Barbara Willard came from an acting family. Her father was Edmund Willard, a British actor known for his Shakespearean roles, and her great-uncle was E.S. (Edward Smith) Willard, a Victorian stage actor. Barbara herself originally began a career as an actress, but abandoned it in her early twenties. Beginning in 1930, she wrote several novels for adults before turning to children's literature. Her most famous work was the Mantlemass Chronicles, a series of historical novels spanning the 15th to 17th centuries, published between 1970 and 1988. One of the books, The Iron Lily (1973), won the annual Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. The entire series was critically acclaimed and ensured her a lasting place in children's historical fiction. In 1956, Willard moved to a new home on the edge of Ashdown Forest in Sussex, an area she loved. It inspired many of her children's books, which she imbued with local history, customs and dialect. She also was elected to the forest's Board of Conservators in 1975, and served in that position for 10 years.