The modern A1 thunders along much of the route of the old Great North Road, and if you look to your right as you drive north, leaving Doncaster around ten miles behind, you can still see the John Vanbrugh-designed stone well-house moved to its present spot on the east side of the road from the original spring, which now lies under the tarmac. Its previous position was at the entrance to Skelbrooke Hall on the west side of the road, the place taking its name from the River Skell that runs close by.
In the seventeenth century the ‘Robin Hood well’ was a noted meeting place and, in fact, a destination in itself, with a couple of local hostelries profiting from the busy traffic of the old roman road. Roger Dodsworth, the famed local antiquary, first recorded this well, ‘Robbinhood-well’, in 1622, and in the 1630s, Richard Brathwaite, the author of Barnaby’s Journal, described the relief that it brought to parched travellers…
Thirst knowes neither meane nor measure,
Robin Hoods Well was my treasure,
In a common dish enchained,
My furious thirst restrained:
And because I drunk the deeper,
I paid two farthings to the keeper.
But apart from its restorative powers, the well had acquired a number of customs. As three military travellers explained in 1634, they had
in the midway [from Doncaster to Pontefract] being thirsty, tasted a Cup at Robin Hood’s Well, and there according to the usual, and ancient custom of Travellers, were in his rocky Chair of Ceremony, dignified with the Order of knighthood, and sworn to observe his Laws: After our Oath we had not time to stay to hear our Charge, but discharged our due Fealty Fee, 4d., a piece to the Lady of the Fountain, and on we spurred with our new dignity to Pomfret [Pontefract].
So the well was more than a watering place – it had a keeper, and travellers participated in a form of ceremonious drinking that was also an induction into a kind of knightly order, or at least a parody of such a thing. As they crossed Barnsdale, one of the major traditional settings for Robin Hood stories, they did so as a sworn member of the hero’s fraternity – so local customs encouraged travellers not only to be aware of, but to identify with, the spirit of the place.
This well – and perhaps some of the other similarly named springs scattered around the north midlands and south Yorkshire – must have made an impression on Jonson, for the legend resurfaces in his play of 1637, The Sad Shepherd: or a Tale of Robin-Hood, unfinished at his death but published posthumously in 1641. The scene is set in Sherwood Forest, ‘consisting of a landscape of Forest, Hills, Valleys, Cottages, A River, Pastures, all full of Country simplicity. Robin Hood’s Bower, his Well’. Robin Hood bids his men, ‘
Bathe all your bruises in my healing well,/ So shall your wounds not fester, nor limbs swell’. Maudlin having been stung by adders, tells Lorel that ‘
For cure I led her to the healing-well/ Of Robin Hood’ but, as Maudlin bewails, ‘
Yet hath their venom rankled sae my veins, That e’en this wond’rous well can nought avail/ To gi’ me ease, and heal the serpents’ wounds’.