Some Observations on the Earliest Spring Called After Robin Hood
The stories of Robin Hood originated in the medieval period, though whether he was historical, a quasi-religious entity or a composite character are issues about which scholars have long argued and will, no doubt, continue to do so. It is not my intention to become involved in this debate but to confine myself to a question which may have, indeed has, some implications in respect of the historical debate, namely, which of two springs, one in Nottinghamshire, the other in South Yorkshire, has been called after the outlaw longest?
Although now within the bounds of Nottingham, the site of the Nottinghamshire spring (I use the terms spring and well synonymously) was, when first recorded as bearing Robin Hood’s name in the 15th century, in Sherwood Forest, being about two miles north-east of the town (Nottingham did not become a city until 1897), at the side of a well-used route to the north. The Yorkshire spring is near Skelbrooke and was in a similar setting, in Barnsdale Forest. Some time during the early years of the 15th century the Nottinghamshire spring site was ‘seized’ by an unrecorded monastic order which I believe to have been the Cluniacs of Lenton Priory, Nottingham  who built a chapel next to the spring which they dedicated to St Ann, following which the spring itself became known as St Ann’s Well. Following the suppression of the priory the well site came into the possession of what passed for a town council in Nottingham (it may have been their property prior to seizure as the town owned woodland in the area) and a house was built there with stone taken from the now-disused chapel for a woodward, this individual having charge of the town’s forest land in the area. However, as the spring continued to attract large numbers of sick people because of its considerable reputation for curing rheumatic complaints, it is not surprising to find that the occupants of the house started to cater for the stream of visitors. Eventually St Ann’s developed into a healing-cum-entertainment complex which I have described elsewhere as a ‘mini Vauxhall Gardens’ .
The spring continued to attract sick people from the Nottingham area and beyond until the early years of the 19th century but then it went into a rapid period of decline which ended with its closure in 1855 and the demolition of the inn and other buildings on the site. However, the fame and antiquity of the spring itself was recognised, the town council voting a sum of £100 to erect a monument over it. This took the form of a mini-tower set centrally in a small garden, the whole being enclosed by a decorative iron fence. Initially access to the spring water was not possible, but later it was piped to a tap from which samples could be collected. The spring water, though, had never been consumed for its healing properties, but bathed in, so the tap was a meaningless gesture. Unfortunately the garden became a dumping ground for rubbish and in 1887 it was sold to a company who demolished the monument and buried the spring site under an embankment intended to carry a railway track.
Some years ago the railway itself became a victim of a programme of railway closures, but while the tracks have now been removed the embankment remains with a public house, The Gardeners, once more occupying the approximate site of the inn demolished in 1855. An exploratory excavation carried out in 1987 at the rear of the new public house relocated the spring, which was found to still flow. However, a proposal to restore it as the focal point of a St Ann’s heritage centre came to nought when the City Council refused financial assistance for the scheme. The only record of this being the site of the ancient healing spring is a tiny plaque high up on the pub’s wall, though this carries no reference on it to Robin Hood.
There is no dispute about St Ann’s Well having been called after Robin Hood in the 14th century, for it is so styled in a legal document dated 20 July, 1500 . Another document, this time dated 1596, clears up any possibility of there having been both a Robin Hood’s Well and a St Ann’s Well by alluding to ‘Robynhode Well alias Saynt Anne Well’ . The new name, though, was not popular among those living near the spring who, as Dr Charles Deering found when he visited it in the 18th century, insisted on calling it by its previous name . In 1301 the spring had been called the Brodewell  and before that the Owswell. Whether local people objected to the change of name from the Owswell to the Brodewell, or from the latter to Robin Hood’s Well is not on record.
Nottinghamshire’s Yorkshire rival near Skelbrooke, six miles north of Doncaster (518120), was, according to a recent book by Brian Lewis, Robin Hood a Yorkshireman , known as Robin Hood’s Well as early as 1422. In support of this claim he cites the existence then of a boundary stone called after Robin Hood. Several other writers on the Robin Hood legends have also drawn attention to this stone, most notably J.W.Walker in a book published privately in 1952 , and Dobson and Taylor in their 1976 work on the Robin Hood ballads . These writers maintain that the stone, which is referred to in a detailed description of property boundaries in the cartulary of Monkbretton Priory, dated 1422, as a ‘stone of Robin Hood’ lying near the Lynges of Slepil in close proximity to ‘the king’s highway,’  must also be considered to include the spring, as it was at a site ‘identical, or very nearly so, to where Robin Hood’s Well is’ . This claim is very difficult to sustain in light of the detailed and precise character of the text of the cartulary, for had the clerks who composed it intended that stone and spring were one they would have stated this in quite unambiguous terms, thereby avoiding potential legal difficulties as to the actual extent of the property concerned. In medieval times property equalled wealth and, as records show, lack of clarity in property deeds caused many a dispute over what, to us, may appear to be trivial infringements of rights, as the late Dr Arthur Raistrick has shown in his fascinating booklet, Monks and Shepherds in the Yorkshire Dales (Yorkshire Dales National Park, 1980). In light of this, then, the hypothesis based on the stone as advanced by Lewis and others is more akin to special pleading than hard evidence for the Skelbrooke well having been named at such an early date after the outlaw. Several later visitors to the Skelbrooke spring, which, like the Sherwood Forest spring, had a monument erected over it, though not on the site of the well itself, have left accounts of a sort of ritual there. Visitors would be seated on a stone wearing Robin Hood’s cap and then take part in some undisclosed ceremonies; following these they were ‘incorporated into the society of that renowned brotherhood’ . A similar ceremony took place at the inn adjacent to the Nottingham well. Here visitors would be seated in Robin Hood’s chair and solemnly capped with what was claimed to be his iron cap. Rites of an unknown character then took place following which participants would receive the ‘freedom of the chair’. The Nottingham historian, John Blackner, who appears to have witnessed, perhaps even participated in what went on, hints at the whole affair being some sort of drunken orgy, for without giving any details he says the ceremonies included the consumption of large quantities of ‘Woodward’s nut-brown ale’ .
The earliest reference to the Skelbrooke spring having been named after Robin Hood is of 17th-century date, when the antiquary Roger Dodsworth used the name Robbinhood-well for it . Dodsworth, though, was not born until some eighty-five years after the Nottinghamshire well was first named in writing as Robin Hood’s Well; consequently I am led to conclude that historically it was the Nottingham spring which was the first to be called after the outlaw.
|1.||My reasons for this are set out in my booklet, St Ann’s Well and Other
Medicinal and Holy Wells of Nottingham, Nottingham, APRA-NUFOIS, 1987.
|2.||Ibid. p. 8.|
|3.||Bernard Quaritch, Records of the Borough of Nottingham…1485-1547, Vo1. 3, London, 1885, p. 74.|
|4.||Ibid. p. 475.|
|5.||Deering, G., Nottinghamia Vetus et Nova, Nottingham, George Ayscough
& Thomas Willington, 1751, p. 73.
|6.||Gover, J.E.B., Mawer, A. & Stenton, F.M., The Place-Names of Nottinghamshire,
CUP, 1940, p. 20.
|7.||Lewis, B., Robin Hood a Yorkshirema – The Case for the Wentbridge
Robin Hood, Pontefract, Briton Press, 1994, pp. 18-19.
|8.||Walker, J.W., The True History of Robin Hood, Wakefield, privately
published, 1952, pp. 14-19.
|9.||Dobson, R.B. & Taylor, J., The Rymes of Robin Hood, An Introduction
to the English Outlaw, London, Heinemann, 1976.
|10.||Walker, J.W., ed., Abstracts of the Cartularies of the Priory
of Monkbretton, Yorks. Arch. Soc. Record Series, lxvi, 1924, p. 105.
|11.||Dobson & Taylor, op cit., pp. 23-4.|
|12||Brome, Rev. J., Travels Over England…1700, cited by Walker,
|13||Blackner, R., The History of Nottingham, Nottingham, Sutton &
Son, 1815, p. 34.
|14.||Cited without reference in Dobson & Taylor, p. 23, who also fail
to give a reference to its source in their paper, ‘The Medieval Origins
of the Robin Hood Legend: A Reassessment’, Northern History, vii,
1972, pp. 1-30.
Text & Illustrations © R.W.Morrell (1995)