The Romans left Britain in 410AD. In that year, the last of the army had been recalled to Rome and Emperor Honorious told the people of Britain that they no longer had a connection to Rome and that they should defend themselves.
The Scotti of Ireland and the Picts of Scotland had been raiding Roman Britain for years, but now new invaders joined in - Angles and Saxons from Germany and Jutes from Denmark. In the absence of Roman authority, they raided and then settled into certain areas.
The boundaries of modern England are largely the areas in which they made their homes. The Roman roads were no longer needed and fell into disrepair.
They began to decay. Bridges and paved fords were carried away by floods, and with no need to travel long distances no-one looked after them.
By the year 600, the Anglo-Saxons, as the newcomers had become known, had established a number of Kingdoms.
The new rulers each controlled only a part of what had once been Britannica and they were too busy subduing rebellions at home or waging wars on their neighbours to bother about maintaining roads.
Even the roads that survived the longest became fair weather highways as some sections were carried away by floods or became vast lakes which couldn’t be crossed until the waters receded.
On top of that, there were no signposts or maps and so it was pretty impossible to know which way to go for the few who did need to travel - missionaries for example. Guides were absolutely necessary but they were at best expensive and at worst the accomplices of cutthroats and lured travellers to their haunts.
While the civil authorities did nothing for travellers, the Church did do something. They prayed for them! The very word “travel” comes from travail, meaning labour or hardship and illustrates how anyone who had to travel was to be pitied.
But praying alone wasn’t enough so the Church began to look at the roads themselves. It granted indulgences (forgiveness of sins) to anyone who helped to repair the roads.
It also gave permission for hermits to demand tolls and alms from travellers over roads and bridges. The idea was that the revenues would go towards the upkeep of the ways. At first it worked well but of course, false hermits began to set up in remote places and live dissolute lives on the alms they received, whilst allowing roads and bridges to fall into decay.
Over the centuries, a few more people did begin to travel as the roads became relatively more passable and the great abbeys grew up and began to provide food and lodging for travellers.
Roads in the Dark Ages were little more than cleared trees and shrubs, dusty in summer and muddy in winter.
Section 2 Menu
Tales of the Road: This section tells what was it like to travel by stage coach in the mid 1800s.
Travel in England is inseparably connected to the state of our roads. This section looks at the history of British roads.
Wheeled transport evolved over many years. This section looks at how coaches developed.
Home Page of the Coaching Website.