Making up history: a Medieval English Postal Service

I am currently working on the chapter summaries for my novel Hell has its Demons, which is a recently interesting process as I find out that I need to flesh out more details of the setting for the novel (England in 1376). One of these details was how one of my main characters, Jake, was going to send a letter for his master, Roger, from Oxford to St. Brett’s Abbey. (St. Brett’s is a fictional place, but is roughly 20-30 miles north of London.)

Medieval Postal Services

When I had written the synopsis none of this seemed like a problem, but then I realised that I didn’t know how a private individual would get a letter sent somewhere in the country. I did a bit of internet research and nothing much came up. The only information I found was that some of the Italian banks had their own courier networks that extended throughout the major centres of Europe. I imagine that the government, probably organized by the Chancery, would also have a means for sending letters to various officials such as Sheriffs around the kingdom, no doubt employing a number of fast riders with the ability to purvey horses as and when required on their journeys.

But what about individuals’ letters?

But what about private individuals wanting to send letters between towns in England. Perhaps if my characters wanted to send a letter from London to Paris they could use the Italian banks network, paying a fee to do this? Then I read in some of my research on Abbeys that the Benedictine monasteries were connected by their own communication network. This seemed a better option as Benedictine Abbeys were so widespread around England that there were bound to be one near to most towns in the country. I found that the nearest one to Oxford was Abingdon Abbey, just about 7 miles from Oxford, and of course St. Brett’s Abbey was also Benedictine. So that perhaps would be a solution. As well as sending their own correspondence the Benedictine monks might also be willing to make some money on the side and send letters for paying individuals as well.

Making up a Postal Service based on Benedictine Abbeys

But how would it all work? How often would couriers travel, what would be their route and how could you know if your letter was going to be delivered. This is the system that I came up, which I hope isn’t too unlikely:

Routes: I decided that Abingdon would be on a route that ran from the West of England to London. I imagined that there might be other routes coming from the Midlands, North-West, East Anglia and the North-East – a bit like a modern train map of England.

Couriers: These would be individuals retained by the Benedictine’s to carry letters. I thought perhaps there would be two or three operating on this route.

Schedule: It would probably take about a day’s fastish riding to ride from Abingdon to London, so a total journey of a week from Cornwall to London didn’t seem unrealistic.

Payment: I’m not sure how much they would pay yet. The courier would be paid twice for each letter delivered: once when they took receipt of the letter and once when the delivered the letter at an agreed time. They would only receive their full delivery payment if the letter was safely delivered and to the time agreed by the sender. This would ensure that they were incentivized to travel quickly and to keep their letters safe.

I thought that split tallies, which were used by the Exchequer and by merchants to record monies owed, would be a perfect means of recording who the letter for and when it was supposed to be delivered. The receiver of the letter would also be passed the tally stick by the courier and when they confirmed that the letter had been delivered on time they would pay them the full amount. Perhaps a lesser amount would be paid if delivery was delayed, and this could be agreed and noted on the tally stick as well.

Hopefully this is a sensible option for solving what seems to be a gap in the history we have for the means of sending letters in medieval times. Another possibility might be that individuals would approach travelling merchants and ask them to take letters, although this might be a lot slower and a less reliable option.

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