Evidence for the stability of the road network c. 1300 to c. 1750

The stability of the road network between c. 1300 and 1750 assumes that no major new roads were constructed, that principal roads did not disappear, and that a substantial number of major roads that were important in 1300 retained that importance until 1750. There is good geographical and economic evidence confirming that the road network was largely static. Two commentators on the Gough Map – Millea and Harrison – both assert this. Millea stated that “no major highways were constructed between the time of the Roman occupation and the turnpike era”.16Millea, The Gough Map, p. 23.  Harrison believed that “once constructed, [bridges] played a key part in fossilizing a route” and that, for the road network, “all we have done since [before the fourteenth century] is to modify it slightly to meet with changing circumstances.”17Harrison, The Bridges of Medieval England, p. 50.

New and changing roads

These slight modifications include what Herman Moll, an Early Modern mapmaker, referred to as the ‘turning’ of the road. One example was the network of bridges built in and around Abingdon from 1416, which caused traffic to flow through Abingdon rather than Wallingford, and led to the decline of that town. Moll’s A New Description of England and Wales, published in 1724, guided the reader through each county via the rivers, but he was interested in the roads, and particularly their history. He identified four towns which suffered decline due to the ‘turning’ of the road - Wilton, Wallingford, Dorchester and Hertford.18Herman Moll, A New Description of England and Wales: with the Adjacent Islands (London: Printed for H. Moll, T. Bowles, and C. Rivington, and J. Bowles, 1724), pp. 48, 59, 99-100 and 111.

Wilton was eclipsed by the building of a new cathedral and city in Salisbury from 1220 onwards19'Wiltshire Community History', Wiltshire County Council <https://history.wiltshire.gov.uk/community/> [accessed 28 May 2019]., but it was the building of the bridge at Harnham in 1244 which effectively turned the trading route away from Wilton to Salisbury.20'Ayleswade Bridge old Harnham Bridge', British Listed Buildings <http://https://tinyurl.com/blbharnham> [accessed 28 May 2019].  Similarly, Hertford lost its battle to make road traffic cross the River Lea at Hertford, instead of Ware, in the thirteenth century.21'Parishes: Ware', British History Online <https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/herts/vol3/pp380-397> [accessed 28 May 2019]. Although Dorchester was on William the Conqueror’s route to Oxford, the see of the bishopric was soon moved to Lincoln, and the town had rapidly decayed by 1140.22'Dorchester', British History Online <https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol7/pp39-64> [accessed 28 May 2019]. Apart from Wallingford, all the road changes Moll referred to took place before 1400, and Wallingford was soon after 1422. Moll’s interest in the history of roads suggests that the absence of any comments about later road turnings indicates that either he did not know about them, or that there were none worth mentioning in relation to the rise or decline of particular towns.

A similar absence is notable when doing a search of the British History Online database.23'Browse Catalogue', British History Online <https://www.british-history.ac.uk/catalogue> [accessed 28 May 2019]. It holds a wide variety of sources across the medieval and Early Modern timeline and thus provides a good sub-set of data for which to search for references to new roads. Looking up phrases such as ‘new highway’ and ‘new road’ (including using spelling variants such as ‘highwayes’ and ‘high-ways’), reveals only one mention of a new road before 1724 within the first 100 results. It refers to a minor street in London - King Street, between Guildhall and Cheapside, in 1667.24'King Street, Cheapside', British History Online <https://https://tinyurl.com/kscheapside> [accessed 28 May 2019]. By contrast, there are countless references to the ‘repairing’ or ‘mending’ of existing highways throughout the period 1400 to 1724.

The picture is similar in relation to the work on roads financed by turnpike trusts. The bulk of this work was done after 1724. Those which had an earlier date represent 5.4 percent of all road mileage improved or created by turnpike trusts. These all refer to the repair and maintenance of the existing road. There are only five references to ‘making’ a road, and they are minor roads to be connected to the principal roads.25'Turnpike Trusts in England', Turnpike Roads in England and Wales <http://tinyurl.com/yyv8tkrl> [accessed 28 May 2019]. The statistics quoted here have been extrapolated from the data. In other words, no principal road was created by turnpike trusts before 1724.

Urban growth

Other possible scenarios for the creation of new roads include urban growth, drainage and land reclamation, and land enclosures. Whilst the growth of towns would have led to the expansion of streets within a town to accommodate a rising population, there is no evidence to suggest that it also resulted in the construction or diversion of major roads. There are, however, hints that some roads may have acquired a greater significance. Table 4 shows the statistics for urban growth for a range of English cities and towns from 1520 to 1750.26E. A. Wrigley, 'Urban Growth and Agricultural Change: England the Continent in the Early Modern Period', in People, Cities and Wealth: The Transformation of a Traditional Society (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), p. 686.

Table 4. Population growth in English cities and towns from 1520 to 1750. Data taken from Wrigley, 'Urban Growth and Agricultural Change', p. 686.
The numbers below are in 000s.

The figures show that the majority of the growth was in London. Herman Moll’s 1724 county maps show more roads around London than John Ogilby's 1675 Britannia, stretching out into the surrounding counties, and this probably reflected the increasing movement in and out of the capital. Other towns had markedly slower growth, starting from a much lower base. Their greatest growth also came from the late seventeenth century onwards. Moll showed more roads in and out of some of these towns than Ogilby, and this may have reflected the growing importance of towns such as Birmingham and Manchester. In 1710, he added routes from Manchester to Preston and Clitheroe, neither of which appeared in Britannia. And in his 1724 county map, he added an extra route from Manchester to Rochdale. Likewise, in Birmingham, he inserted a road north to Walsall in his 1710 map, and a further road to Wolverhampton in 1724.

Do these additions imply a greater importance in the roads due to rapid urban growth? York’s population remained more or less static, with a slight decline by 1750. Yet, Moll had also added more roads here than Ogilby, with two roads south to Howden and Thorne and a road north to Kirbymoorside on his 1710 map, and a further three roads appear on his county map. So, it is difficult to know whether Ogilby is limited or erratic in his choice of roads, or Moll is more thorough, or he does indeed reflect the changing importance of some towns, and hence, the roads that run through them. Just as some medieval towns declined and this affected traffic on some routes so the converse is also highly likely – some roads through growing towns probably did assume a greater importance towards the early eighteenth century. For the purposes of a comparison with the Gough Map, this does not matter as long as the roads are not new. Birmingham and Manchester are on the Gough Map, and their single building icon reflects their relative lack of significance in the Middle Ages. Early Modern roads that went through towns not on the Gough Map, such as Huddersfield, lie outside the purview of this study because the key interest lies in finding medieval towns on Early Modern roads, rather than Early Modern towns on medieval maps.

Economic developments

Wrigley has made a strong case for explaining why investment in road improvements generally depended on particular economic conditions which only began to prevail from the late seventeenth century.27E. A. Wrigley, 'Urban Growth in Early Modern England: Food, Fuel and Transport', in Past & Present, 225.1 (2014), pp. 79-112. Population growth in towns was held back until new agricultural techniques, such as crop rotation, were introduced, and relatively inexpensive coal was used for fuel instead of wood. These developments led to a greater capacity to feed a town without extending the agriculturally productive hinterland which drove up the costs of transporting goods to market. A doubling of crop yields by 1700 fed a rapidly growing population and increased road traffic to the extent that the turnpike system to fund improvements could be effective. These economic factors account for the disincentive to invest profitably in new roads over much of the period between 1400 and 1724.

Drainage projects

Marshland was “one of the great original barriers to movement”28H. C. Darby, The Medieval Fenland (Cambridge: The University Press, 1940), p. 93., and two of the largest areas of marshland in England were the East Anglian Fens and the Somerset Levels. Two major drainage projects to bring some Fenland to a more agriculturally productive state took place in the Hatfield Level (1625) and the Great Level (1650s).29Eric Ash, The Draining of the Fens: Projectors, Popular Politics, and State Building in Early Modern England (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hoppkins University Press, 2017), pp. 141-178 and 249-297. The draining involved making straight cuts in the land to direct and control the flow of water. There is little evidence in the Early Modern maps to suggest that these physical changes in the landscape affected major roads in the region, since they already skirted around the outside of the area. Figure 6 shows Early Modern roads in this area. Only Moll’s 1710 map shows two roads across the area – one to Wisbech (not on the Gough Map) from Downham Market, and one further south between Ely and Yaxley (also missing from the Gough Map), neither of which appear to have been affected by the drainage cuts.

Wisbech had been less significant in the fourteenth century, but later became a central point for the area.30'Wisbech', British History Online <https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol4/pp238-243> [accessed 28 May 2019]. The fortunes of the town match well with its absence on the Gough Map, and its presence on at least one Early Modern road, although it is unlikely that Moll’s road was new. In Ash’s book The Draining of the Fens, he makes no mention of roads at all, implying that the drainage work had no significant effect on the principal roads.

Unlike the Fens, drainage and land reclamation in the Somerset Levels was more of an ongoing process between 1400 and 1700.31Michael Williams, The Draining of the Somerset Levels (Cambridge: At The University Press, 1970), pp. 82-122. In the south, land reclamation took place to the east of Taunton, the south of Langport, and around Meare, Glastonbury and Wedmore.32Williams, The Draining of the Somerset Levels, p. 84, Figure 12. The main roads in the area kept to the ridges which crossed the area from east to west, with the north-south road running close to the coast, effectively bypassing the areas of drainage. There is no indication that the Glastonbury to Wells road was affected, and nothing to suggest that any other major roads were new or diverted as a result of the work.

Land enclosures

There is similarly no evidence that assarting – the appropriation of forest land for agricultural use - in medieval times and pre-1724 land enclosures affected principal roads. Even before the Parliamentary Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth century onwards, as much as forty-five percent of English agricultural land had been enclosed by 1500, and c. seventy-one percent by 1700.33J. R. Wordie, 'The Chronology of English Enclosure, 1500-1914', in The Economic History Review, 2, 36.4 (1983), 483-505 (p. 502). This piecemeal approach suggests gradual changes rather than sudden transformation. Whilst the expansion into forests and the enclosing of fields must have altered minor paths and tracks around the field system, there is no mention in the literature of any effect on major roads.


All the evidence suggests that there were no new principal roads, and only a single mention by Moll of the ‘turning’ of a major road in the period 1400 to 1724. There is a possibility that towards the end of the period, rapid population growth raised places like Birmingham and Manchester to the status of significant towns, but there is no evidence that it led to the construction of new roads.

Roads in the Fens

Map of Early Modern roads in the Fens
Figure 6. Early Modern roads in the Fens. Drainage data adapted from Eric Ash, The Draining of the Fens, p. 258. Map data ©2018 Google.