The roads to Runnymede: Magna Carta and Geographical Information Systems (GIS)
Ellen Potter and Max Satchell
The short animation above shows how King John travelled through England in October 1214 to June 1215, before the signing of the Magna Carta.
In the thirteenth century the place and date clauses recorded in thousands of royal letters and charters allow the construction of extremely detailed royal itineraries which enable the day to day movements of the king to be reconstructed. As transport geographers, the 800th anniversary of the Great Charter provides an opportunity to showcase to how much can be learned about medieval transport and travel from tracking King John's movement through England and Wales. The itineraries of his successors Henry III and Edward I provide further information.
Roads and routes
Identifying medieval road alignments (the actual course of a road) is notoriously difficult but we are helped by three facts. First, most main roads - what today we might call trunk roads - do not change substantially until the eighteenth century. Second, sections of the itineraries frequently track along well known sequence of places. Such sequences (routes) often do not change for hundreds of years and we are fortunate that many of the most important ones were mapped in great detail by John Ogilby in 1675. Third, some medieval routes followed Roman roads, whose straight alignments are easy to recognise in the landscape.
Between knowing the locations of the king and the ancient routes linking important places, we can attempt to identify the actual roads that John used. Reconstructing the route through the landscape means that we can walk where the king walked, see the horizon he saw and so on. By looking at the landscape through which the road in question runs we can also model the physical challenges and constraints faced by the baggage train.
Wheels versus hooves
It has long been known that the king would sometimes travel with his baggage train at a slow pace and sometimes ahead of it on horseback at a much faster pace. Euclidean (straight line) measures of the distance between each pair of places in the itineraries can generate basic distance data which enable travel speeds to be calculated. This makes it possible to model both types of journeys made by the king.
For transport historians the journeys of the king's baggage train, which consisted of wagons and carts, is in some ways more interesting than that of the king on horseback. Horses could go virtually anywhere, but the movements of carts and wagons were more restricted by gradient (slope) and road surface. Modelling the effects of gradients on where merchants could or could not carry goods by cart will therefore help us to understand which routes could handle high volumes of traffic and trade. It will also allow us to make comparisons with the rich sources of the seventeenth century concerning which routes were open to cart traffic or restricted to pack horses.
In this period, and later, dirt roads were the norm. If you have ever walked through a muddy field, you intuitively understand the misery that travellers could face when using unpaved roads. At particular times of year, an unlucky combination of geology, soils, rainfall, and drainage could make sections of road virtually impassable.
Baldock Lane was a section of the route from London to Richmond in North Yorkshire (the jumping off point for crossing the Pennines), travelled by John and his successors. In the early seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was a notorious transport blackspot and the subject of frequent complaints:
Here is the famous lane, Call'd Baldock Lane famous for being so impassable, that coaches and Travellers were oblig'd to break out of the way even by Force, which the people of the Country not able to prevent , at length placed Gates, and laid their lands open, setting Men at the Gates to take a voluntary toll, which Travellers always chose to pay, rather than plunge into Sloughs and Holes, which no horse could wade through.
-Daniel Defoe (1725)
These three maps show a section of Baldock Lane, the centre of which has a poorly drained, low lying area. This would would be predisposed to the 'Sloughs and Holes' mentioned by Defoe, not just in the eighteenth century but earlier as well.
The itineraries show that John and later kings could and did travel in winter, despite the trials of unimproved dirt roads. However, one might expect the king to travel for longer in summer, to take advantage of long days and better weather. Curiously, however, preliminary analysis for John’s reign shows no relationship between hours of daylight and the distance that he travelled each day.
Trial mapping has been done using the itineraries for 1205, 1235, and 1305 (the most complete years from the reigns of John, Henry III, and Edward I respectively). As can be seen below, during the harshest winter months the kings geographically restricted their travel to the south-east. Much of this area is free-draining chalk and has a relatively dry climate, which should result in more tractable roads and easier passage in winter. We need to extend the analysis across all of the itineraries and consider many other factors. However, it may be that the king avoided regions whose physical geography was predisposed to bad roads in winter.
King John's itinerary and those of his successors contain a great deal of information concerning medieval transport which in turn has the potential to deepen our understanding of the medieval economy and much else. The itineraries provide a huge amount of information. Across the reigns of John, Henry III, and Edward I the monarch’s location was recorded an astonishing 18,719 times. Many of the locations are repeats, with Henry III spending a great deal of time at Westminster and Windsor. Between them, however, these three kings visited 1,346 different places in England and Wales and hundreds more in Scotland, Ireland, and France. After removing the days when the king is stationary or when his location is unknown, we are left with 5,103 actual journeys. Funding permitting, we hope to do much more with the itineraries than has been possible so far.
This map shows the combined itineraries of Kings John, Henry III, Edward I.
Data and datasets
This data forms part of E. Potter and M. Satchell, Provisional geodatabase of the itineraries of the kings of England, 1199-1305. Our co-ordinate data for February 1214 to June 1215 also features in the Magna Carta Project's "Itinerary and diary of King John".
We would like to thank Dr Julie Crockford (nee Kantner) for permission to use and map her versions of the itineraries of John, Henry III, and Edward I; the Magna Carta Project for permission to use and map their version of the itinerary of John for 1214-1215; Dr Gordon Dickenson for permission to digitise his unpublished paper maps reconstructing the strip maps of John Ogilby; and, finally, our colleagues at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. We would also like to acknowledge the generosity of the Leverhulme Trust in funding the digitisation of the Ogilby strip maps.