Barnsdale owes most of its prominence to the Robin Hood legend. It is a rather obscure and small area, that never appears to have had fixed boundaries, and it hardly occurs at all before the fifteenth century. The name was still being used in 1806-7 when the inhabitants of the neighbourhood of Pontefract petitioned for a turnpike from Barnsdale to Leeds via Pontefract.(1) The usual understanding was that it was comprised of the district four or five miles from north to south and about the same from east to west, stretching southwards from the river Went to the villages of Skelbrooke and Hampole, six miles north of Doncaster.(2) The name is preserved to this day as Barnsdale Bar.(3)

Holt gives us a different interpretation, he mentions the Ordnance Survey which attached Barnsdale to the upland area lying across the Great North Road some two miles south-east of Wentbridge, with Barnsdale Bar at the southern boundary of this area. He further adds: ‘In Jeffery’s map of 1771-2 the area is labelled ‘Barnsdale Moor’, and Leland in the sixteenth century seems to have applied the term to the whole of the upland area lying to the south of Ferrybridge. 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’. Holt had no doubt that when Little John stood at Sayles and ‘loked into Bernysdale’, (in the Gest) he was looking at Wentbridge, which meant the legend has Barnsdale three miles north of its true location, which could account for the more generalized sense which the word enjoyed by Leland’s day.(4)

The earliest mention appears to be in 1306, when William de Lamberton, bishop of St Andrews, Robert Wishart, bishop of Glasgow, and Henry abbot of Scone were sent south as prisoners, they were seized by Edward I’s men in Scotland. In their journey from Pontefract to Tickhill their guard was increased propter Barnsdale, ‘on account of Barnsdale’. So already in 1306 Barnsdale was known as an area of special danger to travellers.(5) The next mention is possibly the reference to ‘barnysdale ryg’ which appears in a Monk Bretton Chartulary of 1468.  After his coronation, Henry VII (1485-1509) left Doncaster with a great attendance of noblemen and gentlemen, and was met by the earl of Northumberland and a right great and noble company on Barnsdale, ‘a litill beyonde Robyn Haddez-ston’.(6) In the early16th century, John Leland, (see above) king’s antiquary to Henry VIII, visited southern Yorkshire and observed (or so he recorded) ‘Along on the lift hond a iii miles of betwixt Milburne and Feribridge … the wooddi and famose forest of Barnesdale, wher they say Robyn Hudde lyvid like an owtlaw’.(7) In October 1536, Barnsdale was the scene for a muster by some of the rebels involved in the insurrection known as the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’, the name given to an uprising in York in protest against Henry VIII’s break with Rome, and the dissolution of the Monasteries; there were other political, social, and economic grievances as well.(8) In 1541 at Skelbrooke, Henry himself met with the clergy of York headed by their archbishop, who presented the monarch with £600.(9)

1. Holt,  Robin Hood, p. 84.

2. Dobson and Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood, p. 20.

3. Appropriately enough it was at Barnsdale Bar that several members of the English royal family were ceremonially welcomed on their progresses to the north in the later middle ages. (Dobson and Taylor,Rymes of Robyn Hood, p. 24);  J. Hunter, South Yorkshire (London, 1828-31), II, 487-8; Leland’s Collectanea, ed. Hearne, IV, 185-203, 265-80; S. Anglo, Spectacle, Pageantry, and Early Tudor Policy (Oxford, 1969), p. 22. According to the city of York’s ‘Memorandum Book’, Mayor John Fereby met Edward IV in September 1487, at a place ‘paulo minus duobus miliaribus ultra Wentbrig‘, ie, undoubtedly at Barnsdale Bar: see York Memorandum Book, II (Surtees Society, CXXV, 1915), p.240; R, Davies, Extracts from the Municipal Records of the City of York (London, 1843), p.78.  (Dobson and Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood, n. 2, p. 24).

4. Holt, Robin Hood, p. 84.

5. Holt, Robin Hood, p. 52, as per  Hunter, ‘Great Hero’, pp.19-20. (Hunter’s source has not been determined).

6. Joseph Hunter, South Yorkshire, Vol ii, p. 487.

7. The Itinerary of John Lelandin England and Wales, ed. L. Toulmin- Smith (London, 1906-10), IV, 13.

8. ‘Henry VIII: October 1536, 16-20’, Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 11: July-December 1536 (James Gairdner,1888), pp. 284-314.

9. A Topographical Dictionary of England, (Samuel Lewis, 1848).