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. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

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