Friday, 10 February 2012

Perils of travel in Tudor England

Research. Important, like butter in a baked potato. Too much and it makes you sick, too little and you can’t swallow the potato.

I am currently firming up the research for the third Luke Ballard novel, working title “Sweeter than Flowing Honey”. In this book, Luke is forced to travel back to Lincolnshire and his childhood home. Young Prince Arthur, only 8 weeks old has been abducted and the end of the thread of detection seems to be in the Lincolnshire Uprising of 1536. Luke has other difficulties to face besides finding the prince. His relationship with his father, meeting again the lord of the manor whose son, Luke’s best friend, died on the Mary Rose after enlisting following an argument with Luke over a woman and his own inability to ask for help when he needs it.

Following the clues, Luke travels to where he thinks the prince is being held. Too late. Leaving a tantalizing clue for him to follow, the abductors have moved on, with their trophy. So, minus the baby, Luke must travel half the length of England back to Hampton Court Palace to face the wrath of the King. But, will he get there?

The roads in Tudor England were thronged with a variety of dangers. When the Wars of the Roses ended with the accession of Henry VII and his marriage to Elizabeth of York, private armies were more or less abolished. This led to highly trained men discharged from service with nothing but their clothes and weapons, turning to vagabondage or violent robbery. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, most of the monks were given pensions. Not so the staff such as cooks, gardeners, laundry people etc. Most of them had no option but to become vagrants. At that time, the wool trade to Europe was in full swing, the demand for English wool was voracious. This made landlords turn whole swathes of land to grass and farm sheep. Result? Many more people out of work. One shepherd to look after a flock of sheep was all that was needed. Other workers were turned out of their homes and jobs and left to fend for themselves. Then there were the gypsies, who, most people believed, were descended from the Ancient Egyptians. Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s main bully-boy, issued instructions that all gypsies were to be rounded up and deported, even if they produced paperwork saying they were legally in England. If they refused, then they were to be summarily executed.

The state of the highways in Tudor England was dire. In winter they were almost impassable with mud and snow and in summer the depth of the rutted surfaces were a danger to both horses and men. Most of the countryside was still covered in thick woodland, an ideal spot for footpads to lurk and prey on those who could not afford an escort or could not join a group of travellers. There is a delightful story about Gamaliel Ratsey, a celebrated highwayman, who waylaid a preacher and demanded from him a sermon. The parson chose charity to the poor as his topic and so moved Ratsey that he became something of a Robin Hood character, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. With ostlers and tavern staff giving information to the robbers about who was travelling and what they carried, few were safe.

All in all, travel was not to be undertaken by those of a nervous disposition. Will Luke be safe?


  1. A fascinating glimpse of Tudor England, as ever. There is so much scope here to work with. Keep unravelling it.

  2. Interesting stuff, Avril. I love to learn these sort of details about our ancient land. Keep informing us, please.

  3. So fascinating - you are like a one stop history lesson!