Travel in the sixteenth century: Getting there

Whilst driving across Texas to visit my folks in Taos, my thoughts naturally turned to what a similar trip would be like in Francis Bacon’s time.

It’s about 372 miles from Austin to Lubbock, where I spend the night. Google says it should take 6.5 hours, but I stop a lot, so it’s more like 7.5 for me. I had air-conditioning, audio books, and a cellphone with which I could summon help, should I need it. I’ve been driving to Taos for 30-odd years, so I don’t need a map. I just turn left in Brownwood, left again at Abilene, right at Roscoe and straight on to my motel in downtown Lubbock.


First map of Scotland, 1570 – National Library of Scotland

In Bacon’s time, you would also navigate by towns and inns, but unless you knew the route well, you’d need a guide to choose the right path at rural crossroads, of which there are many. You might get by with directions from locals and fellow travelers, but you’d need to be a good judge of character not to be misdirected, whether by a villain meaning to waylay you in a woods or by one of those helpful people who feel compelled to give an answer even when they know nothing.

If you were well-to-do and educated, you might have a map like the one above, but it doesn’t show roads, much less the tracks and paths you’d use at either end of your journey. We have so many choices in the map department these days, we can get from anywhere to anywhere, door to door, with nary a false turn.

It’s about 332 miles from London to Edinburgh, according to (I don’t know how accurate this tool is, but it’s yet another fun way to waste time on the web.) In the sixteenth century, it would take a normal traveler a good 18 days to make that trip at the average travel speed of 20 miles a day. Even pedestrians could achieve that rate; it was common for men and women to walk 10 miles to the nearest market town, do their buying and selling, and then walk home at the end of the day. Modern walking tours cover 8-15 miles a day, depending on the will and the hardiness of the walkers.

Robert Carey, 1st Earl of Monmouth. NT; (c) Montacute House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Robert Carey, 1st Earl of Monmouth. NT; (c) Montacute House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Robert Carey, 1st Earl of Monmouth, made the ride in 2 amazing days, leaving the bedside of the dying Queen Elizabeth on 24 March, 1603, and arriving in Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh late on 26 March. He must have ridden like fury and changed horses at every inn along the way. Google says it should take 6.5 hours to drive from London to Edinburgh — no, make that 7 hrs 38 mins in current traffic. Lord Monmouth would not have had traffic to worry about, at least, in his mad dash to be first to bring the news to King James.

He must have ridden through the night, which would surely have been impossible without a moon. The NASA moon phases website gives us a full moon on March 27th, so Lord Monmouth would have had pretty good light, if it wasn’t cloudy or raining. North of England… what are the odds?

You’d also need a strong heart and a fearless disposition to travel at night. Outlaws, demons, wild beasts — all manner of dangers lurked beyond the verge. In our time, we have to worry about drunk drivers, fatigue, and wild beasts leaping in front of our headlights. I have yet to see a Demon Crossing, but I’m young yet.

I packed like a crazy person, having just moved out of my temporary digs into an even more temporary hotel room, putting the apartment stuff under dust cloths in my unfinished house. Anything I couldn’t think what to do with went into the car to be driven across the state. It’s amazing what you can fit into a Honda Fit.IMG_20140722_184822_001

If you were walking in Bacon’s day, you might carry a single bag slung across your shoulders. You’d have a change of linen or two, perhaps a warmer layer like a jerkin and some thick stockings. You might have a book, if you were literate, or a broadside ballad to sing around the fire in the evening at your lodging. You’d have a bit of food for a roadside dinner and a flask of some sustaining beverage. You’d keep your money in a purse inside your clothes. If you were going to market, you might have a basket of eggs or turnips or handmade whatnots. You would not have a neglected sewing project, three pairs of reading glasses, the contents of your mail box for the past four days, and whatever was on the middle shelf in the pantry when you moved out.

If you were on a horse, you could carry quite a bit in your saddlebags. Things to sell, diplomatic pouches, fine clothes to put on when you got where you were going (for men; you couldn’t get a late century farthingale into a saddle bag.) Lord Monmouth could cheerfully assume he would provided with everything needed or desired on his arrival. If you had a mule or a packhorse, you could bring whatever you wanted, including your latest sewing project, a week’s worth of letters, extra spectacles, and whatever was on the pantry shelves when you left.

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