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Sayles (Barnsdale)

Coordinate 53.647882, -1.253881
Adm. div. West Riding of Yorkshire
Vicinity Immediately SE of Wentbridge?
Type Area
Interest Literary locale
Status Extant
First Record c. 1500
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The modern Sayles Plantation, identified by most
researchers with the Sayles of the Gest
Footpath in Sayles Plantation / Ian S, Creative Commons, via Geograph.
Sayles near Wentbridge / Richard Hawlor.
Footpath in Sayles Plantation Ian S, Creative Commons, via Geograph.
Footpath along River Went in Sayles Plantation / Ian S, Creative Commons, via Geograph.
A sallow. 'Sayles' means 'sallows' or 'willows', trees of the genus salix / Jan Haseler, Reading & District Natural History Society.

By Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2013-06-30. Revised by Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2019-05-30. Some photographs courtesy Richard Hawlor. Information and materials by David Hepworth and Robert Lynley.

In the Gest of Robyn Hode, a tale that has the outlaws based in Barnsdale, Robin Hood sends Little John, Scarlock and Much to a place called "the Saylis" (see Evidence below) to look for a traveller they can "invite" to dine with the outlaws —a pleasure that will be far from free for a rich guest. This place-name reference is significant as the Sayles were (are) a minor locality and thus not very likely to have been known outside the immediate area. The occurrence of this place-name tells us that the Gest was written by someone who knew this part of the West Riding well. Moreover, at least one robbery is known to have been committed at the Sayles, which no doubt was a locality well suited for waylaying travellers along the Great North Road. All of this does not necessarily mean, of course, that an actual Robin Hood was active there, but it does tell us that the unknown author of the Gest chose a very realistic locale. The exact location of Sayles is uncertain. There were formerly at least two localities called Sayles within the area in question, and it is not entirely certain if the locality favoured by most modern historians is in fact the one intended in the Gest. The etymology of "Sayles", according to the English Place-Name Society volume on this area, is salh, willow, sallow (Latin 'salix').[1]

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 Barnsdale itself and other Robin Hood-related localities in or near Barnsdale. See the page on the Barnsdale place-name cluster for links to these.

Locating the Sayles

Hunter[2] felt that, when Robin sends his men to the Sayles to look out for a dinner guest, there "is in these few words something which impresses a person acquainted with the district with the conviction of the reality of these events, for the Sayles is a place hardly known." Here Hunter was surely going too far. All we can conclude from the appearance of an allusion to an obscure locality in a literary work is that, as Hunter noted, the work must have been written by someone who had intimate knowledge of the area in which his tale was set. That, however, is quite important, for the Gest is certainly the single most important literary source within the entire tradition. Hunter went on to note that there was in his time a family named Sayles living at Wentbridge, but Sayles was hardly any longer known as a place-name and he did not believe it could be found on "any map of Yorkshire." Yet he had discovered that there was in fact once a place named Sayles "in Barnsdale or close to it". This was a quite small tenancy of the Manor of Pontefract, valued at only one-tenth of a knight's fee. Hunter had found a couple of records referring to a Sayles in the area, but he did not try to discover its exact location. Dobson & Taylor did so, and they felt that establishing the exact location of Sayles "is not in fact a particularly arduous task" and then proceeded to identify the medieval Sayles with the currently existing Sayle's Plantation "on the very northern edge of Barnsdale and five hundred yards east of Wentbridge".[3] This may be the locality the author of the Gest had in mind, but a more likely alternative location has been suggested. Before discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the locality suggested by Dobson & Taylor, let us briefly review the evidence.

Sayles in the records

Here follows a list of occurrences of the place-name Sayles in the records (it could have been extended somewhat by including references to persons in the area surnamed de Sayles or similar).

  • 1224. Close Roll entry (PRO, C54/3, m. 31). The Priory of Worksop to take full seisin of 36 acres of land in "Sailles" after William son of Thomas, who formerly held it, had abjured the realm because of murder.[4]
  • 1329. Privy seal warrant dated June 23:[5] robbery committed at "le Saylles" at some prior date.
  • 1329. Close Roll entry of this robbery case.[6] Discussed below.
  • 1346/7 (account of aid for knighting the Black Prince). Sayles in the possession of Richard, son of Adam de Sayles, who contributed 4s. towards the knighting.[7]
  • 1449. Cartulary of Worksop Priory lands compiled by prior Charles Fleming lists the lands granted in 1225.[8]
  • 1539-47. Sayles listed in a terrier of this date.[9]
  • 1577 (Bernard's survey of the Duchy of Lancaster lands in the county of York).[10]
  • 1688. Kirk Smeaton glebe terrier lists an "acre in the Sailes".[11]
  • 17th century confirmation of land grant noted in Joseph Hunter's MS notes on Robin Hood.[12]
  • 1857 terrier refers to a "Sailes Close".[13]

Dobson & Taylor note that the last two items certainly refer to the same piece of land, the Sayles near Wentbridge. However, it is not clear if all these records refer to that locality. At least one, the 1329 Close Roll entry, does not appear to do so.

Robbery at Sayles

John Maddicott discovered in the mid-1970's that a robbery had been committed at a place called the Sayles some time before June 23, 1329.[14] None of the historians who have discussed this has cited the actual wording of the Privy Seal warrant or the Close Roll entry. I have not seen either yet, but in the meantime I notice that the Close Roll calendar summarizes the 1329 entry as follows:

The like [i.e. commission of oyer and terminer] to John Travers, Thomas Deyvill, and Adam de Hoperton on complaint by William de Felton that William Frere of Doncaster, William le Taverner of Doncaster, Thomas Frere, John Frere, Nicholas de Tykhull, Matilda de Clayton, John le Carter and others assaulted him at Skelbrook, co. York, and carried away his goods.[15]

The extent of the area to which the name 'Barnsdale' was applied has varied during the centuries, so let us instead take the more precisely located Barnsdale Bar as our point of reference and note that of the alleged culprits the two Williams came from Doncaster (c. 12.5 km SSE), Nicholas came from Tickhill (c. 21.5 km SSE), while Matilda came from Clayton (c. 8.5 km SSW of Barnsdale Bar). Sayles near Wentbridge would have been c. 4 km further away from home for all of them. In fact they did not commit this crime quite so far from their homes, for the deed was said to have been done at Skelbrook, c. 1.5 km south of Barnsdale Bar. According to the Privy Seal warrant, Sayles was the crime scene. This poses a problem if we follow Dobson & Taylor in locating Sayles near Wentbridge, for a crime committed in the immediate vicinity of the village of Wentbridge would hardly be said in the record to have been committed at Skelbrooke, a village or hamlet c. 5 km away. That a crime was said to have been committed near both Skelbrooke and Sayles makes much better sense if there was in fact a Sayles near Skelbrooke. It is also significant that, as Hepworth notes,[16] people surnamed Sayles once lived in or near Skelbrooke. There seems to be good reason to look for an alternative to the locality suggested by Dobson & Taylor.

Another Sayles in Barnsdale

As noted on the page on Barnsdale, the name Barnsdale must originally have referred to the valley of the river Skell, just south of Barnsdale Bar, but in late medieval and early modern times it referred to a less well-defined area that had Barnsdale Bar near or at its southern boundary. Neither location tallies with the notion of the outlaws surveying Barnsdale from the Sayles near Wentbridge, and therefore Dobson & Taylor, followed by Holt, suggested that the author of the Gest had got the facts slightly wrong and used "Barnsdale" to refer to the area near Wentbridge or to a larger area that included Wentbridge. The problem here is that a writer who knew such an obscure locality as the Sayles would presumably also have known which area locals referred to by the name Barnsdale. He is not very likely to have deliberately misrepresented such facts.

Could Sayles in the Gest refer to a locality in the area near Barnsdale Bar? Tim Midgley think so. He has suggested an alternative location which in some ways fits the bill better than the Sayles near Wentbridge. This was located on the high ground just above Barnsdale Summerhouse and Woodfield House, 65 to 75 m above sea level, 200 to 500 m south or south-west of Barnsdale Bar, and thus in the area locals would have referred to as Barnsdale at the time the Gest was written. This is the area where Robin Hood's Well, Robin Hood's Stone and the Bishop's Tree are located. The spot suggested by Midgley is some 35 to 40 meters above the ground level at Skelbrooke (which is in turn c. 30-35 m above sea level). As he notes, this locality and the Sayles near Wentbridge were both "excellent points in this area during the past for the interception of travellers on the highway". At the area below Barnsdale Bar, there were roads leading east and west from the roughly north/south-oriented Great North Road, so from the high ground nearby one was essentially looking down at a four-way intersection. If this Sayles was the locality the author of the Gest had in mind, it is also natural that the 1329 robbery at "le Saylles" should be said to have occurred at Skelbrooke, less than 1.5 km away. To cap it all Midgley shows that an 1853 Ordnance Survey map indicates a Sayles Wood and Sayles Quarry at this place, north of New Close Lane and south of Woodfield Road between Barnsdale Summerhouse and Woodfield House. I have not found an O.S. map of the area dated 1853, but that published the following year does indeed include both localities.[17] Sayles Quarry and Wood do not appear on modern maps, but "Sales Quarry" is indicated on 25" O.S. maps dated 1893 and 1932 as well as 1930 and 1950 O.S. 6" maps.[18] Incidentally, a Sales Lane, still in existence, is found on a 6" O.S. map published in 1854, at a point (53.637686,-1.036904) c. 4.75 km NNE of Kirk Bramwith and c. 13 km ENE of Barnsdale Bar.[19]

David Hepworth suggests that the name Sayles may have been applied to an area that stretched from Skelbrooke to Wentbridge. He adduces record evidence to show Sayles could certainly refer to more than the small area near Wentbridge with which Hunter and Dobson & Taylor would identify it. However, "Sayles" as used in the Gest (see Evidence above) does seem to refer to a piece of high ground in the area. The salient fact here is that Sayles was (or included) an area in or near Skelbrooke.

Selecting a Sayles

Which Sayles is most likely to be the one the author of the the Gest had in mind? As Midgley notes, people surnamed Sayles still live in the area, and Sayles Plantation, Sayles Wood and Sayles Quarry may all have been named after owners. A Plantation is of course at some point a new planting and may well be named after the person who plants it, a quarry may be named after a family that works it, a wood after a family that owns it. "Sayles" as the first element of a compound place-name may be a possessive; the Sayles, on the other hand, is clearly the nominative plural of a common noun, and the definite article ("the" or "le") shows us the noun is being used with a specific reference, as a quasi-place-name, one might say. It would thus seem that Sayles is a common noun that became a place-name that became a surname that became an element of the place-names Sayles Planation, Quarry and Wood. Had Hunter known of any of these Sayles and thought they might be ancient place-names, he would surely have mentioned this. That he did not know of the Quarry and Wood is a little surprising; they appeared on an Ordnance Survey map published in 1853, the year after his seminal pamphlet on Robin Hood was published. Were these names in such restricted local use that Hunter did not know of them? Perhaps there is a good reason he had not heard about Sayles Planation near Wentbridge for as Midgley notes, the Ordnance Survey map of 1853 (surveyed 1848-49) labels it "Smeaton Pasture Wood", not "Sayles Plantation".[20] It had become Sayles Plantation by 1904.[21]

Dobson and Taylor note in their review article on Holt's excellent monograph[22] that persuasive as Holt's chapter on the physical setting of the ballads is

One is perhaps a little less persuaded that when in the 21st stanza of the first fytte of the Gest, Little John and his companions 'loked in to Bernysdale, Bi a dern strete' there 'can be no doubt' that they were 'looking at Wentbridge lying in the deeply cut valley of the Went'. The dangers of being quite so certain are nicely illustrated by the previous stanza of the Gest which makes Little John and his two companions look east and west, exactly the points of the compass to which one would not look if wishing to intercept travellers on the great north road.

This minor discrepancy should worry only those who would read the Gest as an eyewitness report of actual historical events. The rest of us can enjoy the inside joke: of course there was nobody there! Yet if one does feel this is a problem, it may be noted that a medieval trio of outlaws lurking at the spot suggested by Tim Midgley might have had a reasonable expectation of spotting a traveller somewhere to the east or west, and they might instead have found, as they looked straight ahead down into what is now New Close Lane that a lonesome, distraught knight came riding along the road.

The Gest includes an allusion to Wentbridge, a circumstance some may conceivably regard as supporting the idea that the Sayles was a place near Wentbridge, but in fact it creates an inconsistency that is somewhat more serious than the writer's making his characters look where nobody is to be found. There is a wrestling contest going on at Wentbridge where the mood has turned nasty and the knight with his retinue of a hundred has to interfere to save the champion wrestler from the angry local mob that resents the price going to someone from out of town. Surely all of this should be very visible and audible at nearby Sayles, a few hundred meters away? Yet the three scouts anxiously looking out for the knight at the Sayles have absolutely no idea what is going on at Wentbridge. To a casual reader this may seem a relatively minor inconsistency, in fact I seem to be the first person to have noticed it, but I think the inconsistency should have been apparent to the author of the poem as he deliberately constructed the scene at Wentbridge in order to let the knight be held up there, so giving the outlaws time to relieve the monk of £800. Could he have failed to notice that he had staged this event before the eyes of those waiting for the knight? A Sayles 4 km south of Wentbridge does not, as far as I can see, lead to inconsistencies, and the records relating to the pre-1329 robbery do associate Sayles with Skelbrooke. I believe the slightly more southerly Sayles suggested by Tim Midgley deserves careful consideration.


[Gest; c. 1500:]

And walke up to the Saylis
And so to Watlinge Strete
And wayte after some unketh gest
Up chaunce ye may them mete[23]

They wente up to the Saylis
These yeman all three
Thet loked est, they loked weest
They might no man see

But as they loked in to Bernysdale
Bi a derne strete
Then came a knight ridinghe
Full sone they gan hym mete[24]

And walke up under the Sayles
And to Watlynge strete
And wayte after such unketh gest
Up-chaunce ye may them mete[25]

They went up to the Sayles
These yemen all three
They loked est, they loked west
They might no man se

But as they loked in Bernysdale
By the hye waye
Than were they ware of two blacke monkes

Eche on a good palferay[26]


MS sources

  • PRO, C.81/163/2703, a privy seal warrant, dated June 23, 1329; not seen, but cf. Dobson & Taylor (1976), p. 24 n. 3.

Printed sources


Sayles Plantation near Wentbridge

Sayles between Campsall and Skelbrooke


Also see


  1. Smith, A.H. The Place-Names of the West Riding of Yorkshire (English Place-Name Society, vols. XXX-XXXVII) (Cambridge, 1961-63), vol. II, p. 52.
  2. 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. 15 & n. 7.
  3. 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. 17-18.
  4. Hardy, Thomas Duffus, ed. Rotuli Litterarum Clausarum in Turri Londinensi asservati (London, 1833-1844), p. 17; not seen; information courtesy Robert Lynley. Also see Hepworth, David. 'Life versus Fiction: A Consideration of Real Northern Outlaws and their Background versus the Early Ballads of Robin Hood' (unpublished paper from the Third Biannual Robin Hood Conference at York, 2003).
  5. PRO, C.81/163/2703. Not seen, but cf. Dobson, R.B., ed.; Taylor, J., ed. Rymes of Robyn Hood: an Introduction to the English Outlaw (London, 1976), p. 24 n. 3. Hepworth, op. cit.
  6. Isaacson, R.F., ed.; Morris, G.J., ed.; Lawrence, H.E., ed. Calendar of the Patent Rolls Preserved in the Public Record Office. Edward III. A.D. 1327-1330 (London, 1891), p. 432. Hepworth, op. cit.
  7. Hunter. op. cit., p. 15 n. 7.
  8. Hepworth. op. cit.
  9. Hepworth. op. cit.
  10. Hunter. loc. cit.
  11. Dobson & Taylor (1972) (as above), p. 18 & n. 61. Smith, A.H. op. cit., vol. II, p. 52.
  12. Hepworth. op. cit.
  13. Hepworth. op. cit.
  14. Dobson & Taylor (1976) (as above), p. 24 n. 3.
  15. Isaacson. loc. cit.
  16. Hepworth. op. cit.
  17. 6" O.S. map Yorkshire 264 (1854; surveyed 1849).
  18. See 25" O.S. map Yorkshire CCLXIV.7 (1893; surveyed 1891); 25" O.S. map Yorkshire CCLXIV.7 (1932; rev. 1930); 25" O.S. map Yorkshire CCLXIV.7 (1906; surveyed 1904); O.S. 6" map Yorkshire Sheet CCLXIV.NE (1930, revised 1930) (at NLS); O.S. 6" map Yorkshire Sheet Yorkshire Sheet CCLXIV.NE (1950, revised. 1948) (at NLS).
  19. 6" O.S. map Yorkshire 265 (1854; surveyed 1849-50).
  20. See O.S. 6" map Yorkshire Sheet 250 (1853, surveyed 1848-1849) (at NLS).
  21. See 6" O.S. map Yorkshire Sheet CCL.SW (1907, revised 1904) (at NLS).
  22. Dobson, R.B., review.; Taylor, John, review. 'Robin Hood of Barnesdale: a Fellow thou has long sought', Northern History, vol. 19 (1983), pp. 210-20, p. 213
  23. Gest of Robyn Hode, st. 18.
  24. Gest of Robyn Hode, sts. 20-21.
  25. Gest of Robyn Hode, st. 209.
  26. Gest of Robyn Hode, st. 212-13.

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