The difficulties of Communications and Travel in the 16th century

Given the extent of Charles V’s territories and the fact that he was the most travelled monarch of the 16th century, the speed and safety of movement and communications were always important considerations for Charles.

Communications. For the transfer of information there were two major issues. Firstly, the vast distances involved and the nature of transport at the time meant that communications were slow. The transmission of news, letters requesting advice or instructions, and appeals for support and money from viceroys and regents, as well as Charles’ orders and responses to such requests, all took a long time to reach their destination. An event as important as the Imperial victory at the battle of Pavia on 24th February 1525 reached Charles in Madrid on 10th March - a period of just over two weeks, rapid for communication between Italy and Spain at the time. Secondly, this was made worse by the slow, bureaucratic, decision-making process that was the norm at Charles’ court. Reports and requests that arrived were passed on to the relevant council, their advice went to the monarch, who made his decision, which was then sent back to the council for the drafting of the response, before the letter was returned to the king for signature prior to despatch. This often resulted in a considered, measured decision, but it rarely led to a quick one. This frequently meant that viceroys and regents were left without immediate support, but also had the effect that they often had to take decisions before instructions had arrived, giving them greater freedom of action.

Monarchs were keen to set up systems for the efficient and safe delivery of their letters. In the early 16th century letters from Valladolid in central Spain took on average 3 weeks to reach northern Italy, 4 weeks to reach Brussels and 6 weeks to be delivered in Vienna, although times varied greatlyi. The Taxis family had begun a direct service between Spain and the Low Countries with the accession of Juana and Philip to the throne of Castile. When Charles became king in Spain he also required such a service and also good communications with Italy and Germany, especially when he became Emperor. An understanding with Francis I in 1518 gave couriers and their post security in the journey across France in times of peace. This route involved 106 stages, each with two horsesii. With Charles’ territories being so widespread, and with France blocking land routes to and from Spain in times of conflict, links to Italy and northern Europe often had to rely on sea transport. This was slower than a direct courier service and not totally safe as ships could be intercepted, delayed, blown off course or wrecked by storms as they sailed across the Mediterranean or around France in the Channel and the Bay of Biscay.

Charles’ tendency to focus on the immediate issues while travelling, delaying decisions that were required from further afield, added to the communication problems. In September 1530 during his first major journey away from Spain after their marriage, Empress Isabella complained about how slow Charles was to respond to her letters and how infrequent his letters were: ‘Your Majesty should be advised of the great inconvenience of his not having responded nor of having ordered information to be sent for such a long period, on matters of such great importance’. All of these factors meant that the comment of Pedro de Toledo, Viceroy of Naples, that ‘if death came from Spain it would never come’ would have been agreed by many who awaited a response from the court.

On his many travels the routes that Charles followed were determined by the constraints of geography, as well as the particular demands upon him and the diplomatic situation at any given time. To and from Spain he had to go by sea, except in the autumn of 1539 when he went north through France as the guest of Francis I. If travelling between the Low Countries and Spain he would sail along the Channel and across the Bay of Biscay (Flushing to Laredo or Santander). If going to Italy he would leave from Barcelona, crossing the Mediterranean to Genoa. From Italy northwards his route would often be via Milan, Innsbruck and into southern Germany. From here if he wished travel east he would frequently go via Augsburg, Regensburg and the Danube; if moving to the Low Countries he would frequently travel up the Rhine. If we add to these journeys the military campaigns in which he was directly involved, especially after 1535, and his attendance at various Imperial Diets, Spanish Cortes and other representative bodies within his domains, it has been estimated that he was travelling for one in every four days of his long reign.

The sea-going vessels at the time were in the process of change and might well have varied depending on whether he was on the Atlantic or in the Mediterranean. His earlier voyages between Spain and the Low Countries would probably have been in caravels (Spanish: carabelas), typically 25-30m. long, narrow, with 3 masts on the main desk and a high poop deck at the rear.

They had been used by the Portuguese and later the Spanish for the exploration of the African coast. Based on the dhows of the Arab world, with their lateen (triangular) sails they were quick and manoeuvrable but had a limited capacity for cargo or passengers. Another common vessel was the carrack (Spanish: nao). With square/rectangular sails, a length:width ratio of 3:1, and a high forecastle, this was slower and less manoeuvrable than the caravel but able to take heavy loads for longer journeys.

In the Mediterranean the traditional large boat was the galley, which made use of oars as well as sails. By 1571, at the battle of Lepanto, a standard Venetian galley was 42 m. long, 5.1 m wide, with 24 rowing benches (each for 3 rowers) on each side. A smaller vessel for use in coastal and inland waters was the barge.

During the 16th century the galleon was developed. This adapted the strength of a carrack to the speed and manoeuvrability of the caravel, by having a more streamlined shape with a longer hull, a lower forecastle, using both square and triangular sails.

Dangers at sea were the obvious ones of shipwreck in storms; vessels were more likely to be broken against a rocky coastline than capsized. There was also the strong possibility of disease spreading rapidly in the overcrowded conditions on-board, made worse by the lack of fresh water and, on longer voyages, fresh food. Fire was an ever present threat on the wooden vessels and the risk of capture by pirates could not be discounted, especially in the Mediterranean. Everyone was aware of these dangers and surviving a voyage did not always make travellers keen to repeat the experience. Thus in December 1522, Dantiscus, the Polish ambassador to Charles V’s court, wrote after his voyage from England to Spain: ‘If I were to gain the empire of the world for the price of that voyage, I should never again enter upon such a perilous venture’.iii Charles always travelled with a sizable fleet to deter direct attacks, but fleets could always be dispersed by storms, as happened on his first voyage to Spain in 1517, or be forced to take shelter off a hostile coastline, as Charles had to do in November 1536 just off the south coast of France while still at war with Francis I. Charles made sure that his last will and testament was always as he wished it to be before he commenced on a voyage of any length.

Travel by land (when not on a military campaign) was safer, but still had its problems. Charles would rarely have travelled without a large retinue of councillors, courtiers, soldiers, and his household of servants, cooks, and grooms. The larger the company the slower it would move. Even if the high ranking individuals travelled on horseback, many others walked. All the possessions and supplies that needed to be moved would be in carts or on pack animals. Charles, until age took its toll, would certainly be able to ride ahead with a few courtiers, but most just plodded on. The ‘roads’ were often one metre wide tracks for horses to be ridden along, with a wider space on either side flattened out by the passage of pedestrians and flocks of sheep.iv It could take hours to dismantle an encampment and hours to reassemble it later the same day. Travelling in summer was easier than travelling in winter, especially in northern Europe. If one adds in the ceremonies at towns and negotiations with local rulers (a necessary part of such royal ‘progresses’) then any journey was slowed down even further. The speed of the court when moving around Spain or travelling through Europe was something like 6-8 miles per day, very similar to the speed of a large army at the timev. It is difficult to imagine a journey from Bologna to Innsbruck, which we would complete on motorway in a few hours, taking two months, or the journey from Vienna back to Spain, a couple of hours on a modern flight, occupying Charles for 6 months. More rapid movement was possible occasionally, in military emergencies or over relatively short distances, but the norm was slow.

iBlockmans, W. Emperor Charles V (1500-1558). Arnold, London (2002) p.34   
iiBlockmans p.34   
iiiBraudel, F. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. (1947) Abridged version Harper Collins (1992) p.165   
ivBraudel p.207   
vMaltby, W. The Reign of Charles V. Palgrave, Basingstoke. (2002) p.76