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Barnsdale (Doncaster)

Locality
Coordinates 53.6075, -1.2222222222222
Adm. div. West Riding of Yorkshire
Vicinity 10 km SSW of Pontefract
Type Area
Interest Literary locale
Status Extant
First Record c. 1420
Loading map...
The marker indicates the probable centre of Barnsdale, at whose northern boundary lay Wentbridge. Barnsdale's extent in the west-east direction would have been similar to that north-south.
Scene in Barnsdale; looking east from the A1 / Google Eearh StreetView.

By Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2013-08-07. Revised by Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2017-10-29.

Barnsdale was one of Robin Hood's two chief haunts in the medieval and early modern outlaw tradition. Never precisely delimited, it was an area straddling the Great North Road about halfway between Doncaster and Pontefract in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Following Dobson & Taylor (1972),[1] modern historians have tended to relocate it to an area somewhat north of its original location. However, a close reading of the Gest of Robyn Hode (see "Location and extent" below) suggest this may not be necessary. The etymology of "Barnsdale" is "Beorn's valley",[2] Beorn being an OE personal name, which occurs also in other place names, for instance Barnsley (c. 18 km WSW of Barnsdale). For the phonological development of the place-name from Old to Early Modern English, see the page on Barnsdale (Exton).

In addition to the matter discussed below, it is important for an appreciation of the importance of Barnsdale to the Robin Hood tradition to read the entries on the various Robin Hood-related localities in or near Barnsdale. See the page on the Barnsdale place-name cluster for links to these.

Barnsdale in the early tales

The first source to connect Robin with Barnsdale is Andrew of Wyntoun's Original Chronicle (c. 1420). Robin Hood and the Potter (Child 121), dated c. 1460-1500, mentions Wentbridge, so that we must think of Barnsdale as the outlaws' haunt in that ballad although much of the action takes place in Nottingham, c. 75 km south. A Gest of Robyn Hode (Child 117), printed c. 1500, has Robin based in Barnsdale (see Quotations below), but again with some of the action taking place in or near Nottingham. The Scottish historian Walter Bower in one of his additions (c. 1446) to John of Fordun's Scotichronicon gives the gist of a tale that has the outlaws located in Barnsdale though the action involves "a certain sheriff", presumably or old foe of Nottingham. Clearly, therefore, both Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire laid claim to Robin Hood by the early 15th century.

Location and extent

Holt observes with regard to the place-name Barnsdale:[3]

The natural feature to which Barnsdale was first applied, the original 'Beorn's valley', was probably the shallow valley of the Skell, to the south of Barnsdale Bar, which runs south-eastwards through Skelbrooke and Skellow to join Hampole Dyke and ultimately to flow into the Don below Doncaster. But in the Gest it has another connotation, for there can be no doubt that when Little John stood at Sayles and 'loked into Bernysdale', he was looking at Wentbridge lying in the deeply cut valley of the Went. So the legend has Barnsdale three miles north of its true location and this may account for the more generalized sense which the word enjoyed by Leland's day.

Although Holt does not say so, when he drew the conclusion that the name Barnsdale was originally applied to the valley of the Skell, it was probably based on the simple fact that this particular area was one of the most low lying in the vicinity and was so most likely to have been termed a "dale2. Google Earth – a truly indispensable tool for the armchair explorer – indicates a height above sea level of only ten meters at points just south of the hamlet of Skellow.[4] Just before the passage cited above, Holt notes that in the early 19th century, Barnsdale Bar was regarded locally as being at the southern boundary of Barnsdale, which is in keeping with early Ordnance Survey maps. This is only slightly north of what Holt believes was probably the original location of Barnsdale. Roughly this area may in fact also be what the author of the Gest had in mind when he used the name Barnsdale. It is not certain that Holt is right that "looking into Barnsdale" in the Gest meant looking at Wentbridge. When Little John and his comrades were "looking into Barnsdale" they were posted at a place called "the Sayles", and it is the identification of this "Sayles" with an area presently known as Sayles Plantation just east of Wentbridge that has led Dobson & Taylor and Holt to conclude that the author of the Gest has Barnsdale north of its original location. In drawing this conclusion they may also have been influenced by Joseph Hunter (1852) who considered Wentbridge the northern boundary of Barnsdale:

Barnsdale is the name of a pretty extensive tract of country, which till recent inclosures was woodland: a "woody and famous forest," according to Leland, in the days of Henry the Eight. The great North [p. 18:] Road, as heretofore it was called, crosses it between Doncaster and Ferrybridge. The traveller enters upon it a little beyond a well-known place called Robin Hood's Well, and he leaves it when he has descended to Wentbridge. The river Went is its northern boundary. It is four or five miles across. Bearing still itself evident marks of recent cultivation, it is surrounded by ancient villages."[5]

However, at least one other locality in the area was also called Sayles, and this locality is in some ways a better fit than the locality near Wentbridge. Holt is no doubt right that Leland, who did not know the area well and made a few mistakes in his brief mention of it, included the area north of Wentbridge, perhaps more or less corresponding to what is now called Brockadale, in what he thought of as Barnsdale, but this does not appear ever to have been local usage. As Holt would agree, Barnsdale in local usage referred to an area located more or less where it appears on the early Ordnance Survey maps. Dobson & Taylor, who as noted follow Hunter in taking Wentbridge as the northern boundary of Barnsdale, believe the area extended eight to ten km south from there and four to five km each side of the Great North Road, which runs lengthwise through the area. Today, the northern part of this "greater Barnsdale" belongs administratively to the City of Wakefield, the southern part to the Borough of Doncaster[6] The valley is deeply cut at Wentbridge, so this would have been a well-defined boundary, but east, south and west there are no clear natural boundaries. Because Barnsdale was soon used to refer to a wider area than the narrow valley of the Skell, it ceased to be a well-defined area, and therefore it occurs relatively rarely in medieval or early modern records. Place-names occur in records chiefly because they serve to identify and delimit areas of land or identify the place someone comes from. Barnsdale as an area was not sufficiently well defined to be well suited for such purposes. Several smaller, more precisely defined areas within Barnsdale occur more frequently in the records.

Villages and hamlets within Barnsdale

If one follows the more inclusive definition of Barnsdale, the following villages and hamlets may all have lain within it: Thorpe Audlin, Upton, North Elmsall, South Elmsall, Morehouse, Hampole, Wrangbrook, Skelbrooke, Kirk Smeaton, Little Smeaton, Walden Stubbs, Norton, Campsall, Askern, Sutton, Burghwallis, Owston, Skellow, and Carcroft. However, if Barnsdale is understood, in the more restrictive sense, to include only the area near Barnsdale Bar, it includes at least Hampole, Kirk Smeaton, and Burghwallis.

Barnsdale in the records

Barnsdale makes quite a debut in the records. In 1306, the Bishops of St Andrew's and Glasgow and the Abbot of Scone were lead to Winchester as prisoners. They had a guard that consisted of sometimes eight, sometimes twelve archers, sometimes none, but from Pontefract to Tickhill the guard was increased to no less than twenty archers. In the expense accounts the additional cost of this extended guard is explained simply with the words "propter Barnsdale", i.e. "because of Barnsdale". So Barnsdale was then a very dangerous place, and this was common knowledge (see Quotations below).[7] The next record to mention Barnsdale that I have found is from 1362 (see Quotations below). This is not cited in the English Place-name Society volume for the area, which does, however, cite the 1468 Quotation as well as a 1609 deed, where the name occurs as "Barnesdale".[2]

Barnsdale is also mentioned in a few state papers relating to the Pilgrimage of Grace and subsequent rebellions in 1536-37. On Oct. 24 to 25, 1536, part of the Pilgrim forces encamped by Robin Hood's Cross near Hampole Priory beside Barnsdale.[8] Already on Oct. 17, it was reported that mustering was going on in Barnsley and Barnsdale.[9] These events are treated in detail by Dodds.[10] See further 1537 - Prise, John - Examination of Thomas Percy.

Several localities within Barnsdale are or have been named after the area. Of these only Barnsdale Ridge (see 1468 Quotation below) and Barnsdale Bar are recorded in the medieval period. The "howle or hollowe of Barnesdale" is recorded in 1609.[11] A place later renamed Old Whin Fox Covert was indicated on an 1841 Ordnance Survey map as Barnsdale Whin, while what has been known as Barnsdale Wood at least since 1891[12] was then known as Oak Wood. Barnsdale Lodge is recorded in 1822. Barnsdale Close, B. Tongue, B. Plantation (still a wooded area today), Little B. Close, B. Quarry Close (arable despite its name) are all recorded in an 1848 tithe award[13] In addition, the O.S. maps of the area online at NLS include, between them, at least the following place-names with "Barnsdale" as an element: Barnsdale Common, B. Cottage or Summerhouse Farm, B. Cottages, B. House or Forlorn Hope Farm, B. Quarry, B. Road, B. Summer House, B. Turn Pikes, B. Warren House, and B. Wood.[14]

Suitability as a place for highway robbery

We are not obliged to believe an actual highway robber named Robin Hood plied his trade in Barnsdale, but the area is certainly a well-chosen locale for a tale about a highwayman. As noted elsewhere on this pages,[15], Barnsdale was notorious as a dangerous place for travellers already in 1306. The Great North Road, which runs through Barnsdale and is referred to in the Gest as Watling Street (a name formerly applied to several stretches of Roman Road in England), was the most important thoroughfare linking London and the North. It would be the natural route to follow for many travellers to York, which was not only the "capital of the North" but also often, for instance during periods of war or open hostilities with Scotland, the place where large parts of the central administration would be located. Whether or not the locality near Wentbridge was the Sayles the author of the Gest had in mind, the deeply cut valley at Wentbridge was one of the steepest inclines on any major road in England. It is well-known that places where travellers had to get off their horses, out of their carriages or just slow down tended to attract highwaymen. Thus the authors of the English Place-Name Society volume on Nottinghamshire note with regard to the name 'Hockley Hole' recorded in 1709 for Hockley in Nottinghamshire that it was:

[...] no doubt copied from the well-known London Hockley-in-the-Hole of the 17th and 18th centuries, a place of ill repute in the valley of the Fleet in Clerkenwell. The London place-name was probably borrowed from Hockliffe (Beds) which was known as Hockley in the Hole from its situation in a well-marked depression on the line of Watling St. Robberies frequently took place there.[16]

If instead of identifying the Sayles mentioned in the Gest with the locality near Wentbridge, we opt for the slightly more southerly Sayles, then that was even higher ground and very close to the Great North Road – running roughly north/south – and to roads that led east or west; clearly also a most promising hangout for a highwayman.

The landscape in Medieval Barnsdale was probably, as it is now, a mixture of farm land, hamlets or villages and woodland. It was never under the forest law and so never technically a forest, but in its mixture of woodland and open land it would have resembled many areas that were technically forests. There would have been no lack of hiding places to someone who knew the area well. All of this tells us that the author of the Gest and/or the authors of his sources chose a realistic locale for a tale about a highway robber, but it does not have any direct bearing on the question whether the Robin Hood tradition in its origin was inspired by the doings of a historical robber of that name.

Archery in Barnsdale

This is a just a curiosity, but I cannot help mentioning it: Most appropriately there was a tree-lined archery ground immediately north of Skelbrooke Hall from before 1891 until after 1904. By 1930, only the two lines of trees remained.[17]

Quotations

[1306:] In the last year of the reign of King Edward the First, the Bishops of St. Andrew's and Glasgow, and the Abbot of Scone were conveyed, at the King's charge, from Scotland to Winchester. In this journey they had a guard, sometimes of eight archers, sometimes of twelve; but when they had got as far south as Daventry, they had no archers at all in attendance, and proceeded without a guard, in three days, from thence to Winchester. But when they passed from Pontefract to Tickhill, the guard had been increased to the number of twenty archers, and the reason given in the account of the expenses of their journey, for this addition to the cost of the conveyance, is given in the two words propter Barnsdale, which could be understood by the authorities to whom they accounted, in no other way than that there was more than common danger in traversing that wood.[18]


[April 24, 1362:] Inq. taken at York, Saturday after St. George, 35 Edward III. [... p. 98: ...] Camesale [i.e. Campsall]. The extent includes a several [sic] pasture in Balnhek and Hargincroft with agistments in Bernesdale and a windmill there, a garden called 'le Westyerd,' and a court.[19]


[1468:] And a nacer [sic] in the est feylde callyd Gowers butts of barnysdale ryg of ye est part and of Thomas Lorde of the sowthe part [...][20]


[c. 1500:]
Robyn stode in Bernesdale
and lenyd hym to a tre[21]

But as they loked into Bernysdale[22]

Whanne he loked on Bernysdale
he blessyd Robyn Hode[23]

And whanne he thought on Bernysdale[24]

But as they loked in Bernysdale[25]

He dyed him streyt to Bernysdale
under the grene wode tre[26]

I made a chapel in Bernysdale[27]

Me longeth sore to Bernysdale[28]


[1828:]
This village [i.e. the no longer existing hamlet of Robin Hood's Well] is situated in what was once Barnsdale Forest, now enclosed, and one of the haunts of the renowned free-booter.[29]

Allusions

1420 - Wyntoun, Andrew of - Original Chronicle (1)

litill Iohne and Robyne rude
Waichmen were commendit gud
In Yngilwod and Bernysdale,
And vsit þis tyme þer travale.
[Wemyss MS, ll. 3453-56.]

Litil Iohun and Robert Hude
Waythmen war commendit gud;
In Ingilwode and Bernnysdaile
Þai oyssit al þis tyme þar trawale.
'[Cottonian MS, ll. 3525-28.][30]

1473 - Paston, John - To John Paston

          Wyrsshypffull and ryght hertyly belowyd broþer, I recomande me on-to yow, letyng yow wete þat on Wednysdaye last past I wrote yow a letter wheroff John Garbalde had þe beryng, promyttyng me þat ye shold haue it at Norwyche þys daye or ellys to-morowe in þe mornyng; wherin I praye yow to take a labore acordyng afftre þe tenure off þe same, and þat I maye haue an answere at London to Hoxon iff any massenger come, as eu[er]e I maye doo fore yow. As for tydyngys, þere was a truse taken at Brussellys abut þe xxvj daye off Marche last past be-twyn þe Duke off Borgoyn and' þe Frense Kyngys jmbassatorys and Master Wiliam Atclyff for þe Kyng heere, whyche is a pese be londe and water tyll þe fyrst daye off Apryll nowe next comyng, betwyen Fraunce and Ingelond and also þe Dukys londes. God holde it for euere and grace be.
          Item, þe Erle off Oxenfford was on Saterdaye at Depe, and is purposyd in-to Skotlond wyth a xij schyppys. I mystrust þat werke.
          Item, þere be in London many flyeng talys seyng þat þer shold be a werke, and yit þey wot not howe.

          Item, my lorde chamberleyn sendyþ now at þys tyme to Caleys þe yonge Lorde Sowche and Syr þomas Hongreffordys dowtre and heyre, [Davis, p. 461:] and som seye þe yonge Lady Haryngton. þes be iij grett jowellys. Caleys is a mery town; þey shall dwell þere, I wot not whyghe.
          No more, but I haue ben and ame troblyd wyth myn ouere large and curteys delyng wyth my seruantys and now wyth þer onkyndnesse. Plattyng, yowre man, wolde þys daye byd me fare-well to to-morow at Douer, not wythstondyng þryston, yowre oþer man, is from me and John Myryell and W. Woode, whyche promysed yow and Dawbeney, God haue hys sowle, at Castre þat iff ye wolde take hym in to be ageyn wyth me þat þan he wold neuer goo fro me; and þer-vppon I haue kepyd hym þys iij yere to pleye Seynt Jorge and Robynhod and þe shryff off Notyngham, and now when I wolde haue good horse he is goon in-to Bernysdale, and I wyth-owt a kepere.

Wretyn at Canterburye, to Caleys warde on Tewesday and happe be, vppon Good Frydaye þe xvj daye off Apryll Ao E. iiijti xiijo.
Yowre J. P., K.
Item, þe most parte off þe sowdyorys þat went ouer wyth Syr Robert Green haue leeff and be comyn hom, þe hyghe-weye full. My cariage was be-hynd me ij howres lengere þan I lokyd afftre, but j-wysse I wende þat I myght haue etyn my parte on Good Frydaye, all my gownes and pryde had ben goon; but all was saffe.[31]

1535 - Leland, John - Itinerary (3)

From Shirburne to Milburne village a mile, and passing from thens to Fere brydg apon Aire river a iiii. miles of or more. The brid[g]e is of an viii. arches of stone, and ther is a village.
The soile betwixt neere in sight plaine, wel cornid, but litle wood.
Along on the lift hond a iii. miles of betwixt Milburne and Feribridge I saw the wooddi and famose forest of Barnesdale, wher they say that Robyn Hudde lyvid like an owtlaw.
From Ferybridge to Pontfract a mile.[32]

1828 - Clarke, Stephen Reynolds - New Yorkshire Gazetteer

Robin Hood's Well [...] a hamlet, partly in the township of Burgh Wallis, parish of Owton, and partly in the township of Skelbrook, parish of Kirkby South, wapentake of Osgoldcross, 7 miles N. W. from Doncaster. This village is situated in what was once Barnsdale Forest, now enclosed, and one of the haunts of the renowned free-booter. The well is a square building, nine feet high, which adjoins the high road; near this place Robin Hood is said to have robbed the Bishop of Hereford, and afterwards compelled him to dance round a tree in his boots.[33]

Robin Hood-related localities in Barnsdale

Two or three localities within Barnsdale are/were named after Robin Hood. The Stone and the Well, which may or may not be different names for the same locality, are among the earliest recorded Robin Hood place-names.

There are several allusions to the latter.

Three are named in the Gest:

The latter is so obscure it can only ultimately have derived from someone who had intimate knowledge of the area.

Two deserve mention for other reasons:

There are passages in the Gest that possibly play on the names of other localities in this general area, one or two of which would have been within Barnsdale. Also see the page on the Barnsdale place-name cluster.

Gazetteers

Sources

Maps

Background

Studies and criticism

Also see

Notes

  1. Dobson, R.B.; Taylor, J. 'The Medieval Origins of the Robin Hood Legend: a Reassessment', Northern History, vol. 7 (1972), pp. 1-30, see pp. 11-20.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Smith, A.H. The Place-Names of the West Riding of Yorkshire (English Place-Name Society, vols. XXX-XXXVII) (Cambridge, 1961-63), pt. II, p. 37.
  3. Holt, J.C. Robin Hood (London, 1982), p. 86.
  4. For instance at 53.580383, -1.199422.
  5. Hunter, Joseph. The Great Hero of the Ancient Minstrelsy of England, "Robin Hood." His Period, Real Character, etc. investigated and perhaps ascertained (Critical and Historical Tracts, No. 4) (London, 1852), pp. 17-18.
  6. See Wikipedia: Barnsdale.
  7. Also see Dobson, R.B., ed.; Taylor, J., ed. Rymes of Robyn Hood: an Introduction to the English Outlaw (London, 1976), p. 24 n. 3.
  8. Gairdner, James, compil. Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII. Preserved in the Public Record Office, The British Museum, and elsewhere in England Vol. XII – Part I (London, 1890), p. 191.
  9. Gairdner, James, compil. Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII. Preserved in the Public Record Office, The British Museum, and elsewhere in England Vol. XI (London, 1888), p. 292.
  10. Dodds, Madeleine Hope; Dodds, Ruth. The Pilgrimage of Grace 1536-1537 and the Exeter Conspiracy 1538 (Cambridge, 1915), vol. I, p. 252.
  11. Smith, op. cit, pt. II, p. 39.
  12. 25" O.S. map Yorkshire CCLXIV.7 (1893; surveyed 1891); 25" O.S. map Yorkshire CCLXIV.7 (1906; rev. 1904); 25" O.S. map Yorkshire CCLXIV.7 (1932; rev. 1930).
  13. Smith, op. cit, pt. II, pp. 43, 46. The Genealogist: piece: 43, sub-piece 357, images 083, 085, and sub-image 001. These localities are all located immediately north or south of Wrangbrook Lane, immediately west of the A1.
  14. Barnsdale House and Lodge are both listed in Langdale, Thomas, compil. A Topographical Dictionary of Yorkshire (Northallerton; London, 1809), p. 150, and Langdale, Thomas, compil. A Topographical Dictionary of Yorkshire (Northallerton; London, 1822), p. 226; and see Maps listed below.
  15. See above under the heading 'Barnsdale in the records' and below under 'Quotations' (1306 entry).
  16. Gover, J.E.B.; Mawer, Allen; Stenton, F.M. The Place-Names of Nottinghamshire (English Place-Name Society, vol. XVII) (Cambridge, 1940), p. 18.
  17. See 25" O.S. map Yorkshire CCLXIV.10 (1893; surveyed 1891); 25" O.S. map Yorkshire CCLXIV.10 (1906; rev. 1904); 25" O.S. map Yorkshire CCLXIV.10 (1932; rev. 1930).
  18. Hunter, Joseph. The Great Hero of the Ancient Minstrelsy of England, "Robin Hood." His Period, Real Character, etc. investigated and perhaps ascertained (Critical and Historical Tracts, No. 4) (London, 1852), p. 14. Also see Hunter, Joseph. 'Notes Respecting Travelling and the Transmission of Treasure chiefly in the Northern Parts of the Kingdom, in the Reigns of Edward I., II., and III., or the Former Half of the Fourteenth Century', in: Anonymous, ed. Memoirs Illustrative of the History and Antiquities of the County and City of York, communicated to the Annual Meeting of the Archæological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, held at York, July, 1846, with a General Report of the Proceedings of the Meeting, and Catalogue of the Museum formed on that Occasion (London and Oxford, 1847), pp. 21-24, at p. 22.
  19. [Dawes, M.C.B., ed.] Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem and Other Analogous Documents Preserved in the Public Record Office (London, 1935), pp. 97-98.
  20. Walker, John William, ed., Abstracts of the Chartularies of the Priory of Monkbretton (Cambridge, 2013), p. 107.
  21. Gest, st. 3.
  22. Gest, st. 21.
  23. Gest, st. 82.
  24. Gest, st. 83.
  25. Gest, st. 213.
  26. Gest, st. 262.
  27. Gest, st. 440.
  28. Gest, st. 442.
  29. Clarke, Stephen Reynolds. The New Yorkshire Gazetteer, or Topographical Dictionary (London, 1828), p. 208.
  30. Wyntoun, Andrew of; Amours, Francois Joseph, ed. The Original Chronicle of Andrew of Wyntoun (Scottish Text Society, First Series, vols. 50, 53-54, 56-57, 63) (Edinburgh and London, 1903-1914), vol. V, pp. 136-37.
  31. Davis, Norman, ed. Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century (Oxford, 1971-76), vol. I, pp. 460-61.
  32. Leland, John; Smith, Lucy Toulmin, ed. The Itinerary of John Leland in or about the Years 1535-1543 (London, 1906-10), vol. IV, p. 13.
  33. Clarke, Stephen Reynolds. The New Yorkshire Gazetteer, or Topographical Dictionary (London, 1828), p. 208.