Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland

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

Written by
Dr Elizabeth Biggs
Medieval Exchequer Gold Seam Research Fellow

The Medieval Exchequer Gold Seam exists because accounting scandals in thirteenth-century Dublin meant that copies of the records had to be sent to London to be checked. Once checked, these accounts were stored at Westminster with other records of the medieval English government. Finally,  in the nineteenth century they were moved to what is today the The National Archives (UK), where they survive to tell a fascinating tale.

The documents written in Dublin were carried to London along well-trodden routes. We’re going to follow the messengers who made the journey on horseback, carrying letters, orders, licences. The accounts regularly refer to messengers being paid for their journeys, but they also also reveal what could happen when things went wrong – delays, robbery at sea, accidents, and more.

Let’s get ready to go. The Irish Exchequer, based at Dublin Castle, is where all the money for the English government in Ireland is handled. Here the clerks have drawn up their long parchment lists of payments and receipts. They have carefully rolled them up, put them in leather pouches to keep them safe on the journey, and handed them to the waiting messengers – us.

A bag used to transport and then store Irish records in the 1290s on this type of journey (TNA E 101/232/1)

The first thing we need to do is to get the ferry to Holyhead. We’d best hope that there are no storms on 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. Sailing into Holyhead we are very glad to get onto dry land. Happily, there’s an inn where 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, one of the most impressive castles in Wales (it was built in just four years!), 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’ll reach Chester.

Conwy Castle, one of many built by Edward I to control North Wales in the 1280s (David Dixon)

We’re now in England and the most difficult terrain is behind us. From Chester, travelling south is easier going. Chester is a busy town, with a royal castle and a thriving marketplace. It is a popular hub for pilgrims too. 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 further south. We go from market town to market town until we reach the chalky 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. St Albans is a good place for news and gossip too. Speaking with travellers, the monks 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 Matthew Paris’ Life of St Alban (Dublin, Trinity College Library, Ms 177, f.38r)

The road down into London goes through the outlying towns and villages – first Barnet, high up above London itself, with its own bustling 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 where we will 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.

Whichever route we take to reach Westminster, we are looking for the two towers by Westminster Hall. This is the English Exchequer, where we can hand over our letters to the clerks. While we wait for any return messages or other orders, we’ll have time for a rest and a drink of ale in one of the many inns nearby. Or maybe we’ll just stay and drink ale in the taverns of Heaven and Hell in Westminster Hall itself. 

Our journey is done. We were lucky and did not run into any major delays, it’s only been about a month since we left Dublin. Sometimes we might arrive more quickly, more often bad weather or a horse throwing a show might make us much slower. Travel is so unpredictable! 

Map showing the places passed through in over 300 miles of travel