finchley, and Barnet; and from Barnet take the road to St. Albans. Beyond that, he probably does not know the way, but when you arrive in St. Albans, you can ask again and then be directed on to Towcester and Daventry, and so on, all the way to Cheshire. traveling medieval England

What’s surprising is that some people can think spatially about large sections of the country without using a compass or a map. Yes, they use other methods as well: the stars and the position of the sun are vital navigational aids. However, when it comes to fast deploying an army against another force twenty miles distant in the hopes of landing in a better strategic position, these are of limited benefit.

In December 1387, imagine falling in with the five Lords Appellant. Your army aims to capture the king’s favorite, Robert de Vere, who is leading a force of around 4,000 troops southeast through Watling Street towards London. You’re moving south from Northampton, hoping to catch up with him near the Warwickshire/Oxfordshire line. De Vere notices your approach and alters his direction. He travels through Oxfordshire in a direct southerly direction. What’s the best way to catch him? How do you know where you can trap him or how long it will take you to get there without a map? The key is to have a good understanding of rivers and the spots where they can be crossed. traveling medieval England

In this case, a major portion of your army surrounds de Vere’s force and pursues him south. Another half of your army continues on a forced march through Oxfordshire, day and night, aiming for two crucial bridges over the River Thames (New Bridge and Radcot Bridge). De Vere and his troops are thus caught between the majority of the army behind them and the little expeditionary force in charge of the two bridges ahead of them. When you look at a detailed map of the area, all of this appears to be an apparent plan. But standing in North Oxfordshire, gazing at the hills around you, trying to figure out which way to send your soldiers to cut off De Vere’s march on the Thames is far from simple.

Although it’s doubtful that you’ll be leading an army across medieval England, the ideas that underpin such generalship can be applied to everyday navigation. You’re well on your way to imagining a region in outline if you know the countries through which the major rivers run and where those rivers can be crossed. Some individuals see their countries as a series of rivers and valleys rather than a network of roads and settlements. Following the major rivers is one of the most efficient ways of long-distance navigation whether you’re in an unfamiliar region of the country or abroad. A big river will not only guide you in a steady direction, but it will also lead you to a trading center, as products are typically transported by water. People with experience in long-distance trading networks can be found there. There are no rivers and thinly populated areas; you can hire local guides, paying them each day to lead you to the next town and guide. Local knowledge, awareness of which town is in which nation, determining the points of the compass by the appearance of the sun and stars, and acquaintance with rivers, river crossings, hills, and moors combine to make navigation possible. traveling medieval England

Further considerations. We take bridges for granted. Not necessarily back then, and if you used them, you had to pay a toll. Road transport? Do you have a horse, travel on coaches or ship? Will you walk? Traveling back then was much different than it is today. It was truly an adventure and needed skills. However, a passport was not necessary then. They just came up in the late 15th Century.


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  1. Dear Tom, excellent article!
    But here you really only deal with the rich and famous, and the next chapter in this story surely must discuss the next layer down: drovers taking cattle etc to market, and other specific needs for leaving your village, or town. The sons and some daughters of the wealthy travelling to university or for medical care. The local squires pursuing recalcitrant tax payers, and other branches of the law hunting down criminals of various type.
    For me this is just a beginning of getting to grips with this issue, but this is truely one branch of history that collecting passports makes you aware of.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Martin

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