Medieval bridges and roads

In 2004, David Harrison published The Bridges of Medieval England: Transport and Society 400-1800, which showed that the records of bridges provided a thorough and unique way to determine the transport infrastructure of roads over many centuries. In essence, he found that the road network of the early eighteenth century was in place by the Middle Ages or earlier.

Initially, the Anglo-Saxon bridges had been built of wood, but between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, most bridges were rebuilt in stone, many with impressive vaulting. The construction, maintenance and repair of bridges was an expensive and technically challenging undertaking. They were built using the same architectural techniques as cathedrals, and often had the same initial patrons. The contemporary laws and charters of the Anglo-Saxon period reflected the accepted understanding that it was a public duty to repair and maintain bridges. And such maintenance could come at a high price - in the late fourteenth century, repairs to Tyne Bridge in Newcastle amounted to £1500.4David Harrison, The Bridges of Medieval England: Transport and Society, 400-1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 8-9.

How do bridges affect the road network?

Harrison’s view is that bridges and roads go hand-in-hand. After the Romans left Britain early in the fifth century, most of their bridges were left to collapse, and many of their roads fell into disuse. But, by the late Anglo-Saxon era, a new road system had emerged, featuring new bridges. The enduring stability of this road system is reflected in the main roads of today which often follow their medieval trajectory. The main river crossings of medieval England still influence the road system:

“Between Northampton and Yorkshire, the A1 follows the same broad line as the Old North Road did in the middle ages, crossing major rivers in the immediate vicinity of former medieval bridges at Wansford, Stamford, Newark, Ferrybridge, and at Wetherby where, although now bypassed, the medieval bridge is still visible sandwiched between later widenings."5Harrison, The Bridges of Medieval England, p. 4.

Table 2 shows how few new bridges were constructed between c. 1540 and 1775. Counting bridges accurately before 1540 is difficult, but thirteenth and fourteenth century sources refer to many of them, and the evidence suggests that many bridges first mentioned after 1350 had been built earlier.6Harrison, The Bridges of Medieval England, pp. 21-23.

Medieval roads - definitions and usage More

Roads and economic development

Harrison concluded that “a major part of the transport infrastructure had come into being at an early date and was adequate to serve the needs of the English economy on the eve of the industrial revolution.”13Harrison, The Bridges of Medieval England, p. 7.  He suggested that a key reason for this was that “the transport needs of the pre-industrial English economy and society did not change fundamentally between the Middle Ages and the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.”14Harrison, The Bridges of Medieval England, p. 7.  This may be because the English population did not reach its medieval levels until the eighteenth century, and that for the intervening centuries, the nature and scope of the English economy did not change substantially. By the late eighteenth century, there was rapid and significant change in both society and the economy, which provided the spur for the development of the transport infrastructure beyond the achievements of the Middle Ages.

Bridge statistics

This table shows how far the network of bridges was already in place before 1540.

Table 2. Data taken from Harrison, The Bridges of Medieval England, pp. 13-14.
RiverNumber of bridges
 c. 15401775
Avon (Midlands)1718
Great Ouse1724
Ure & Ouse1012
Avon (Bristol)1318
Avon (Hants)710
Stour (Dorset)67
Tame (Staffs)69