The town is located just south of Robin Hood Airport, formerly RAF Finningley, and was home to the RAF's No.1 Group Bomber Command Headquarters at Bawtry Hall (see RAF Bawtry). Since 1989 Bawtry Hall has operated as a Christian conference centre (70 beds) and a base for several Christian organisations (see ).
In 616 AD, the Anglo-Saxon King Aethelfrith met his end in battle against Raedwald King of East Anglia, at Bawtry on the River Idle. The site lies close to the present borders of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire; in Aethelfrith's time this area lay on the southern reaches of Northumbria, a dangerous marshy region close to the border with Lindsey and easily accessible from the East Anglian kingdom.
A small settlement developed around a wharf in the Viking era, and evidence suggests that St Nicholas' church was first erected in this period. While the village originally lay in Nottinghamshire, boundary changes before the Norman Conquest moved it just inside the West Riding of Yorkshire.
Around 1200, a new town was developed adjacent to the older village, by either John de Busli or Robert de Vipont. In 1213, de Vipont received a Royal Charter declaring an annual four-day fair at Pentecost, and a market was first recorded in 1247. The town grew as a river port, and also as a local commercial centre and a stopping point between Doncaster and Retford. By the mid-fourteenth century, the port was exporting wool and other items overseas, and the Hospital of St Mary Magdalene was founded, which survived until the eighteenth century.
Bawtry has a school called Bawtry Mayflower named after the ship Mayflower, which took William Bradford, leader of the Pilgrims, to the Americas, settling the first Plymouth Colony. Bradford lived at Scrooby, close to Bawtry.
The White Hart on Swan Street is the oldest pub in Bawtry dating back to 1689.