An Alternative location for 'Saylis' of the Geste
For about thirty years, Dobson and Taylor's conflation3 that the 'Saylis' of the Geste set in Barnsdale was situated at Sayles Plantation, Wentbridge, has gone unchallenged.
Holt2 says, "Sayles, as Hunter showed1, was a tenancy of the honour of Pontefract and the name, as Dobson and Taylor pointed out, still survives in Sayles Plantation". As such 'Saylis'* in the Geste has been identified by Dobson and Taylor as a plot of ground overlooking the highway on the northern edge of 'Barnsdale' originally consisting of one tenth of a knights fee. * Also Sayles in the Geste.
Dobson and Taylor give credit to Joseph Hunter for identifying the 'Saylis' of the Geste with Sayles, "a small obscure tenancy of the late medieval manor of Pontefract." This record appeared as a feudal contribution granted to Edward III in 1346-1347 for the knighting of his son, the Black Prince.
However as Dobson and Taylor state, 'Hunter and his successors never established the exact whereabouts of the late medieval Sayles'.
A look at the Ordnance Survey map of Wentbridge for 1853 has the area designated as 'Sayle's Plantation' on modern O.S. maps and by Dobson and Taylor  as being named 'Smeaton Pasture Woods', this map was produced at about the same time that Hunter was publishing his ideas. Hunter may have known this and therefore could not designate 'Saylis' as the 'Sayles Plantation'. Hunter never located the 'Saylis' of the Geste near Wentbridge, it was Dobson and Taylor who did so, for they continue "Never a village nor apparently even a hamlet, the name and location of Sayles, a landholding within the Parish of Kirk Smeaton, has yet survived almost unchanged to the present day." An acre in the 'Sailes' listed in a Kirk Smeaton glebe terrier of 1688 can be safely identified with the plot of land referred to as 'Sailes Close' almost two centuries later in a glebe terrier of 1857".10
This disparity in naming wooded areas is not isolated to this example in the vicinity of Barnsdale. On modern O.S. maps, what is labelled 'Barnsdale Wood', east of Barnsdale Bar, was in 1854, called 'Dove Wood' and 'Oak Wood'.
Dobson and Taylor  are brought to task by Prof. J.C. Holt  in their location of the 'Stone of Robert Hode', mentioned in a deed of 1422 from Monk Bretton the former Cluniac priory. " J.W. Walker jumped to the conclusion that this was the site of Robin Hood's Well.... and he has been followed by all subsequent writers." Holt continues "The stone must have been much nearer to Barnsdale Bar and to the west, not the east of the Road, for it was sited in the fields of Sleep Hill [Lynges of Slepil] abutting the Ings of Skelbrooke between the village and Wrangbrook. At all events, here was a boundary stone or guidepost, less than a mile south-west of Barnsdale Bar, which in 1422 carried the same name as the local outlaw hero." This stone is the earliest recorded reference to the ballad hero in Britain.
Equally the precise area covered by 'Barnsdale' is debateable, some claiming it is a large tract of land between Doncaster and Pontefract, others a more confined area pivoting about what is today called Barnsdale Bar. Barnsdale Bar lies at the top of a long incline northwards along 'Watling Street' rising some 40 metres [30 to 70m] from the valley of the Skell near the site of Burghwallis Roman auxilliary fort and 'Robin Hood's Well'.
Source: Google Earth Crop markings of the Burgh Wallis auxilliary Roman fort of late 1st-2nd century showing the typical 'playing card' shape, two or three superimposed forts are discernable, one appears to be an extension of the other.11
This long arduous slope of the main road north onto the Magnesian Limestone ridge, it could be argued, has been one of at least two excellent points in this area during the past for the interception of travellers on the highway. Additionally, the convergence of two Roman roads, one from the Templeborough -Doncaster Road and the other from Doncaster, provides an even greater advantage in relieving travellers of their possessions. There is still a local oral history that Robyn and his men watered their horses in the Skell and grazed them in what is now a field above Wrangbrook House.
The Roman road
to the Templeborough
road can be traced
Dike but can
then be traced
along a sunken
Street, then Lound
then seems to
follow a line
appears to cut
across a field
From here it
which it crossed the
and Don at
and Old Denaby
A close examination
of Ordnance Survey maps for 1853 in the Barnsdale
area suggests another site, other than Sayles Plantation,
may lend more credence to the idea of 'Saylis'
being further south. This 'Saylis' overlooked our more
confined definition of Barnsdale, that is, what is specifically
proposed here to be the valley of the Skell. This concurs
with J.C. Holt's suggestion that Barnsdale was likely to be
the valley of this brook. As Dobson and Taylor point out, 'Beorn's
Valley' scarcely occurs as a topographical name before the 1400's
and owes nearly all its prominence to the Robin Hood legend. In
our proposition here, Barnsdale is then a dale, 'Beorn's Dale',
which is oriented generally upstream towards Barnsley, 'Beorn's
Ley'. The new proposed site for 'Saylis' is situated where
Sales Wood and Sales Quarry were located
between [Barnsdale] Summer House and Woodfield House off New
Close Lane. The names, as with the physical entities, Sales Wood
and Sales Quarry, now seem lost to cartographers.
This extract from the Geste of Robyn Hode indicates that the three outlaws went to Saylis [proposed here as Sales Wood mentioned in 1853], they could not see anyone to the east or west but looking south into the valley of the Skell [which we now deem is the original Barnsdale] they saw a knight [Sir Richard Atte Lee] riding his horse along a side street towards the main highway, locally called "Watling Street", actually a branch of Ermine Street. Today this side road would be recognised as New Close Lane, probably an eastern extension of Bannister Lane* , New Close Lane leads to Campsall, Norton and Walden Stubbs.
Prof. J.C. Holt emphatically asserts, after describing that the valley of the Skell is likely to be Barnsdale, "But the Gest has another connotation, for there can be no doubt that when Little John stood at Sayles and 'loked into Bernsdale', he was looking at Wentbridge lying in the deeply cut valley of the Went". These two statements seems to confound each other and assume that Barnsdale is the Went Valley or the Went valley is the northern extension of Barnsdale. In our modelling here we do not agree with this notion, but recognise that Barnsdale is a much more localised topographic entity. As Dobson and Taylor point out [1976, p. 17], 'Robin Hood of the Geste was an intensely local hero figure'.
* Bannister or Banistre derives from a family here in the 1100's. Thurstan II de Banastre held lands near Hampole and Skelbrooke in Barnsdale. He provided land for the establishment of the nearby Hampole Priory.
Since recognising that the high ground north of Skelbrooke was the site of Sayles Wood in the 1850's, some have questioned whether this name was in existence in earlier times. Indeed we find that the name 'Skelbrok by le Sailes' appears in a post mortem for August 1298 when it was shown that Skelbrooke had a windmill. It is contended here that this windmill was sited at the most exposed part of the high ground (above the 70 metre contour) which is where Summer House Farm is located today. At this point the sails of the windmill would catch the wind from any direction. As a prominent landscape feature it is also predicted that the Skelbrooke windmill would have been a common sight for travellers on the locally called 'Watling Street', essentially the A1 today. The sails of the windmill being visible for many miles probably gave rise to the name 'The Sayles' or as recorded in 1295, 'le Sailes'. Below is a composite view of what a medieval windmill on the Sayles might have looked like, viewed from the south.
Apart from a mill at Skelbrooke, the workers of the Templar
owned mill at Burgh Wallis* on the river Skell near Skellow may have been
the inspiration for Much the miller and his father. The author of the
Geste is likely to have drawn inspiration for his characters
from contemporary life. We find that Adam Le Waleys of Skellow was mentioned
as part of Robert III Butler's group of thieves and receivers, who if
he was of Henry Le Waleys' descendancy, could have been resident on
the site of what is now Skellow Old Hall in Old Skellow or 'Cromwell's
Batteries' where it is likely that a former motte and bailey stood. in
the late1290's. It might be noted that 'Thomas, chaplain of Skelagh,
formerly living at Doncaster' is also mentioned in the list of thieves
and receivers. * This water mill dates from 1185 which coincides
with the date for the earliest recorded windmill in England near Skidby,
A watermill in the Luttrell Psalter 1320-1340.
Also see 1850's map of Skellow
From an above aerial photograph we note the location, of what came to be known as the "Bishop's Tree" or "Robin Hood's Oak" and later the "Bishop's Tree Root" at the junction of the two Roman roads. From a lighter coloration on the aerial photograph, the site of 'Watling Street' seems to be slightly west of the present A1.
In the following folklore based extract, William Camden9 fancifully stated " In Skelbrooke Park stood an immense tree which has now disappeared, though the ground on which it stood is still called 'Bishop's Tree Root.' Tradition says that the Bishop of Hereford with a numerous train of attendants, when travelling to York came upon some seeming peasants who were roasting venison on the King's highway. In just indignation at this flagrant infringement of the forest laws, he asked them what they meant. They answered him that they meant to dine. He then gave orders to his attendants to seize and bind them and lead them captive to York. They prayed for mercy, but he swore by St. Charity that he would show them none. Robin Hood then drew his bugle horn from beneath his smock-frock and blew three blasts upon it, on which the Bishop and his train were instantly surrounded by sixty bowmen in Lincoln green. The Bishop was not only held up for a ransom of three hundred pounds, but was compelled to dance an undignified jig beneath this oak tree in Skelbrooke Park, before he was allowed to proceed on his journey." 9
Although this was written about 500 years after the possible event occurred it provides us with a glimpse of the suitability of such a location for waylaying travellers. We begin to recognise that the convergence of the Templeborough road from Hallam with one of the greatest roads into the North of England has located for our legendary hero a confluence of human traffic in an isolated locale. This location was hemmed in by the marshes to the east and controlled in its position by the magnesian limestone ridge to the north and the lowest fording point from Roman times, at Castleford. As Dobson and Taylor proposed, the Robin Hood of the Geste was 'an intensely local hero figure' who for 'full thirteene years and something more these Northern parts he vexed sore'. Whilst the narrative, Robin Hood and the Potter mentions Sherwood, the Geste does not, but Dobson and Taylor still recognise that our legendary outlaw, who was firmly based in the Barnsdale area, was capable of "expeditions in pursuit of his arch enemy, the sheriff of Nottingham."Walter Bower merely claimed Robin Hood outwitted 'a certain sheriff' in Barnsdale.
It is also suggested here that during the period when 'Robin Hood' is predicted to have been active, Wentbridge had not been so named or even established. Wentbridge, nor any previous name for this site, does not appear in Domesday Book. In fact the name Wentbridge does not appear in any records until 1302 when the new 'Watling Street' was pushed through from what is now Barnsdale Bar to the then new bridging point across the Aire at Ferrybridge. The Geste later also introduced Wentbridge as the place that the knight tarried before repaying Robin a £400 debt. In our model this suggests that the Geste was written after the new road was built, that is, during or after the 1300's when outlaws were recorded as challenging wayfarers on the great highway north2. It is generally recognised that the author of the narrative, A Geste of Robyn Hode knew the topography and locations around Barnsdale but as such this author was writing after the life time of our outlaw, the narrative might be seen as a chronological snowball with a core of originality at the centre. Despite the denial, by Taylor and Dobson of the possibility of our outlaw living in the 1190's, from other evidence, an active period for our legendary hero in this time suggests that 'Sayles Plantation' near Wentbridge does not fit the narrative of the Geste.
The region boasts of a large number of 'plantations', well shown on Ordnance Survey maps of 1853 and 1854. As their name implies these seem to have been purpose planted areas and as such are relatively recent features on the landscape. They are often named after local places or surnames, one such local surname is Sales [Sayles/Sailes/Seels]. An analysis of the surname Sales from the 1881 census shows that out of the earliest sample of 200 of 879 individuals born in Yorkshire of that name, the anomalies were:
Sheffield with 27 individuals,
Crowle 13 [28 miles east of Barnsdale on marshland now drained]
Hooton Pagnell 7
Little Smeaton 6
Apart from Little Smeaton and Hooton Pagnell, places within 'Barnsdale' are
We can discount Sheffield, Hull, Doncaster and Scarborough as they are centres of population attraction, this leaves Crowle which was developed after the marshes were drained. Within the broader definition of Barnsdale, Little Smeaton and Hooton Pagnell stand out. It would seem that even as late as 1881 there was a nucleus of individuals carrying the name in the area and there can be little doubt that one of these filial nuclei was the source of the names for both 'Sayles Plantation' and Sales Wood and Quarry.
In both Sayles Plantation and Sales Wood, Little Smeaton is the closest when compared with the distances to Hooton Pagnell. This suggests that the owners at some time were the Sayles family whose descendants were still resident in Little Smeaton in 1881, where one head of a household is found to have an occupation as a woodman.
We might also note that a person by the name of Sayles is found to live in Skelbrooke in 1293:
Jake Sales of Axholme finds that in the Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames the name Sayles [Sailes, Sales etc.] is a Yorkshire name meaning the upright stakes of a hurdle. Hurdles were often constructed from birch and woven willow to pen sheep in a structure called a pinfold. Jake reports that other persons by variants of this name are mentioned in 1379 e.g. Agnes Del Sayles, William Salys, Alanus Sayle, Willelmus Saylles.
Sylvan Vegetation of Barnsdale
One other association Saylis is said to have is with the name of willow tree or Salix sp. If we look along the banks of the Skel today we would not find it difficult to quickly locate Crack Willow [Salix fragilis] on both sides of the Skel. In fact Skelbrooke village had osier beds in the past where willow was collected to make baskets [the 'Osiers' are marked on the 1850's O.S. map just east of Robin Hood's Well.]. Jeffrey Stafford has suggested the 'Sayles' were named after a windmill and there is now evidence for this construction and the fact that a William del Sayles lived in Skelbrooke during the late 1200's suggests it is called after this family name or more likely his surname was taken from the prominent and well-known landmark. The linden tree [common lime] often mentioned in the early ballads of Barnsdale can be found in grandeur outside Skelbrooke Church, with large Ash and Sycamore at Skelbrooke Hall.
The new proposed site for 'Saylis' in the Geste of Robyn Hode lies between Robin Hood's Well and the site of Robin Hood's Stone in Barnsdale. This lies close to the convergence of the Templeborough road with the 'Great North Road'. Robin Hood's Stone is often quoted as being the earliest recorded site  that incorporates the 'Robin Hood' name but there has been an even older one found in Derbyshire, a county also strongly linked to the legend and to pass from there to Barnsdale one had to travel the old Roman road through the manors of Sheffield and Hallam wherein lay the hamlet of Lockesley. e-mail comments
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Robin Hood, legendary, not apochryphal or mythical
1. Hunter, J., The Great Hero of the Ancient English Minstrelsy of England : Robin Hood, his period, Real Character etc., Investigated and perhaps Ascertained, Critical and Historical Tracts No. 4, London, 1852, reprinted Worksop, 1883.
----------- The Ballad Hero : Robin Hood, London, 1852.
2. Holt, J.C. Robin Hood, Thames and Hudson, 1982, pp. 83-86.
3. Dobson, R.B. and Taylor, J. Rhymes of Robin Hood : An Introduction to the English Outlaw, Heinemann, London, 1976, pp. 22-23; also Alan Sutton, Gloucester 1989 revised 1997.
4. Ordnance Survey map of Barnsdale area 1853.
5. Ordnance Survey map of Wentbridge area 1854.
6. Google Earth base photo mosaic, modified with place-names.
7. Faull, M.L. & Stinson M., Domesday Book for Yorkshire. Pt. 1, Phillimore, Chichester, 1986.
8. Mills, A.D. Dictionary of English Place-Names.O.U.P. 1991.
9. Camden, William. Brittania.1607.
10. Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, St. Anthony's Hall, York. R. III. F ixlvi b; R. III F. 16 xlvi [Kirk Smeaton
Glebe Terriers of 7th June 1688 and 10th June 1857].
11. Frere, S.S. et. al. Tabula imperii Romani - Britannia Septentrionalis. London. 1987.
Copyright © Tim Midgley 2006, revised 20th December 2016.