Wheeled carriages are mentioned as far back as 1355, when Elizabeth de Burgh bequeathed her “great carriage, with the covertures, carpets, and cushions,” to her eldest daughter. There are also early mentions of vehicles called “charettes” and “ whirlicotes”. There’s even an old picture of Richard II, at the age of seventeen, travelling in one of these whirlicotes, accompanying his mother, who was ill.
But wheeled transport was very rare in those days. The roads were just too bad.
Most books mark the first real use of a coach with Queen Mary's Coronation carriage in 1553. She rode from the Tower of London to Westminster on her Coronation Day on September 20th, 1553, in her State coach.
It spent most of its journey axle-deep in mud and was drawn by six horses, not so much for show than sheer necessity. With fewer horses, it would probably have been stuck fast in the gulf of mud which formed the road between the twin cities of London in the east and Westminster in the west. Only three other carriages followed her Majesty on that historic occasion, and the ladies who attended rode horseback.
After hundreds of years of rebellions, pestilences, foreign wars, and domestic strife, the ancient highways had fallen into disuse and the social condition of the people had not merely stood still but actually degenerated. Towns and districts were half depopulated.
Elizabeth I’s reign (1558 – 1603) was more progressive and In 1564, five years after her accession, she was using a carriage brought over from Holland by a certain William Boonen who became her coachman. But his services can’t have been in much demand judging by descriptions of travelling in coaches of the time. For example, when the French Ambassador waited on Elizabeth in 1568, she was suffering “aching pains, from being knocked about in a coach driven too fast a few days before.”
It’s no surprise, then, that the great Queen used her coach only when occasions of State demanded. She travelled to Greenwich by water and to her palaces - at Eltham, Nonsuch and Hampton Court - on horseback. Her many country progresses were also on horseback and she only resorted to wheels with advancing years.
On longer journeys she would ride pillion behind a mounted chamberlain, holding on to him by his waistbelt just as ladies continued to do for centuries after.
Clearly, travelling in the earliest coaches was only to be undertaken by those of the strongest frame and in the rudest health.
The world of long-distance coach travel.
Anecdotes written by people who actually travelled on the coaches
The coachmen, the inns, the coach proprietors - they’re all here. Come in and meet them
Britain’s roads were pretty impassable for most of our history. Coach travel was very difficult until they improved
Wheeled transport evolved over many years. Find out how coaches developed
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Sources and information about how I came to create this website