Doubtful place-names in Gest of Robyn Hode
By Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2014-10-08. Revised by Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2021-06-04.
In my discussion of Wentbridge, I note that the cryptic allusion to it in the Gest, "But as he went at a brydge ther was a wraste-lyng", may be the result of an attempt at emendation by a printer who had not heard about the place and therefore could not make sense of the line *"But at wente brydge ther was a wrastelyng". However, it is certainly also possible that the line stands exactly as the author wrote it, and assuming he made one such playful allusion to a local place-name, it is reasonable to ask, why should he not have made more? Over the years I have collected a handful of possible examples of such punning allusions in the Gest. My faith in these readings varies from some to very little, and it must be noted that it is in no case necessary to assume such a playful reference in order to make sense of the text. I have simply tried to answer the question: If one looks for such cryptic references, what can one find in reasonable proximity to Barnsdale? I believe a couple of the place-names I have found are at least a little bit interesting; the others are first recorded too late to deserve consideration.
At the beginning of the Gest we find the outlaws at their chief haunt:
Robyn stode in Bernesdale
and lenyd hym to a tre
and bi hym stode Litell Johnn
a gode yeman was he
and alsoo dyd good Scarlok
and Much the myller's son
there was non ynche of his bodi
but it was worth a grome.
A miller's son must of course have come from a place with a mill. Needless to say they were very common, but if the Gest was ever recited in the Norh Elmsall–Minsthorpe–South Elmsall area, members of the audience may have fancied that Much was a local lad. Minsthorpe Lane connects the small village of North Elmsall and the tiny hamlet of Minsthorpe, immediately south of which lies South Elmsall. A small lane off Minsthorpe Lane halfway between North Elmsall and Minsthorpe is called Inch Lane. There may just possibly be an allusion to this in the two verses "there was non ynche of his bodi | but it was worth a grome." About 500 m further south, Minsthorpe Lane becomes Mill Lane. Other place-names attest to the presence of a mill as early as 1340. A. H. Smith lists Inch Lane as a modern place-name, but this may reflect lack of early references rather than positive knowledge. On the 1842 tithe award for this area the field name Inch Croft is indicated for a piece of land immediately north of Inch Lane. We know from the allusion to Wentbridge and the mention of Sayles that the author of the poem made a point of anchoring his tale in the Barnsdale area. In view of this it is interesting to note that North Emsall, South Emsall and Minsthorpe are situated just c. 3.5 km west of Barnsdale Bar and c. 4.5 km SW of Wentbridge.
In the Gest, Robin Hood gives his men instructions to go look for a dinner guest, telling them:
Be he erle or ani baron
Abbot or ani knyght
Bringhe hym to lodge to me
His dyner shall be dight.
A. H. Smith notes a Barnsdale Lodge, citing the second edition of Thomas Langdale's Topographical Dictionary of Yorkshire (1822) as his source. In fact Langdale listed Barnsdale Lodge already in the first (1809) edition of his work: "Barnsdale-Lodge, in the Parish of Burghwallis [...] the seat of Bacon Frank, Esq." The Franks were a prominent Campsall family, and as Barnsdale Lodge was their residence it presumably was a lodge of a quite different kind from that where Robin would have entertained his dinner guests. In any case the name "Barnsdale Lodge" is not in evidence before the early 19th century. Burghwallis is c. 3 km SSE of Barnsdale Bar. The 1854 6" O.S. map shows no less than five Lodges in Burghwallis: Owston L., Doncaster L., Askern L., Sutton L., Carcroft L., but no Barnsdale Lodge.
Robin sent three scouts – Little John, Much and William Scarlock – up to the Sayles to look for a dinner guest. Looking east and west they saw no one:
But as they loked in to Bernysdale,
Bi a derne strete,
Then came a knyght ridinghe;
Full sone they gan hym mete.
Dobson & Taylor are perfectly correct in explaining "derne strete" as "secret way", but ever since I discovered in one of A. H. Smith's English Place-Name Society volumes on the West Riding of Yorkshire that there is a River Dearne in this area I have been intrigued by the possibility that the Gest may here be alluding to a now vanished road that led to or over that river. In the 13th century and earlier, such spellings of the river name as "Dirne" and "Dyrne" dominate, but thereafter Dern(e) becomes much the most common spelling, so whether or not they were actual homonyms, the adjective "dern" and the river name were (typically) spelt in the same way in the period when the Gest was written. At its closest point the Dearne is about the same distance from Barnsdale as Doncaster, which is mentioned four times in the Gest.
Back in the 1980's when I was poring over Smith's eight volumes on West Riding place-names, I did not have easy access to 1" or 6" O.S. maps of this (or any other) area of England, and my hypothesis about a road leading to the Dearne rested only on this passage from the Gest. I was delighted to find quite recently that another researcher posits the existence of just such a road, quite without reference to the passage in the Gest. Tim Midgley, discussing roads leading to the alternative location which he suggests for the outlaws' favourite lookout, the Sayles, notes that
The Roman road to the Templeborough–Doncaster road can be traced south from Skelbrooke along Straight Lane, disappearing across Hampole Dike but can then be traced along a sunken way, Old Street, then Lound Lane, Straight Lane [Street Lane] again, then seems to follow a line of trees before it appears to cut across a field to Hangman's Stone Lane. From here it is untraceable except possibly on Melton Mill Lane after which it crossed the rivers Dearne and Don at Dearne Bridge and Old Denaby respectively.
Smith mentions no "Dearne Street", but then as he notes, few pre-18th century roads in the West Riding had names, though "stretches of some of the roads of a fairly complex Roman system can be traced through their remains". He does note the probable existence of a Roman road that appears to be identical with that discussed by Midgley. This would have led north from (or through) Mexborough to Castleford.
The knight our three criminal friends spy from their lookout at the Sayles is in a sorry plight:
All dreri was his semblaunce
And lytell was his pryde
His one fote in the styrop stode
That othere wavyd beside.
This is indeed a striking entree, but is it perhaps also an oblique allusion to Styrrup, a village in the parish of Blyth on the Yorkshire–Nottinghamshire border? Styrrup is located c. 12 km SSE of Doncaster and less than 4 km NNW of Blyth. Doncaster figures on four occasions in the Gest: we are told twice that it is the home of Red Roger, the illicit lover of Robin's cousin, the treacherous nun of Kirklees. The knight soon after the above stanza tells the outlaws he had intended to dine at Blyth or Doncaster, while later the black monk observes ruefully that "[f]or better chepe I myght have dyned | In Blythe or in Dankastere". Not only does Styrrup lie between these two towns, it also like them and like Wentbridge and Barnsdale lies by the Great North Road. It was one of only five places in England licensed to hold tournaments and would have been well known for that reason.
Styrrup is first mentioned in Domesday Book; the name simply means "stirrup", but it is not clear how the village acquired this name. The editors of the English Place-Name Society volume on Nottinghamshire believe, not implausibly, that "some feature of the ground, such as the hill immediately to the east of the village, suggested the outline of a stirrup to early settlers".
Rather than follow John Bellamy on his search for traces of an actual castle in which an actual Sir Richard at the Lee may have lived, I believe we should remind ourselves during our excursions into the Medieval landscape that the Gest is a tale about an imagined past. When it was written, tales about the outlaw had probably already circulated for a century or more. Because the 15th century is so long ago it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the tale itself was (and is) a tale about what had supposedly happened in the past. Even when it was brand new it was a tale about the good (and not so good) old days. In the late Middle Ages, more visible and tangible reminders of the past remained in the landscape in the shape of ancient earth works, ruins and mounds, fewer of which had then been plowed under or quarried for stone or gravel. Perhaps the author of the Gest, who seems to have known the Barnsdale area so well, drew inspiration for his description of the knight's castle from such remains in the area.
Then was there a fayre castell
A lytell within the wode
Double dyched it was about
And walled by the rode.
A. H. Smith notes from an 1841 O.S. map, "Castle Hill [...] an ancient earthwork off the Great North Road on the south bank of the R[iver]. Went". This is one of many examples from the West Riding of "Promontory forts [...] which were renamed in later times" when people had no knowledge of their original purpose or period of construction. Castle Hill was situated immediately east of Sayles Plantation, which Holt and Dobson & Taylor believed was the spot referred to as Sayles in the Gest. There are quite a few ancient earthworks in the area, but Castle Hill is of special interest as its name is itself evidence of a myth-making process at work: an ancient earthwork whose original purpose, builders and age must have been unknown was interpreted as the ruins of a castle. Unfortunately Castle Hill has now been quarried away.
- Gover, J.E.B.; Mawer, Allen; Stenton, F.M. The Place-Names of Nottinghamshire (English Place-Name Society, vol. XVII) (Cambridge, 1940), pp. 98-99.
- 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. 46; pt. VII, pp. 124-26, 144-46.
- Inch Lane
- 25" O.S. map Yorkshire CCLXIV.9 (1893; survey 1891)
- 25" O.S. map Yorkshire CCLXIV.9 (1906; rev. 1904)
- 25" O.S. map Yorkshire CCLXIV.9 (1932; rev. 1930)
- 6" O.S. map Yorkshire 264 (1854, surveyed 1849)
- 6" O.S. map Yorkshire CCLXIV.SW (1894, surveyed: 1891)
- 6" O.S. map Yorkshire CCLXIV.SW (1907, surveyed: 1904)
- 6" O.S. map Yorkshire CCLXIV.SW (1930, rev. 1930)
- 6" O.S. map Yorkshire CCLXIV.SW (1950, rev. 1948)
- Castle Hill
- Survey of English Place-Names: Inch Lane
- Wikipedia: North Elmsall
- Wikipedia: River Dearne
- Wikipedia: Styrrup
- Nottinghamshire History: The departed glories of Blyth
- National Archives: Bacon Frank Manuscripts.
- Barnsdale (Doncaster)
- Place-names in Gest of Robyn Hode
- West Riding of Yorkshire place-names
- Yorkshire place-names
- Nottinghamshire place-names.
- Waypoints for River Dearne provided by OpenStreetMap users SpooneyGreen, Nigel Greens, Yorvik Prestigitator, Rob Dyson, RobChafer, LeedsTracker, Pobice, Dykan Hayes, Sundance, sc71, Paul Berry, Steeley, Firefishy, myfanwy, Warofdreams, denbydale, The Trautbec, and Med; adapted by Henrik Thiil Nielsen.
- Gest, st. 135.
- See my discussion of Wentbridge.
- The asterisk indicates a hypothetical reading.
- A Gest of Robyn Hode, sts. 3-4: Dobson, R. B., ed.; Taylor, J., ed. Rymes of Robyn Hood: an Introduction to the English Outlaw (London, 1976), p. 79; I omit editorial punctuation and capitalization.
- 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. 38. Place-names attest to the presence of a mill as early as 1340. 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. 38.
- the Genealogist, tithe award: piece 43, sub-piece 145, image 014 and 020; tithe map: piece 43, sub-piece 145, image 001 (£).
- Dobson & Taylor, op. cit., p. 80, st. 19. I omit editorial punctuation.
- Smith, op. cit., vol. II, p. 46. Langdale, Thomas, compil. A Topographical Dictionary of Yorkshire (Northallerton; London, 1822), p. 226.
- Langdale, Thomas, compil. A Topographical Dictionary of Yorkshire (Northallerton; London, 1809), p. 150.
- Their papers are in the Sheffield Archives.
- 6" O.S. map Yorkshire Sheet 264 (1854, surveyed 1849) (at NLS).
- St. 21, Dobson & Taylor, op. cit., p. 80.
- Ibid., n. 9.
- Smith, op. cit., pt. VII, pp. 124-26.
- Smith, op. cit.
- An Alternative location for 'Saylis' of the Geste.
- Smith, vol. VII, p. 144.
- Smith, op. cit., vol. VII, p. 146.
- Dobson & Taylor, op. cit., p. 80, st. 22.
- See the page on Doncaster.
- See Nottinghamshire History: The departed glories of Blyth.
- Gover, J.E.B.; Mawer, Allen; Stenton, F.M. The Place-Names of Nottinghamshire (English Place-Name Society, vol. XVII) (Cambridge, 1940), p. 98.
- See Bellamy, John. Robin Hood: An Historical Enquiry (London and Sydney, ©1985), pp. 73-109: ch 6, "Sir Ricrad at the Lee".
- St. 309, Dobson & Taylor, op. cit., p. 101.
- Smith, op. cit., pt. II, p. 51.
- Quote from Smith, op. cit., pt. VII, p. 24, and see p. 23. According to English Heritage's PastScape site it is uncertain if Castle Hill was a promontory fort or an Iron Age enclosure.
- See for instance 6" O.S. map Yorkshire Sheet CCL.SW (1907, rev. 1904) (at NLS).
- Search for Wentbridge and Kirk Smeaton at PastScape (English Heritage).
- See North Yorkshire walks: Kirk Smeaton and Brockadale (North Yorkshire County Council) (PDF).
Click any image to display it in the lightbox, where you can navigate between images by clicking in the right or left side of the current image.
River Dearne viewed from the bridge behind Darton Post Office (photo: John Fielding.)
The River Dearne viewed from Dearne Bridge, near Cadeby, Doncaster (photo: Dave Taylor.)
Wentbridge to the left, Castle Hill to the right; from O.S. 6" map Yorkshire CCL.SW (1907, rev. 1904).
The road to Smeaton Industrial Estate, where one of the resident companies has all but quarried away the Castle Hill site / Photo: Thomas.)
The A1 (Great North Road) from Styrrup (photo: John Goldsmith).