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The Collation

A 17th Century Letter Collection, Part 2: Travelling Around Early Modern England, 1630-1632

Image of sealed letter with text transcribed above. A wax seal is visible at the top of the packet.
Image of sealed letter with text transcribed above. A wax seal is visible at the top of the packet.

Part 2 of 3

Being immersed in Shakespeare, as one cannot help but be at the Folger, means being well-exposed to the period of 1590-1610 in England in general. On the one hand, the major playing companies periodically left London and toured the hinterlands, particularly when the plague struck and the London theatres were closed; and Shakespeare himself took off, presumably alone, at least once a year to visit his family and attend to business in Stratford, a journey of several days.1 On the other hand, it was an age of extreme worry about vagrancy, broadly defined. There was a great deal of displacement, with peasants being turned off the land by enclosure as aristocrats shifted from tenant farming to raising sheep on their estates; failed harvests; and “a growing population and inflation”.2 This concern with vagabonds finally resulted in successive government acts to deal with “anyone deemed to be a rogue, vagabond or sturdy beggar” by a variety of punishments that, depending on the time and place, might include whipping, branding, returning individuals to their last known residence, placement in a workhouse, payment to leave town, naval impressment, and/or penal transportation.3 The Vagabond Act of 1572 focused on “masterless men”, and required wandering entertainers to be licensed for the first time.4 It appears that, in general, a distinction was drawn between those “belonging to any baron of this realm, or to any other honourable person of greater degree,” or were otherwise licensed by the authorities, and those who were not, especially those without a source of income other than begging or theft, or without a permanent residence.5

It is in this context that I read the letters of X.c.51 (1-46). The time is 1630-326, and lo and behold, here are aristocrats, their servants, and hired retainers continually flitting back and forth between London and estates west of Bath, a considerable distance. Couriers might make the approximately 150 mile trip once a week. Once at the estates, business frequently takes the servants away. They go regularly to fairs at all the neighboring larger towns, only a few of which are really close. They know, and hire, specialists from all over the region, not just in their village. You really have to take firm action when you aren’t totally self-sufficient and “here are noe Clothers dwell nere to vs, Ayshe7 dwelleth; they say) 14: miles & vpwarde from this place:/” (letter 5). So, even though it isn’t that long after Shakespeare’s demise in 1610, the travel situation is much more free and open than I had expected from the secondary literature, but that is one of the joys of local primary sources.

In the letters, one hub is London, where Lady Mary Powell, her mother Lady Vanlore, and at least sometimes her husband Sir Edward Powell, Bart. live. We know this because most of the letters are addressed thusly:

To the right Worshipfull. and
my very louinge freinde
the Lady Powell, wife to
Sir. Edwarde knight and
Barronett & one of his
Maiesties: Master. of Requests8
dwellinge at Westminister
within the deanes yeard
nere the Scoolehowse
dd this:9 (letter 11)

Image of sealed letter with text transcribed above. A wax seal is visible at the top of the packet.
X.c.51 (11)

Since the Dean’s Yard exists today, apparently their home was somewhere in this picture.

Most of the letters are sent from one one of two personages (in this case, a farm or estate):

I. Journey Descriptions

Letter 1 begins with an unusually detailed discussion of the party led by the new steward of the Westonzoyland estate, Thomas Crompton:

Good Madam)
These are to informe your. Ladyshipp: of our safe ariualle at Weston in Zoyland ^^(& our Iournings thether.) Wee came to Bagshott the first night, beinge 30 miles from Lundon; to Andiuer10 the next, beinge two and Thirtie miles beyond that; And to ffroome11 the next night which is 30: miles more;
… wee came in sumthinge late, & it did rayne most parte of that day beinge fryday, & continued greate parte of that. night, …; Then … [we proceeded the next day] to Wells, which was 12: durtie miles. Thether wee came betweene two, & three of the Clock in the after noone;
… ; but I longinge to see Weston, … came to Ayshcooke ^(4 miles short of Weston) that night, beinge Satterday night, & was at Weston the morrowe before prayers; And wee had not.) nither our horsses; slip nor fall; ni^ther lighted wee into any evell company:12 for the which preseruacion I thanke the allsuffitiant God)

This route from London to Westonzoyland (London to Bagshott to Andover to Frome to Wells [& then] to Ashcock to Westonzoyland) is approximately 144 miles, doable now in about 4 hours (3 hours without traffic). The mileage given by Crompton totals 106 miles, and I am not certain what the cause of the discrepancy could be. Perhaps Crompton considered 30 miles to be an average day’s journey on horseback, not necessarily a measured distance? If so, one could cover more distance on a good road, or if one pushed. We find out in Letter 35 that this was definitely possible, as the approximately 4-day trip was doable in a 3-day dash from London to Weston. I am not certain of the towns, but the distances make sense. It was a very exhausting pace, with the first day, Thursday, covering 43 miles, Friday 54 miles, and Saturday, 48 miles:

I thanke God) I came well heather to weston yesterday night
late, beinge Satterday night; The first night beinge Thursday
night we lay at Hartly roe;13 the next night at willyborne,14
and the next here at weston, wearier then my Horsse./ …
I know not the day,
but the mounth I am shure is May. (letter 35)

Note that he neglects to sign his name.

Fragment of a handwritten letter transcribed above
X.c.51 (35)
Handwritten closing of the letter transcribed above.
X.c.51 (35)

These journey descriptions give one some context for discussions of couriers along the same or similar routes, who made the journey quite often.

II. Comparison Shopping, 17th Century Style

The Powell household would go to great effort to secure a good deal. Evidently competition was not particularly fierce in a given town fair or area, or if so, it was on a small scale. In the letters, price differences are described between towns, not between vendors in the same town. One had to travel far afield to find the best prices, and this they certainly did. For example, we have references to this strategy to procure salt:

Sault is exceedinge deere here at Bridgwater., Baysault15
at 15s: & :16:s16 a busshell; for I sent my man with. two
Horsses to Bristoll and hee paid there :5s: 8d: a busshell.
and brought mee home as much as will serue mee
I hope, betweene this and Ester./ (letter 19)

and cloth bags for grain: I desire your. ladyshipp: if sacks, (that is baggs) bee cheape; to send
mee a dussen17; for here I pay 3d- for one that will hould
but 3- busshels & a halfe at the most:/ (letter 3)

She did. Crompton also laid out some rather poetic hopes and plans to purchase livestock:

I haue bought two keine18& a sowe with tenn sucklinge
piggs; all Cattle here are very deere19, & the time of
yere is cum that keeping20 will bee plentifull, & Cattle
must be had; but I must not buy them here, (if I doe)
I may sitt downe by the losse, and goe home by weepinge Crosse:/
I would to God I had sum body here to look
to the Barnes21, whilst I ride to buy Cattle; & Horsses
which. I shall want for the Carte; I coulde now wishe
that Michaell were here; (letter 12)

A fragment of the handwritten letter transcribed above beginning with
X.c.51 (12)

This gives an interesting insight into the value placed on servants’ time and labor.

III. Courier Trips

These letters reveal the arrangements for private mail delivery in England before the establishment of an official postal service in 1661. I say “mail” because although letters are central, being vitally important and light in weight, we find references to delivery of regular packages, large packages, livestock, and, perhaps surprisingly, very large sums of money.

Reliability and economy are vital, and that means looking first close to home: relatives and household staff know where they’re going; are incentivized to get there with the all the stuff in good shape; and are already on the payroll:

I sent your ladyshipp: this letter. by Charles & 6: payre
of gloues I baught at Bristole:/ (letter 10)


I haue received. my masters. and your ladyshipps: letters sent by Nan: (letter 14)

My personal favorite is the case of Robbin. My first thought was a possible case of Grand Theft Mustang,22 and if so, intershire flight to avoid prosecution, but most likely it is a simple complaint about the lack of news:

I haue received noe letter. from your. ladyship: this weeke. I hope all is well./ I haue not
herde what. is becum of Robbin footman, sithence23 he went from. me
towards Lundon out of Sumersett sheire, which was I thinke this day three
weekes at the lest, he had one of Brightwens markitt Horsses vnder hime./ (letter 38)

Using hired help comes with a number of problems. There can be a lack of personal investment and professionalism. However, sometimes it works very well:

I haue by this last Carrier received. a Trunke. & a letter. from my
master. with. a letter. inclosed from your. ladyshipp: (letter 8)

Sometimes, however, things arrive a bit late:

I received. the Baggs Beane, Pease & the frute, for the which I moste
humbly thanke my Lady: Vanloore & your. Ladyshipp: but the letter. I received.
10 dayes after sent from Bridgewater by I knowe not whoe (letter 8)

And sometimes it doesn’t work very well at all:

I haue received. your. letter. wherein your. ladyshipp: doeth Condemne mee
for not wrightinge every weeke sithence I came
hether/ I will asshure your: ladyshipp: I haue written
every ^weeke/ this is the third letter. the last I
sent by Mr. Powells man, and the first, which as
it seemeth is miscarried, was sent by Burroughs
man; deliuered to hime by Ieffery; besides that I sent
to your. ladyshipp: by Mr. Powell himselfe:/ (letter 20)

And finally, there are times when Crompton appears to be pulling his hair out. Before he received her Ladyship’s letter mentioned in letter 8, he says:

I haue writt in my last weekes letter. about the receipt of the baggs
& seeds with other things, for the which I humbly thanke my laydy
Vandoore & your. ladisshipp: I received. noe letter. with the sacks, as I
haue writt, but that. letter. which should a cum with the Sacks
I/ received this morninge sent from Bridgwater./ The Carriers (for
all theire protestacions) doe play the knaues24 with mee most
Grosly / (letter 7)

The fragment of handwritten letter 7 transcribed above
X.c.51 (7)

A later incident bothers him as well:

but I had noe newes of her Cuminge; for Smith the Carrier
that brought the letter. which should a gaue mee warninge of Nan her Cuminge;
(keept it; or lost ^it)) and I sent Satterday & Mounday for it, and his
answeere was, There was no letter. for mee: … (letter 14)

Happily, things work out in the end:

… But Burroughs man
very honestly, when Nan came to Sumerdon 5: miles of
Weston. hired a man & a horsse for is-25& sent her that friday
night to weston./ (letter 14)

As an aside, his worries for Nan are not frivolous; although they travelled often, at that time it was indeed difficult, with danger of accident and robbery:

[I arrived at Weston,] And wee had not.)
nither our horsses; slip nor fall; ni^ther lighted wee into
any evell company: for the which preseruacion I thanke the
allsuffitiant God) (letter 1)

Fragment from letter 1 transcribed above
X.c.51 (1)

There also were other dangers, such as the unsettling and unexpected quarantine situation once again involving Smith the Carrier (see letter 14 above), who brought a shipment of “infected goodes” to Pengethley, where the goods, and he, were quarantined. Much fear resulted, “but God bee thanked there is none dead nor sick as yett./”26

Finally, there is a long-term commercial relationship of Crompton and Beale with John Chilcote “of Milforton in the County of Soummerset” (letter 11), who was perhaps a business partner of Mr. Burridge (letter 33). Chilcote is described as a grasier27 and a drouer.28 Indeed, he does take livestock to London (along with letters, as is to be expected; cf. letter 20 above):

I haue sent by Chilcotte, a fatt oxe (I hope) to fullham; to my
lady: Vanloore, accordinge to your ladyships. direction; and they make
accoumpt to be at hamersmith. at Thomas: Houldings at the
seigne of the Goate, vppon Satterday next in the eaving; or
the munday followinge, after. the date hereof; The oxe is burnt
in the hornes with my little markinge Iron./ (letter 26)

However, the most interesting service Chilcote provides is delivering large amounts of cash, by what appears to be essentially a reverse money order. The modern version of a money order is this: the sender pays the amount to be sent plus a service fee at the local office of a vendor such as Western Union. The recipient receives a note that functions as a check that they can present at the vendor’s office near them to redeem for the amount transferred. However, in this case Chilcote is sent to London knowing the amount; he pays the amount to Lady Powell, say, who give him a personal note stating that the amount was received. Then, Chilcote returns to Westonzoyland, gives the note to Crompton or Beale, and is reimbursed the full amount. Because the amounts are quite large, amounting to hundreds of pounds, and the procedure is so complex, I surmise that he has business associates in London, like the post office or Western Union would. Here is the best description of the process:

There is one Chilecote a drouer who lieth at the Rosse in
Knightsbridge; is to pay my lady: Vanloore for mee
200li29 within a fortnight after the recipte of this letter.
at her ladyshipp: Howse in the Deanes yearde, accordinge to promise,
and I am to pay it him here againe at his returne
vpon your ladyshipp: sertifficate that hee haue paid there; (letter 12)

A fragment of the handwritten letter 12 transcribed above
X.c.51 (12)

In the previous letter (11), he details the “sertifficate” in the very letter he sent to her by Chilcote:

I desire your. ladyshipp: to send
mee three words, for the recipte of it
Vnder my lady Vanloores hand;/

The next year, another £200 is sent:

I haue taken order with Chilcote to pay in at westminister. two hundred
pounds vppon the fowrteene day of Aprillii nex ensuinge; for
the which. monny I desire a discharge vnder my Master. his, my lady:
Vanloores or your. Ladyships. hand. I meane his discharge may bee
signed with either of your. worships. hands./ (letter 24)

So we have a situation where members of the aristocracy, their retainers, hired carriers, and specialized courier services all move across southern England on the pages of these letters written decades prior to the advent of a post office in England. While there are certainly frustrations, things worked much better than one might expect. And according to my sister, it wasn’t really much worse than what we put up with now in the U.S. from a wide variety of carriers.

  1. James Shapiro, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, 1599. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005, pp. 232-238.
  3. cf.
  5., If I had access to the Folger modern collections, I would have cast more widely than the internet on this topic, reading such resources as Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England 1560-1640 by A.L. Beier (London-New York: Methuen, 1985); and Paul A. Slack’s “Vagrants and Vagrancy in England, 1598-1664” in The Economic History Review 27:3, 2008. pp. 360–379.
  6. The first letters say 1629, but that is because New Year’s Day was at the end of March at that time.
  7. Presumably the name of the nearest clothier.
  8. One of the King’s officials in charge of petitions to the Court of Requests.
  9. Deliver this [letter]; generally abbreviated “dd this”
  10. Andiuer = Andover
  11. ffroome = Frome (“ff” = the modern “F”)
  12. lighted wee into any evell company = got mugged [or perhaps much worse].
  13. Hartly roe; = Hartley Row, east of Basingstoke and just south-east of Reading?
  14. willyborne = Wylye, on the Wylye River half-way between Salisbury and Warminster?
  15. Baysault = bay salt: “Salt, obtained in large crystals by slow evaporation; originally, from seawater by the sun’s heat.” (OED)
  16. 15s: & 16:s = 15 shillings and 16 shillings. That is, Bridgewater (4 miles distant) prices were approximately a full 10 shillings more than at Bristol 9 (about 40 miles distant), where it was 5 shillings 8 pence a bushel.
  17. dussen = dozen
  18. keine = cattle
  19. deere = dear: expensive.
  20. keeping: “5.a. Maintenance, sustenance with food; food, fodder; …” (OED)
  21. to look to the Barnes = to look after the estate
  22. My apologies; I couldn’t help myself.
  23. sithence = “since” (OED)
  24. knaues = knaves. “P.1. to play the knave: to act like a knave; to act dishonourably or unscrupulously.” (OED)
  25. is-: one shilling
  26. This story in letter 17 was quoted in my first blog post in the discussion of health:
    Here was a mischance happined betweene the Carriers
    for bringinge downe infected goodes, which are keept at the
    lee; and Iohn Smith came the same time alonge with it;
    but if it ^had pleased God that I had beene here before my
    lady: Vanloores new maied had beene gone herehence, shee
    should not a cum yet;. my Cister hath not sent your
    ladyshipps: yearne as yett: nither shall shee vntell your
    ladyship: send for it againe, for it dayngerowse; lands man
    who brought the goods. is keept out it and dare not cume
    home, and was put by Carringe for a certayne time./
    but God bee thanked there is none dead nor sick as yett./ (letter 17)
  27. grasier = “grazier: 1.a. One who grazes or feeds cattle for the market.” (OED)
  28. drouer = “drover: 1.a. A person who drives cattle, sheep, etc., esp. to market, typically over a long distance; a dealer in cattle or other livestock.” (OED)
  29. 200li. = £200