Berneshay, Berneslai, Barnsley

Paul Stebbing, BMBC’s Archives & Local Studies Officer, examines the earliest reference to Barnsley to be found in the archive collections.

British place names often hide fascinating stories of the landscape and local history. Researching how these place names developed can be fascinating. Did the name derive from landscape features, the nature of the settlement or from a tribe living in the area? Was the name influenced by Danish invaders or by the French after the Norman Conquest of 1066?

black and white map of Barnsley in 1775 showing place names that 
differ slightly to the ones today
Jeffrey’s Map of Yorkshire, 1775

Today, the spelling of place names has been standardised, but in medieval times they varied hugely. Scribes wrote down how they thought they were spelt. For example, the first reference to Barnsley occurs in the Domesday Book of 1086 – William the Conqueror’s big survey of his newly conquered territory. Barnsley features as “Berneslai”, the origins of which, 19th century Barnsley historian Rowland Jackson believed lay in the Saxon word “Berne”, meaning a barn or storehouse, and “lay” meaning a field. The later local historian Eli Hoyle disagreed, believing “Bernes” referred to bears and “lai” meant a lair or den. Bears were indeed said to be common in the forests which covered the area in ancient times, so it is a possibility. But whether Barnsley was a “Barn in a field” or the “Bear’s den”, we will probably never know for sure.

A Quitclaim/Deed from 1359 which is written in Latin
1359, Quitclaim

The earliest original document held by Barnsley Archives and Local Studies actually mentioning Barnsley itself, is a Quitclaim from 1359. A Quitclaim was a title deed, particularly common in medieval times, recording a person renouncing all rights or claims to property or land. In the Quitclaim, Barnsley is recorded as “Berneshay”. It documents one Thomas Darcy, son of Henry Darcy, citizen of London, renouncing his rights to land that his father had held in Gonnildtwayt [Gunthwaite], Birtone [Monk Bretton], Berneshay [Barnsley], Keveresford [Keresforth] and Thurgerland [Thurgoland]. The Darcy family were said to be descended from David D’Areci, a French nobleman who lived at Castle D’Arcie outside Paris. His great grandson, Norman de Arcei, served in William the Conqueror’s army at the Battle of Hastings. Subsequently, the family were awarded huge amounts of land in England, and therefore they feature in many medieval charters, deeds and documents.

Berneshay reference highlighted on the 1359 Quitclaim
1359 Quitclaim – Berneshay reference

The Quitclaim records the passing of the rights to one John de Gonnildtwayt [John of Gunthwaite] – an example in itself of how surnames can derive from place names. The agreement was signed at Gelham Magna [Great Yeldham] in Essex on the Monday after St. Peter’s Chains, in the 33rd year of the reign of King Edward the third. The feast day of St Peter’s Chains, still celebrated by traditional Roman Catholics, was on August 1st. With this information, we can accurately date the Quitclaim to August 5th 1359, in the middle of the historic Hundred years’ war between England and France.

So, on a small, fragile piece of paper, we have evidence of a land transaction between two families, from over 650 years ago. Definitely one of Barnsley’s gems!

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