A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England/Chapter 3

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Following the departure of the Romans, not only road-making but even road-repairing was for several centuries wholly neglected in this country. The Roman roads continued to be used, but successive rulers in troublesome times were too busily engaged in maintaining their own position or in waging wars at home or abroad to attend to such prosaic details as the repairing of roads, and they had, apparently, still less time or opportunity for converting into roads hill-side tracks which the Romans had not touched at all.

In proportion, too, as the roads were neglected, the bridges of the earlier period got out of repair, fell in altogether, or were destroyed in the social disorders of the time. So the mediæval ages found the means of internal communication by land probably worse in Britain than in any other country in western Europe.

The State having failed to acquit itself of its obligations, the Church took up the work as a religious duty. The keeping of roads in repair came to be considered, as Jusserand says in "English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages," "a pious and meritorious work before God, of the same sort as visiting the sick and caring for the poor." Travellers were regarded as unfortunate people whose progress on their toilsome journeys it was Christian charity to assist. In these circumstances the religious houses of the period took over the task of making or repairing both roads and bridges, the faithful being encouraged to assist in the good work, either through gifts or with personal labour, by the concession to them of special indulgencies. Jusserand tells, for instance, how Richard de Kellawe, Bishop of Durham, 1311-1316, remitted part of the penalties on the sins of those who did good work in helping to make smooth the way of the wanderer, his episcopal register [ 12 ]containing frequent entries of 40-day indulgencies granted to contributors to the road-repair funds. There were benefactors, also, who left to the monasteries lands and houses the proceeds of which were to be applied to the same public purpose; while in proportion as the monasteries thus increased the extent of their own landed possessions they became still more interested in the making and repairing of roads in the neighbourhoods in which the lands they had acquired were situated.

In those days, in fact, people bequeathed not only land, or money, but even live stock for the repair of roads just as they left gifts for ecclesiastical purposes, or as people to-day make bequests to charitable institutions. The practice continued until, at least, the middle of the sixteenth century, since in the Sixth Report of the Historical Manuscripts Commission there will be found (page 422) the last will and testament, dated May 16, 1558, of John Davye, in which the testator says:—

"I leve and bequeithe a cowpell of oxson that I boughte the laste yere to the building of Moulde Church where I dwell; And I bequieth a bullocke that I boughte of the Royde unto the mendynge of the hye waie betwixte my howse and the Molld."

Bequests of money or lands were also made for the construction or the maintenance of bridges, or for the freeing of bridges from toll so that the poor could cross without payment; and one of the duties of the bishops, when making their visitations, was to enquire whether or not the funds thus left were being applied to the purposes the donors intended.

On the Continent of Europe a religious order was founded, in the twelfth century, for the building of bridges. It spread over several countries and built some notable bridges—such, for instance, as that over the Rhone at Avignon; though there is no trace, Jusserand tells us, of these Bridge Friars having extended their operations to this country. It was, however, from them that laymen learned the art of bridge-building, and in Britain, as in Continental countries, bridges came to be considered as pious works, to be put under the special charge of a patron saint. To this end it was customary to build a chapel alongside an important bridge—as in the case of the old London Bridge that replaced the original wooden structure by Peter Colechurch, "priest and chaplain," itself [ 13 ]having had a chapel dedicated to Saint Thomas of Canterbury. Sovereigns or great landowners gave generous gifts for the endowment of such bridges. Although, too, there was no special order of bridge-building friars in England, guilds and lay brotherhoods, animated by the religious spirit, were formed in the reign of Richard II. (1377-1399) for the repair of roads and bridges, just as, in turn, the ordinary trading guilds which were the forerunners of the corporate bodies set up in towns undertook to "maintain and keep in good reparacion" bridges which had become "ruinous," and, also, to attend to the "foul and dangerous highways, the charge whereof the town was not able to maintain."[1]

It became customary, also, for hermits to take up their habitation in cells along the main thoroughfares, and to occupy themselves with looking after the roads, trusting to the alms of passers-by for a little worldly recompense. In one instance, at least, a hermit was allowed to put up a toll-bar—the first on record in this country—and collect compulsory payments from persons using the roads he mended. This was in 1364, when Edward III. made a decree authorising "our well-beloved William Phelippe the hermit" to set up a toll-bar on the lower slope of Highgate Hill, on the north side of London, and levy tolls for the repair of the "Hollow Way" from "our people passing between Heghgate and Smethfelde."

Jusserand sums up the situation at this period by saying that "The roads in England would have been entirely impassable ... if the nobility and the clergy, that is to say, the whole of the landed proprietors, had not had an immediate and daily interest in possessing passable roads."

There came, however, a period of decline in religious fervour. The laity grew less disposed to give or to bequeath money, [ 14 ]land or cattle for road-repair purposes, however much the offer of indulgences in return therefor might be increased from days to months or even to years; and the clergy, in turn, became more remiss in acquitting themselves of the obligations they had assumed as road-repairers. They accepted the benefactions, and they granted the indulgences; but they showed increasing laxity in carrying out their responsibilities. The roadside hermits, also, gathered in so much in the way of contributions, voluntary or compulsory, from passers-by that they ate and drank more than hermits ought to do, grew fat and lazy, and too often left the roads to look after themselves.

What, therefore, with neglected roads and dilapidated bridges, the general conditions of travel went from bad to worse. Church Councils, says Denton, were summoned and adjourned because bishops feared to encounter the danger of travelling along such roads. Oratories were licensed in private houses, and chapels of ease were built, because roads were so bad, especially in winter, that the people could not get to their parish churches. The charter, 47 Edward III., 1373, by which the city of Bristol was constituted a county, states that this was done in order to save the burgesses from travelling to Gloucester and Ilchester, "distant thirty miles of road, deep, especially in winter time, and dangerous to passengers." On many different occasions, too, the members of the House of Commons, assembled for a new session, could transact no business because the Peers had been detained by the state of the roads and the difficulty of travelling, and Parliament was, therefore, adjourned.

The general conditions grew still worse with the impoverishment of the monasteries by which the main part of the work had—however negligently—been done since the end of the Roman régime. As will be shown later on, various statutes had gradually imposed more and more the care of the roads on the laity, and it was upon them that the full responsibility fell with the eventual dissolution, first of the lesser, and next of the greater, monasteries by Henry VIII.

  1. In the Ninth Report of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, page 290, mention is made of a charter, granted by Edward VI., giving a new municipal constitution to the "ancient borough" of Stratford-on-Avon in lieu of the franchise and local government taken away by the suppression of the guild previously existing there; and in this charter the guild in question is spoken of as having been, in former times, "founded and endowed with divers lands tenements and possessions," the rents, revenues and profits from which were to be devoted to the maintenance of a grammar school, an almshouse, and "a certain great stone bridge, called Stratford Bridge, placed and built over the water and river of the Avon beside the said borough."