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5 Reasons to Include Travel in Tudor Stories

By Jonathan Posner
May 8, 2023

As a writer of historical fiction set in Tudor England, I am firmly of the belief that travel can be an integral part of the narrative and not something to be glossed over; a key part of stories set in the period. Why is travel so integral? I have five main reasons.

Firstly, the means of travel in Tudor times is interesting in itself for the reader – and worth describing in detail. Most often journeys were on foot or horseback, but people also used carriages, wherries (small ‘river taxi’ rowing boats), larger river boats, and various sized coastal vessels. One time I even put my antagonist character onto a bad-tempered donkey – which seemed particularly appropriate.

The second reason is the experience. It has been a lot of fun researching such modes of transport; not only trying to understand them, but also trying to imagine what it would have been like for people at the time. In a modern story, characters can hop on a plane, board a train or drive a car – in which case it’s not strictly necessary to detail what that journey was like – we know that. But put Tudor characters into situations such as a tiny prison-like box-cart, where the character has to stop herself being continually flung against the sides as it jolts along, or a vessel sailing along the flat marshes of the Essex coast in the 1530s, or a rowing boat steering through the turbulent waters under London Bridge in 1575, and the story demands that this is described in all its rich detail.

But the travel itself is not the only source of engaging narrative. My third reason why travel is integral is the danger. In the Tudor period, there were serious perils to consider while you were on the road – with thieves, brigands and cut-purses potentially lurking round every corner. And indeed, my characters have had to defend themselves against such attacks on a number of occasions. I am partly helped by the fact that the country was significantly more forested in the 16th century than it is in the modern day (around 15% coverage, as against around 8% now). So I can have my characters riding through dense, gloomy woods, glancing nervously left, right, and upwards at low overhead branches, in case concealed brigands suddenly appear. And it’s been hard not to disappoint them; I’ve given my characters plenty of such situations to deal with!

The fourth reason is the speed of travel in Tudor England. A journey by horse or carriage would average many fewer miles a day than a modern train or car, and horses needed to be rested, fed and watered – or changed for fresh ones. So my characters are not only faced with long, interesting journeys where the narrative can develop, but are also having to stop in wayside inns. These are places that give many opportunities for exciting action scenes. People are always coming and going, clandestine meetings can take place and plot-driving chance encounters are perfectly plausible – so it’s the ideal location for pivotal sequences. And climatic scenes as well – one of my books ends with the heroine fighting off the villain and his henchmen in a tavern, before the final battle takes place on the roof of a moving box-cart (yes – the one she was previously imprisoned in).

Tudor Travel

The final reason is the Tudor environment. For us modern-day folk, the countryside is full of things we take for granted, like road-side buildings, electric pylons, factories and shopping malls. We travel past these at speed in our cars and trains, hardly even seeing them, let alone remarking on them. In the towns and cities we are surrounded by offices, houses, shops, petrol stations and so on. And, of course, we travel on smooth Tarmac roads. But 500 years ago travel was across rough, bumpy tracks or through dense forests with dangerous low branches and high roots. Or through towns with narrow streets dominated by high houses with their overhanging upper storeys blocking out the light, plus stinking human waste running down the central channel of the cobbled streets. So it becomes an integral part of the narrative to describe such journeys in full, smelly detail, and bring them to life for the reader.

So, there’ no doubt in my mind that travel in Tudor times was much more interesting – if considerably more dangerous – than travel now. And as a writer of Tudor adventure fiction, it’s a rich source of scenarios to drive plot and build character.

Jonathan Posner

Written by Jonathan Posner

Jonathan writes action and adventure novels set in Tudor England, with fiesty female heroines. He has a trilogy that starts with a modern-day girl time-travelling back to the 16th century, as well as a spin-off series (one book so far, with the next due in 2023), and also a prequel.

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1 Comment

  1. Anne M Beggs

    Wherries, my new favorite word. TY. will be sharing.

    Reply

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