A quick history of the Royal Mail

People in England have been able to send each other letters since 1635, but the Royal Mail traces its ancestry back further than that, to 1516, when Henry VIII made Brian Tuke Master of the Posts.

Actually, Tuke wasn’t just made Master of the Posts, he was knighted Master of the Posts, which makes it all sound much more important, as if he got to trot around on a white horse, wearing armor.

What Tuke really got to do was set up a network that carried mail for the king and the court and not for nobody else, thanks. What did anybody else matter? If Joe Commoner wanted to tell his granny that he wished she was wherever he was, he’d have to wait more than a hundred years, by which time the message would have been pretty much irrelevant. On top of which, postcards still wouldn’t have been invented. The first one was made in 1861, in Philadelphia, which also hadn’t been invented.

But back to the Royal Mail. In case the restless marrying habits of this particular Henry haven’t engraved him in your memory, he was the son of Henry VII, who became king by defeating not just Richard III (that’s the king Shakespeare didn’t like) but also Richard’s horse and Richard’s horse’s shoe at Bosworth Field, thereby condemning Richard to be buried in a parking lot and putting his–that’s Henry’s–son in a position to send letters around the country in an organized way.

To the victor’s son go the letters. And from the victor’s son come the letters.

Irrelevant and beautiful light painting, “Light Dance,” by Nassima. Used with the artist’s permission and my thanks. You’ll find more of her work by following the link.

That bit of background was as irrelevant as the light painting, but I thought I’d toss it in anyway. And if the references are too culture-bound for outsiders to follow, they’ll stop now, so you can read on safely.

When James VI, the king of Scotland, became James I of England as well, one of his concerns was to keep control of Scotland once he’d moved himself and his court to London. Scotland was a long way from London. There was no telling what his nobles would get up to while he was gone. So one of the first things he did was to set up a royal postal route between London and Edinburgh.

The postal service was opened to the public in 1635 by Charles I, who gets bad press on for a lot of reasons (high handedness, suspicions that he was, gasp, Catholic, conflicts with parliament, a political tin ear, a goatee) so we might as well drop this feather on the positive side of the scales. You’ll probably have figured this out, but he accomplished it well before he was executed.

The deal was that you could mail a letter for free but there was–as there always is–a catch: The person you sent it to had to pay for it. If they didn’t pay, they didn’t get the letter. The cost depended on how far the letter had traveled, so an account had to be kept for each letter.

But junk mail hadn’t been invented and getting a letter was an event, so if someone wrote to you, it meant something. If you had the cash, you’d think twice or thrice, or even fource (no, it’s not a word–after thrice the English language hurls itself on the floor and goes into spasms of regret) before you turned one away.

The letters were carried on horseback and on foot, and the service had six routes, with posts along the way where the person carrying the letters would leave anything for the area and pick up anything that was headed their way. Exactly what happened to the letters once they were left at the posts I haven’t been able to find out. It’s one thing to keep enough footpower to deliver the king and court’s letters anywhere in the kingdom. It’s a whole ‘nother gig to assemble the footpower to make the entire kingdom’s letters deliverable. Even at a time when most people couldn’t write and damn few could afford to pay for a letter that found its way to their door.

The information’s probably out there somewhere but I haven’t figured out the question that will lead me to it. If anyone wants to give me a shove in the right direction, I’d be grateful–for whatever use that is.

Thomas Witherings ran the service at this point and he was charged with making sure a letter could reach Edinburgh and come back to London in six days. He was to build six “Great Roads.”

During the Civil War, Parliament took the service away from him and gave it to Edmund Prideaux, whose politics were a better fit for the time. In other words, Ed wasn’t a royalist. What he was was the second son of a baronet.

What’s a baronet? The lowest rank of British hereditary nobility. They’re (oh, the shame of it) commoners but can use the title sir.

Remember that. I’m sure you’ll find it useful as you wander through life. 

You’d think overthrowing a king would involve dumping the entire tradition of hereditary nobility, but you’d be wrong.

Edmund expanded the service, increased its efficiency, and faced down an assortment of competing carriers that left him stamping his metaphorical feet and complaining to parliament.

In 1653, the contract went to someone else, but Ed had made a tidy piece of change by then and Cromwell made him a baronet, just like his daddy and big brother, for “his voluntary offer for the mainteyning of thirty foot-souldiers in his highnes army in Ireland.” 

You might want to notice that by then Cromwell called himself “his highnes” there. And that he didn’t use apostrophes. Or that whoever wrote that for him did and didn’t.

In 1655, the postal service was put under the direct control of the secretary of state, who was Cromwell’s spymaster, John Thurloe, and he was sweet and helpful enough to deliver letters between conspirators, having made sure to read them first. Before that, the tradition was to keep conspirators from communicating at all–or at least that was the aspiration.

Then in 1660, when Charles II was on the throne, the General Post Office was set up. It was publicly owned. A year later, the post mark was established, showing the place and date a letter was mailed and–okay, it all gets a bit boring after that. In 1771, the service covered England, Scotland, and Wales. It took another century before Ireland was added.

No comment needed.

We’ll skip the years here to keep from drowning in trivia. Coaches were used. The name Royal Mail was used. Uniforms were introduced, and railroads and steam ships. Mail reached throughout the empire and the commonwealth for the first time.

It was 1839 before the sender paid for the letter instead of the recipient. Standard rates were introduced, and in 1840 so was the first adhesive stamp, the penny black. Britain was the first country to introduce a stamp that would stick to paper and is still the only country that doesn’t bother to put its name on its stamps.

The guy who invented the adhesive stamp was knighted. He got to trot around on a white horse and wear armor but was far too understated to do either. As far as I know.

With the penny post, the number of people using the system grew massively.

More trivia: Pillar boxes were introduced (they’re round, freestanding, iconic mailboxes used throughout Britain), but the first ones were green, not red. Wall boxes came later. Those are post boxes but they’re set into walls. Both types have the initials of whoever was on the throne when they were set in place, and people collect them.

What does it mean to collect a box when you can’t pick up and walk away with it? It means you go see it. Maybe you take a picture of it. You know where it is. You feel a personal connection with it–maybe even friendship and communion. Where I come from (the U.S.), one mailbox is just like another mailbox, but people can be very possessive about the British ones. A post box was taken out of our village (long story) and people actually know where it went (to Wales, where it’s in storage). They’re not interchangeable Lego pieces. They’re individual. They have personalities. I don’t know whose initials are on it, but I’ll bet you someone in the village does.

After that, you have to be more and more of a postal geek to care about the milestones. Parcel deliveries were added. Postcodes were introduced. That was gradual and started in 1959. They allow for machine sorting. It’s not until 1968 that first and second class service was introduced. The theory is that second class mail can be thrown under the counter in a crisis while first class is waved through, but I’m told there isn’t much difference in how long it takes them to arrive.

Then in 2011, the whole mess was ninety percent privatized.


What was it like to send a message during the Middle Ages–and I’d assume for a while afterward, before the Royal Mail was opened to all users? According to the Short History website, “During the Middle Ages, towns, universities, monasteries and trading companies all had their own messengers, some of whom were protected by royal decree. The Papacy had its own courier system, in order to keep in touch with its clergy and churches across Europe. Bishops were required to send regular messages through to Rome, and in return, received papal messengers from Rome. Only the wealthiest individuals and organizations could afford private courier systems, because of the need for horses, accommodation and travel expenses. This meant that messengers often worked on a ‘freelance’ basis, taking messages from several different sources and competing with other messengers to be the first to deliver important news.

“During particularly sensitive times, such as war, messages were often sent in coded form, or hidden about the person of a messenger who would adopt an innocent disguise, such as that of a pilgrim. Information could be hidden in clothing, a walking staff or even a person’s shoes. Envoys were often required to carry valuable gifts to present to the recipient of their message, and such items again had to be hidden during the journey. Gifts had to be selected carefully, to make sure that they were suitable for the recipient’s rank and status and the messenger would also be presented with gifts to take home on his return journey.”

I don’t know how authoritative that is. It sounds convincing, but I’ll leave it to you to judge.

Medieval messages would often not be written down–most people were illiterate–but messages that were written would have been sealed, and many would have been sent with a passing merchant or pilgrim. The most important ones, from people with money (who are always more important than people without money, she said cynically), would have been sent with a messenger.

No one had addresses, and people didn’t necessarily stay where they were expected to. Monarchs especially traveled. They had multiple palaces. They went on progress, forcing their nobles to feed and water (or more accurately, alcohol) the entire damn court. They went off to fight battles. Messengers had to scurry around looking for them.

Pigeons were also used, but this only worked if the message was going to what the pigeons considered home. You couldn’t whisper a name in a pigeon’s ear and expect it to search the person out.