The Rocky Road to London: travelling from Dublin to Westminster in the Middle Ages.

Elizabeth Biggs, Beyond 2022

The Medieval Exchequer Gold Seam material exists because a series of accounting scandals in the late thirteenth century around the finances of English-controlled Ireland meant that copies of the records produced in Dublin were sent to London to be checked. Once they had been checked, these records were stored at Westminster with the other records of medieval English government. Finally, they were moved in the nineteenth century to what is today the UK National Archives, where they are today. 

The documents written in Dublin were carried to London along well-trodden routes. And we’re going to retrace their steps today following the messengers who regularly made the journey carrying letters, orders, licences and other things that could be carried on horseback. There are regular references to messengers being paid for their journeys, but also regular notes about what could happen when things went wrong- delays, robbery at sea, accidents and more. 

The bag used to transport and then store Irish records in the 1290s,
(TNA (UK), E 101/232/1)

The Dublin Exchequer handled all the money for the English government in Ireland, based at Dublin Castle. Here the clerks have drawn up the long parchment lists of payments and receipts and carefully rolled them up to put them in the leather pouches that will keep them safe on their journey, and handed them to the waiting messengers – us.

The first thing we need to do is to get the ferry to Holyhead. We best hope that there are no strong storms in the Irish Sea otherwise we’ll be waiting here on the coast for a while! When there are calm seas and good winds, we make the crossing safely although it does take two whole days. We’re very glad to see dry land when we come into Holyhead, where there’s an inn we can get a meal and rent horses for the next few days. The next bit is going to be interesting. Once we’ve ridden across the island of Anglesey, we can stay at Beaumaris Castle, one of the castles built by Edward I to garrison North Wales, before crossing the Menai Strait on a ferry. The road across Wales from Beaumaris to Chester is the old Roman paved road. We’ll have to cross mountains, take ferries across rivers, and follow the road east. We’ll probably stay overnight at the royal castle at Conwy, built in just four years and one of the most impressive castles in Wales, and then at Denbigh Castle. But in between, there will be many nights of searching for lodgings. Finally, after a week or more of riding, we reach Chester.

Conwy Castle, one of many built by Edward I to control North Wales in the 1280s.

We’re now in England and the most difficult terrain is behind us. From Chester south is easier going. Chester itself has a royal castle and a thriving marketplace as well as being a hub for pilgrims. We could stay and watch the mystery plays, but no, we have to push on to bring the accounts to London. We ride south through the hills of Cheshire and then Shropshire, crossing bridges and passing through small towns on our way to Litchfield, where the cathedral dominates the town.

From Litchfield, the road gets even busier as we move south. We go from market town to market town until we reach the chalk Chiltern Hills at Dunstable. Almost there! It’s been a long month of travel. After Dunstable, we stay at the wealthy abbey of St Albans in their busy guest hostel and go to pay our respects to the very popular local saint. Speaking with travellers, the monks of St Albans gather the news from all over England and beyond to write their histories. There are twenty more miles to London – only a day more of riding ahead of us.

The martyrdom of St Alban, from Dublin, Trinity College Library, Ms 177, f.38r
(Matthew Paris, Life of St Alban).

The road down into London goes through the outlying towns and villages – first Barnet, high up above London itself with its own busy market, then through the small village at Whetstone and the steep hill down through Highgate. We have choices to make now. We can circle the city outside the walls and stay on horseback, using the roads to reach Westminster, past the abbey and finally to New Palace Yard. Otherwise, we can ride through the city, stable our horses and then make our way down to the river bank. There we find a whole fleet of boats for hire. For a few pennies, the boatman will take us up the river to the King’s bridge at Westminster.

However we reach Westminster, we are looking for the two towers by Westminster Hall. These are the buildings used by the English Exchequer, where we can hand over our letters to the clerks there. While we wait for any return messages or other orders, we can drink ale in the many inns nearby, including the taverns of Heaven and Hell in Westminster Hall itself.  

Map showing the places discussed in this blog post, over 300 miles of travel

Our journey is done. Assuming that we have run into no major delays, it’s been at about a month since we left Dublin. We might be able to arrive more quickly, or bad weather or other accidents might make us much slower. Travel is unpredictable!