The King's Great Way Through Sherwood Forest

The Sherwood Forest of the ‘Robin Hood films’ and novels, is nearly always  a deserted, dense and impenetrable  woodland, that sprawled across the county of Nottinghamshire as far north as Yorkshire. But in reality there were people in ‘the woodland belonging to the shire’ making a living.  Expanding forest settlements often marked by the name of ‘Woodhouse’, such as Mansfield Woodhouse, Annesley Woodhouse and Kirkby Woodhouse existed within its boundaries.  Woodland clearance in Sherwood started as early as prehistoric times and huge religious estates took over considerable areas of Sherwood, which was mainly used by the new monastic orders for farming and grazing sheep and cattle.

 So the country side of medieval Sherwood Forest was probably a mixture of areas of oak and birch woodland interspersed with large and small areas of heathland, studded with gorse, heather and rough grassland. This was the landscape Robin Hood would have recognised. Place names that incorporate ‘feld’ such as Mansfield, Ashfield and Farnsfield possibly indicate that it had been open country from a very early date.

Cleared woodland in Sherwood Forest

The term ‘forest’, was a legal term in the medieval period. It meant an area which was subject to special laws designed to protect the animals, such as red, roe and fallow deer and wild boar, all conserved for the king to hunt. The vast open spaces of Sherwood made it ideal to be set aside as a royal hunting forest for the sport of Norman monarchs.

King John hunting in the Royal Forest

Powerful kings like Henry II extended Sherwood, but by the death of King John it had been considerably reduced. In 1218 the boundaries of the royal forest were clearly defined for the first time. There were changes during the Middle Ages, for instance in 1232, the area south from Oxton to Lowdham and the River Trent was included. But for most of the medieval period the 1218 boundary remained constant (see map below).

I have been interested in discovering the medieval routes through Sherwood for quite a long time. In particular, the original route of the major medieval highway known as ‘The King’s Great Way', which has been a subject of much speculation. But it wasn’t until Albie joined our merry band that I was able to use his invaluable experience and knowledge to help me. Week after week Albie cycled along the paths of Sherwood and posted back information to me that he had discovered.  I am extremely grateful for his tireless and very thorough research that has helped piece together a fascinating part of Sherwood’s and Nottinghamshire’s ancient history.

Albie says:

“The Kings Great Way was also known as the Kings Great Highway, the King's Way and King's Way to Blyth amongst others. It was the original Great North Road after the old Roman one fell out of favour. The Roman road was Ermine Street which ran from London, Cambridge, Lincoln and hence on to York. From Lincoln the road ran north and crossed the Humber via a ferry before heading to York. There was a branch a few miles north of Lincoln which took a route across the Trent at Littleborough, on to Doncaster, north to Selby and then up to York. This was to avoid the ferry in bad weather. This was some distance away to the east from the current North Road and fell much in to disuse once the Romans left.

The King's Great Way

The King's Great Way that interests us was probably prehistoric in origin. It may have followed what is now the A5 out of London to St. Albans then followed roughly the current A6 towards Leicester. It entered Nottinghamshire at Rempstone on the same route as the current A60 and onwards to Nottingham. It then headed north and followed the route of the A614 to somewhere near Farnsfield whereby it took a more easterly route towards Bilsthorpe, and then to the east of Rufford brushing by the west edge of Wellow. It then tracked north east a short distance, brushing through Wellow Park, then swung north passing to the west of Walesby and onwards towards the current A614 and Blyth.”

I have recently discovered that Robert Thoroton alludes to it in his ‘History of Nottingham’ (1797) when he describes: ' .........and from thence by the great way from Blyth to Cuningswath Ford, and so on, the west part of the town of Wellow. And from thence by the great way which leads from Nottingham unto Blackstone Hew.’

This 'Cuningswath' was known as Konigswath (Saxon for the King's Ford) at the time this route was popular, and today known as Conjure Alders.

The Domesday Book also mentions the ‘King’s Road’:

“In Nottingham the River Trent and the dyke and the road to York are so protected that if anyone hinders the passage of ships or anyone ploughs or makes a ditch within two perches of the ‘King’s Road’ he has to pay a fine of £8.”
(Winchester 1086).

Albie continues:

“This became the favoured route in Saxon times with some minor deviations likely, until the 1200's or so. At this point a slightly more direct route became favoured to the west forming what is basically the current A60. The start of this deviation would have been close to where the current A60/614 spilt at Redhill Island today. This 'new' Great Highway passed close to Bestwood Lodge and park, through the village of Papplewick, close to Newstead Priory and on to Mansfield. It went through Cuckney, past Welbeck Abbey and onwards to Worksop (passing near the Priory) where it joined an ancient Roman road which entered the county near Sutton-in-Ashfield and continued up to Bawtry. I suppose the route may have offered more comfort from the 1300's onwards (see map below) for travellers that were passing through due to the Priories and towns offering lodgings.

It was also at the time that the Great North Road  (see map below)started to gain in popularity passing close to the current A1 route. It entered the county to the east at Balderton and into Newark. From there it crossed the marshes near the Trent before snaking north to Tuxford. From there it went on a route slightly to the east of the current A1 (it completely bypassed Retford until 1776 believe it or not!) through to Barnby Moor before meeting the King's Great Highway at Bawtry.

All three routes were being used until the 17th century whereby the 'old' Kings highway became much less important, and to a lesser extent the 'new' Highway. It was at this point that the Savile's (of Rufford Abbey) moved the route of the 'old' Highway so that it missed Wellow and its Park. This would move the road a little nearer to the dry soil on the edge of Sherwood as Wellow is on a clay marl soil and more prone to being water-logged in bad weather (the change from sand to clay soil can be seen here in Walesby).

At some stage in the 1700's the 'old' Highway was moved again taking its route to the west of Rufford more or less along the current A614 route of today. I presume it was turnpiked although there don't seem to be any of the typical gatehouses along the route today (though there is one up at Blyth and the Rose Cottage pub opposite Rufford Park gates could have been one).

By this time the Great North Road was the major route to York and Edinburgh beyond. Traffic volumes on the old and new King's Highways would be fairly low (except local traffic) until the age of the car and metalled roads early in the last century.

The common factor of all these roads is that they all seem to converge on Bawtry. This was the point where the roads entered Yorkshire and higher (drier) ground beyond. In medieval times the traveller heading south had a choice of routes at this point. Much must have depended on whether they had business in Nottingham (on the riskier Sherwood route) or a direct journey to London and the south. The Sherwood routes were still renowned for being dangerous due to highwaymen into the 1700's.”

Sherwood's medieval boundaries and the King's Great Way in c.1200 and c.1300

Above is a detailed map of the Royal Forest of Sherwood, showings its medieval boundaries in 1218, 1232 and 1600. Thanks to Albie's fantastic research I can now include the routes of The King’s Great Way in the 1200’s and later 1300’s. We can now see those routes, that monarchs, knights, merchants and travellers would have taken ( rather nervously) through Sherwood Forest, on their way either to London or York.


Clement of the Glen said...

"The King's Great Way Through Sherwood Forest"

Special thanks to Albie!

Boundaries of the Royal Forest

The King's Great Way 1200/1300

paulalofting said...

thanks for this fascinating research Clement. Some really useful information in there. I really think you should put all your research into a book!

robin hood said...

Hi Clement.

You wouldn't believe how hard it is to locate with certainty what's left of this route on the ground. So sad that such a historic piece of our history goes virtually unmarked today.