As both Kate Emerson and Kathy Lynn Emerson, I’ve been writing novels set in Tudor England for some time now. One of the challenges I have to deal with every time has to do with moving characters from one place to another. This is true in the contemporary mysteries I write as Kaitlyn Dunnett too, but in a story set in the present day, the time lapse on a trip is relatively short. I can jump over an hour’s drive or a three-hour flight in a sentence. In the sixteenth century, though, there wasn’t any speedy way to get from point A to point B. Even a messenger who had fast horses stationed along his route couldn’t relay urgent news very quickly. The record, set by the Venice to Bruges postal service, was 700 miles in seven days, but most dispatch riders averaged closer to twenty miles a day than a hundred.
Sometimes the difficulties and slowness of travel have provided me with an opportunity for a humorous scene, but more often or not, they just slow things down. In many cases, although I’d like to simply jump to the next scene, with my characters already safely arrived at their destination, that just isn’t possible. They’re stuck together for days on end. Readers will feel that something must have happened, whether it did or not. The trick is to keep the pacing fast even when the travel time is slow.
How slow? Over the years I’ve collected a number of “nuggets” about travel during the sixteenth century. Of course, how long it took to get somewhere varied widely depending on the kind of horse you had (or if you were walking), whether you had wheeled vehicles with you, what the road conditions were, what the weather was, and so on, but there are some averages available. On foot, a man could walk anywhere from twelve to twenty-five miles in a day. On horseback, the distance he covered might go as high as fifty miles. Pack trains, many using mules rather than horses, averaged fifteen to twenty miles a day. An army with baggage train and foot soldiers advanced at a mere eight miles a day.
Travelers who went by water instead of by road usually made better time, but they were at the mercy of wind and weather. And tolls. Traveling by barge via rivers and canals was cheaper and faster than travel by pack train, but in some places there were tolls every few miles. As for the crossing from England to France, that could be made by sail, from Dover to Calais, in two hours on an afternoon with perfect weather conditions. Or it could take three days. Or a month. The trip from Dover to Boulogne was reckoned to require eight hours of hard rowing if the wind didn’t cooperate.
Women who traveled moved at an even shower pace. Although I am absolutely certain that some females defied convention, put on men’s clothing, and rode astride, for the most part women were reduced to a handful of choices, all of them uncomfortable. Some variety of the sidesaddle was available long before the start of the sixteenth century, probably consisting of a bench-like seat with a platform or sling hanging off one side for both feet. Later models provided a purpose-cut place to hook one knee and made the rider’s precarious position marginally more secure. More often, though, if women were traveling on horseback at all, they did not ride alone. They were relegated to a pillion, another bench-like contraption attached to the back of a man’s saddle. The woman then had to sit sideways, feet in a sling or on a board, and cling to the man’s waist. Talk about uncomfortable!
In the first half of the sixteenth century, the coach had not yet been introduced to England. It did not make its appearance until the 1560s and it was still a far cry from the vehicle that comes to mind when most people hear that word. It had no springs, for one thing. Prior to the introduction of the coach, women rode in four-wheeled carriages that resembled hay wagons (see above). Or they were carried in litters (ditto). The latter were usually fixed to poles and suspended between two horses. Carpets, mattresses, and cushions were added to the interior in an attempt to make it more comfortable, and there were curtains to keep out the dust of the road and a roof overhead for protection from the elements. Later, there were “chairs” like the one shown here. In spite of all these amenities, the occupants would have an uncomfortable journey—jounced about, bruised, and battered—before arriving at their destination.
Between the time it took to travel any distance, and the sheer discomfort of getting there, it’s a wonder Tudor people didn’t just stay at home. Many did, but not those who had any connection to the court or any ambition to find a place there. The king, most of all, had to get out of the palace and show himself to his subjects. Every year he made at least one royal progress, dragging his hapless courtiers along. While Henry VIII was treated to the best his houses or his hosts’ houses had to offer, his minions, and the women who served his queens, often found themselves camping out in tents set up in muddy fields. Although I’ve been able to avoid spending too much time describing the rigors of travel, I’ve yet to discover a way to skip royal progresses entirely. They crop up again and again in the Kate Emerson novels, because each and every one of those books is set at the Tudor court.
And now we come to the Blatant Self Promotion part of the post.
In At the King’s Pleasure, which came out on January 3rd, my heroine, Lady Anne Stafford, makes one particular trip that I didn’t wish to avoid relating in some detail. Imagine if you will, a newly-married woman falsely accused by her husband (Lord Hastings) and her brother (the Duke of Buckingham) of having an affair (with the king, no less) and spirited away from court to a nunnery some sixty miles distant, there to be incarcerated until the men in her life decide she’s learned her lesson. With every step of the journey, her resentment increases, setting the stage for her to take revenge. For once, the slowness of the journey didn’t affect the pacing of the novel in the least. All it did was give me plenty of time to create motivation for everything that comes afterward.
Want to know more? Here’s HOW TO WIN A FREE BOOK. Just comment on this post and you will automatically be entered in a drawing to win a free, autographed copy of either At the King’s Pleasure, a non-mystery historical novel, or my latest Liss MacCrimmon Scottish-American Heritage Mystery, Scotched. Your choice. The drawing will be held January 15th and the winner will be contacted by email on that date. Thanks in advance for your comments.