We recently held the 30th anniversary event for the Kingdom of Drachenwald near Venlo in the Netherlands. Shannon and myself drove there, others took the train or flew, used a ferry or various combinations depending on where we started. From Insulae Draconis we had to cross water, if on the European continent, then uninterrupted land travel was possible. Some even came from across the Atlantic. For those of us travelling within the Kingdom, unless we made a deliberate stop enroute, the journey could be accomplished in a day.
We think nothing of it. Further, safe arrival is almost guaranteed. Air crashes are extremely rare, as are train crashes and ferry sinkings. Whilst relatively risky to those, car travel is still extremely safe itself. I would not expect to fall ill en route, and if I did it would be extremely unlikely to be life- threatening, and unless suddenly fatal. Modern medical assistance would be close at hand. I would not expect to be waylaid or robbed. If I did stop, I can make sure that accommodation is available for me well ahead of time which will guarantee a proper bed, a private room, bathroom facilities, most likely ensuite, and ready access to sufficient food and drink.
In short, barring the inconvenience of a traffic jam or a delay on mass transit, I would expect to arrive safely, quickly, in comfort, well fed and watered and little more than slightly tired at Venlo, regardless of where in Europe I started from. Indeed, given the scope of the SCA, I would expect to be able to manage that wherever I started within the Knowne World of the SCA’s kingdoms, with perhaps Lochac or some of the East Asian territories being the only ones requiring more than 24 hours.
Easy, quick, comfortable, and safe. Now.
But what about my persona.? Or yours? And that is what I want to make you think about. I’m not going to go into detail about what my persona would experience, but rather try and inspire questions about what your persona would have had to go through. In fact, reading this article back to myself, it is in many ways more a stream of thoughts and ‘whatabouts’, and that suits my purpose quite well.
It wouldn’t have been easy. Or quick. Or comfortable. Or safe. The last would have varied considerably depending on such factors as weather or politics.
To explore what we think about I’ll focus on my own journey with Shannon.
My Modern Journey
I live a couple of villages north of Cambridge, now in England in the United Kingdom. Because we were bringing a fair bit of kit, Shannon drove. We also decided on a deliberate stop of a few nights in Brugge on the way. We chose to cross the water by going under the Channel using Le Shuttle, which takes 35 minutes from Ashford to Calais. We left home about 14:00 BST and arrived in Brugge around 21:00 BST. IT took about 3 hours to the remainder of the journey to Venlo via Antwerp a few days later. We did the return journey in a single day (this time making sure to avoid Antwerp) in about 11 hours. A rough approximation this is a distance of 600km or 375 miles.
Alternatively, we could have taken ferries from Dover to get to Calais. There are alternative ports, such as Harwich, which could have got us directly to the Netherlands.
So switching to my persona journey, there are several factors that would be common, regardless of when I was making this journey, with kit. The assumption of the SCA is that we are all nobles which does at least give us some advantages in terms of access to resources such as horses, servants and money, assuming of course that your persona originates in a monied economy. If I was travelling from early Anglo-Saxon Waterbeach, from the kingdom of East Anglia, I would need to figure out how to convert my land and food based worth into something transportable.
The only option for crossing to the Continent would be boat, of varying quality depending on the era. Today’s train or ferry travel, where you can cross at will, regardless of season or weather, is far different from what our personas would experience. The prevailing wind would shift depending upon the time of year, the weather be pretty much unpredictable and the quality of the ships and their crews uncertain. There were no dedicated ferries. As William, Duke of Normandy, found out in 1066 the wind could confound travel for an entire season. In 1120 the sinking of the White Ship killed the heir to the Kingdom of England and led eventually to the civil war that was the Anarchy when King Henry died.
Once you did find a ship and suitable weather, the crossing itself would only take a few hours from Dover to Calais, and given prevailing winds, usually a little longer to return.
Why Dover to Calais?
There were routes to cross the sea, probably many more ad hoc than the very regular ferry routes of today. So why might a persona choose a particular route. For myself, then why Dover to Calais?
As the shortest crossing, it would be the least vulnerable to turns in the weather whilst on board, and similarly the most reliable in terms of managing a crossing at any given time. It was also a major trade route and so would have a more ships likely to be making a crossing at any given time.
As a trade route, it would make a good crossing possible for any of us engaged in trade, whether as a wealthy merchant or a noble. For example, the Staple of Calais would have a large number of ships sailing from London and Dover when the wool had been collected and packed. For trade travel in the latter part of our period, a land trip via London would be useful as it would allow preparations to be made such as exchange letters. These were effectively two way agreements to deliver an amount of local currency to the bearer of a letter, instead of having to carry around large amounts of cash, which would be vulnerable to potential pirates and/pr privateers in the Channel, depending on whom was currently at war. These agreements were also a way of profiting from loans without engaging in usury.
Additionally, for most of the medieval period Canterbury was the major religious establishment in what would become England, even as far back as the Heptarchy of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It would never hurt to have God on your side when crossing the sea and taking long journeys.
For those familiar with the Cely Letters and the wool trade generally, these cities will be familiar. Whilst the wool itself would be traded at Calais, the first Continental stop, most of the payments would be made later in the year at markets at Brugge and Antwerp.
Venlo itself is on the River Meuse, was a trading port on the river, and was a member of the Hanseatic League from 1375. The Meuse thus also provides another route to reach Venlo instead of over land. This could be a double-edged sword, as it allowed easy access for Viking raids, for those with an appropriate persona.
Unlike today, it’s impossible to give an average speed of travel. The time of year and the weather conditions would make a huge difference. Mid-winter snows could make travel impossible; dry summer days would be fastest, but get too hot and your horses are going to need more frequent breaks and more water, as are you. At least for this journey, the route is fairly flat for the most part. Given our trip was mid-June, and the weather has been good for a prolonged spell, let’s look at the upper end. If our party was entirely on horseback, we might achieve about 40 miles (~60km) per day under ideal conditions. That equates to about 10 days (plus time to get across the Channel) for the trip, about a day per modern hour.
But, are your party and horses regular long distance travellers, accustomed to being in the saddle all day for well over a week? If not, it seems likely that the pace would be slower and punctuated with more breaks, and possibly entire days of rest, especially on Sundays.
If you are travelling with significant luggage or goods requiring a cart your pace would likely be half that at best, and would most likely be getting on for a month.
And what if the purpose isn’t a direct trip to Venlo, but more focused on conducting trade. That would lead to lengthy stops at major cities and their markets.
I’ve focused on the land times in this section, because modernly that is how we generally travel. It is quickest and simplest, not relying on schedules made by others. However, the medieval reality is that, if we were dedicated to fast, direct travel to Venlo, we probably wouldn’t travel by land much at all. It would be far quicker and safer to travel by the waterways, such as the Meuse, even if it meant a longer sea journey to reach the mouth of the river.
Not all hazards are natural or simple brigandage. Since the end of WW2, war has been a distant concept for us, and has rarely bothered England at home for several centuries, most of our wars being fought elsewhere. This was not true for our period.
The English, section would have been the safest from this point of view over time, as even in Anglo- Saxon times with various warring kingdoms, within and without their own borders (in this case East Anglia, Mercia, Kent later subsumed by Wessex), much of the conflict would have been between small warbands, rather than large armies. There were other dangerous times, such as in the years following the Conquest, the Anarchy, Louis’s invasion against King John, various revolts, and the flare ups during the Wars of the Roses, but still relatively quite compared to the Continental side.
The Low Countries were racked with conflict much of the time. Looking for a quick list I came across https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_in_the_Low_Countries_until_1560. It seems that only relatively peaceful era when you wouldn’t have to think about who was, or might be about to, start fighting was during the 10 th century. These wars weren’t just isolated to the area, and would often involve England or France in some capacity, and that could often make the Channel treacherous as privateers would be out in force for one side or the other.
Calais was a prominent part of English territory for 200 years, from 1347 until 1558, along with varying amounts of country around it. During this period that leg would have been a common cultural and currency zone, of not always peaceful.
Disease and Injury
Today, you expect to return from your journey in the same state as you left, when you planned. Recent years put a slight dent in that with Covid, and even as late as last year I would up stuck in Berlin as a consequence. But the German health system is modern, and I was vaccinated, so the issue was more bureaucratic than one of serious illness.
Your persona, however, would not have this expectation. Indeed, illness and death were a very real potential outcomes, and certainly a reason for the preventative visit in Canterbury. Much of the time the risk would have been a constant background of disease variants that you hadn’t been exposed to before. Occasionally though, there were flare up of plagues which would have made you wary to travel and the locals not particularly welcoming of strangers. The most famous example would be that of the Black Death which swept across Europe and into England in the late 1340s. We would generally expect to be competent riders as nobles, but riding accidents could give you anything from a scratch to get infected to broken bones. The quality and quantity of food and drink would be variable depending on the season and that year’s climate, exposing you to all kinds of parasitic and other gut problems, as well as just simple hunger and thirst if the conditions or politics were wrong.
Maybe we should just stay home?
Even at its best, this journey to Venlo is going to be long and tiring. It’s not unlikely that they’ll be some trial or other, delays and waiting that would make a ferry strike pale into insignificance, and we might not return at all. So why on earth would we actually contemplate it? Well for a long weekend away, we wouldn’t.
However, dangerous as the trip is, it is still most likely that we’ll return safe and healthy. More risk does not mean overwhelming risk, most of the time. And where there are hardships, there are generally also profits if you have the mindset and capital. Someone will generally pay for transported goods, if you pick the right ones.
Or there is diplomacy to conduct, perhaps at the Carolingian court, perhaps through back channels between Elizabethan England and Spain. Diplomacy can make reputations, which could also mean wealth, whether through promotions or gifts.
Maybe you see profit, but not by trade or reputation, but simple taking it. You may be raiding as a Viking, or travelling as a mercenary to sell your services to ones side of a war or another. The potential gains are high, as are the risks, but there will also be adventure and a chance to see the world, even if the world won’t be that keen to see you.
There’s also a chance to see to your spiritual well-being by visiting various shrines and religious centres. This will be especially the case if you’re a Christian where pilgrimage is virtue. Or maybe your persona is in religious orders, a common destination for younger born nobles, and travelling on church business.
So despite all the hardships and all the risks, there is profit to made from travelling, whether material, reputational or spiritual. If your persona has ambitions, and the weather has been reasonable, and your sovereign isn’t currently at war, and you have the wealth to afford horses and other supplies, then maybe now is a good time to travel to Venlo. Make sure to have someone look after the house though, you won’t be home for many weeks at best.