Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Land Travel and Communications in Tudor and Stuart England

Reviewed by Andrew Gordon

Mark Brayshay, Land Travel and Communications in Tudor and Stuart England: Achieving a Joined-up Realm (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2014). ISBN: 9781846319501, 448 pp., £80.00.

Screenshot 2015-11-04 16.50.27[1] In the early hours of 24 March 1603 Sir Robert Carey left Richmond Palace to carry news of Queen Elizabeth’s death to her successor James VI at Holyrood. Despite injuring himself in a fall from his horse that put back his progress by half a day, Carey covered the 458 miles in only three days, at an average of 152 miles per day. Such an achievement was undoubtedly a prodigious feat — and one with which Carey sought to earn early favour with the newly acclaimed monarch — but the fact that it was achievable at all is testimony to the highly developed travel infrastructure that Mark Brayshay painstakingly reconstructs in this scholarly and well-written book. Based on careful analysis of archival and printed sources, the author counters the hackneyed image of travel in Tudor and Stuart England as a perilous endeavour blighted by impassable ways and hostile wayfarers, fear of which led most to remain at home. Brayshay’s work is much more than a history of transportation in this pivotal period however. As a cultural geographer by discipline, he is well positioned to uncover the interconnections that stemmed from the expanding infrastructure of mobility. Refocusing attention away from the small chorus of travellers’ complaints that have occupied a disproportionate place in the histories, Brayshay demonstrates that ‘personal mobility and the exchange of communications, written or verbal, were a mundane part of the routine of almost everyone in the sixteenth an seventeenth centuries’ (p. 13). Systematically showing how contemporary economic, governmental, and social structures all relied upon people from a wide range of social positions engaging in regular acts of travel, this book provides a compelling account of the cultures and practices of everyday travel in the early modern period.

[2] Brayshay’s study covers three principal areas of investigation. The opening two chapters examine the material infrastructure of the highway network and the forms and means of travelling upon it. To assess the state of early modern roads Brayshay charts the shift in responsibility for upkeep from landowners to the collective charge of the parish, demonstrating the regional variation in efficacy. Best suited to areas where arable and open-field farming sustained ‘a communal social tradition of parishioners working together at harvest time in a manner that readily transferred to the co-operative work needed to repair roads’ (p. 53), the mid-Tudor legislation was less successful where enclosure and pastoral farming were predominant and the supply of materials, draught animals and collective will was more meagre. The specific burdens placed upon individual surfaces determined the need for maintenance, leading Brayshay to make ingenious use of the Corporation of Coventry records to map the concentration and effects of contemporary traffic from the locations of repairs. Bridges in particular were sites of strain. Of key strategic importance to both local and national travel networks, their upkeep was funded from local rates or tolls long before the same method was applied to roads in the later seventeenth century. If ‘early modern roads were open for traffic’ (p. 72), as Brayshay argues, the instruments for orienting oneself amidst the road network were still developing. With signposts rare before the 1690s, and the pocket atlas a development of the 1720s, rudimentary itineraries (found in both popular print and manuscript form), were the principal textual aid to navigation. It might have been useful to see these textual habits placed alongside oral resources of wayfinding to explore the sociability of navigation, but there are evident methodological challenges to doing so. For the means of travel, Brayshay’s statement that ‘a majority of ordinary journeys in early modern England and Wales were accomplished on foot by folk who wore woollen stockings and leather shoes’ (p. 88) is supported by investigation of the material logistics behind the production of footwear and clothing for pedestrian use. He applies a similar eye to the consideration of travel by way of horse, coach and cart. The treatment of horseback travel is particularly illuminating. Brayshay rigorously investigates the material conditions of horse ownership and the costs of maintaining a horse on the highway, highlighting the specificity of differing equine types identifiable in the inventories of the royal stables and such large-scale horse-owners as Sir Francis Walsingham. One of Brayshay’s achievements is to demonstrate the accessibility of horses for travel to a wider proportion of early modern subjects. Probate evidence points to a ‘democratisation of horse ownership’(p. 124) in the seventeenth-century that may have risen as high as 60% spurred on by rising living standards. But horses were also readily available for hire by the day, or to ride by post between stages and this vital developing network of horse-rental also played a key role in standardising both the costs and the speeds of equine transport. Documenting the complex infrastructure that supported the accommodation of travellers, the provision of horses and wheeled vehicles, and the habits of wayfaring, enables Brayshay to scrutinise contemporary writing on travel, looking beyond complaints about the highway to note an overwhelming consensus regarding ‘the ease with which journeys were undertaken and the absence of fear or apprehension [concerning] imagined or real dangers’ (p. 119).

[3] The two middle chapters are devoted to Brayshay’s second key area of enquiry: the users of the early modern transport network, examining ‘the volume, identity, and character of people who made use of the realm’s highways and byways’ (p. 128). A careful survey of what brought people into motion works through the various administrative, legal, religious, social and above all economic imperatives. The spatial and temporal distribution of markets alone is shown to be a major determinant of travel activity, but also traced here are the various forms of journeying necessitated by individual occupations. A highlight here is the study of itinerant performers based on scrutiny of civic accounts that yields a rich description of the practices of both musicians and acting troupes, the latter taking as a case study the 1591 travels of the Queen’s Men. Brayshay draws our attention to the scale of peripatetic activity in the period, from the circuits of the assize courts to the work of church visitations, his interest not confined to the judges and bishops that oversaw these gatherings but extending to the larger casts summoned or drawn to attend. The travels of the socially elite have been relatively well documented but the short chapter devoted to them here seeks to understand how the motions of Royal Progresses and visiting ambassadors appropriated the realm’s travel infrastructure and civic hospitality, revealing how the travels of the few were facilitated by the journeying and conveyance conducted by many more. Brayshay’s account of elite travel is thus shown to fit his broader theme that ‘the social and cultural dynamism of the early modern realm was intimately connected with an equally vibrant mobility amongst the ordinary classes’ (p. 201). Amongst the agents of travel in these chapters, particular attention is paid to the extensive networks of carriers whose intersecting circuits extending from local to regional to further afield, served to ‘engender[…] a sense of its wider geography in the minds of those who themselves rarely experienced distinct localities’(p. 131). While others have pointed to the ideological work of nation-building within early modern cultural discourse Brayshay finds this function embodied in the carrier network that he argues played ‘a critically important role in binding the realm together as a coherent entity’ (p.131).

[4] The final two chapters address early modern communication networks and the variety of means available for the conveyance of correspondence. This important history has too often been overshadowed by a teleological concern with the birth of the Post Office, but here the contingencies of its later emergence are shown and Brayshay accords full attention to the complex networks and variant means by which early modern communications might be conveyed, depending upon social position, the nature of the communication and the distance to be covered. In addition to the carrier network, he highlights the range of figures from household servant to Royal messenger, who might be employed in the conveyance of letters and the variety of travel modes they might be authorised or expected to make use of. At the heart of Brayshay’s narrative is the office of the Master of the Posts whose dual responsibility for ensuring the provision of horses for hire on the one hand, and organising the state service for the delivery of strategic communication embodies the dual focus on travel and communication of this study. Maintaining the network of standing posts was always a balance between committing state resources and exploiting their commitment to the prestige of royal service in spite of the mounting levels of arrears that accrued through the sixteenth century. The laying of extraordinary posts to support royal progresses, military campaigns, or other present need was a further logistical and financial burden and it was in part to meet these costs that the crown postal service was extended to take on private letters in 1635. As Brayshay shows, the instituting of the royal monopoly over letter delivery at this date did not eradicate immediately the range of other letter conveyance practises; the insecurity and dangers of the 1640s played a part in the persistence of diversity. It was not until 1657 that the plan for a General Post Office was conceived, as a franchise, with the first occupant overpaying for the rights with the result that he cut staff wages severely and introduced the regular stamping of letters. The penny post launched in London in 1677 was another piece of private enterprise that was shut down as an infringement of the franchise only to reopen almost immediately under the franchise holder’s aegis. That franchise holder was James, Duke of York in whose hands it had been since the 1670s and it was his accession in 1685 that led to the crown taking control over letter delivery. The success of a universal service is shown by the extraordinary volume of correspondence recorded in the final years of the century, with some 720, 277 letters handled yearly by 1696.

[5] Brayshay’s book represents an important contribution to our understanding of the past: how people moved, how they communicated and were supplied within an expanding infrastructure of travel and transport, is integral to the experience of life in early modern culture as this work conclusively shows. It does not offer a heavily theorised approach to these questions but its strengths lie in the careful sifting of a huge range of detail to produce impressive insights into practice and process. Sensitive to different contexts, he sets a range of localised studies against broader regional and national networks animating vastly different archival resources. As a cultural geographer, Brayshay makes excellent use of maps and diagrams to demonstrate the material conditions of travel — whether it be recovering the relative spheres of activity of pedestrian and horseback chapman from their debt books, or countering generalisations about the preponderance of water-borne conveyance with a map illustrating the proportion of the realm more than 15 miles from a navigable waterway. If the readings of printed travel writings and geographical literature are less expansive than one might perhaps wish, this is more than made up for by the wealth of scholarship and insightful use of resources brought to bear on the book’s key questions. In sum this thorough and clearly structured account of the means of mobility across two centuries is a huge achievement which authoritatively remaps the field of early modern travel and communications.

University of Aberdeen, October 2015

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