The Last of the Free Folk

July 18, 2018


We climbed down into the cavern, its vertical rock walls alive with moss and lichens. Ferns reached out their fingertips to touch us as we gently tiptoed our way through the cathedral silence.

It felt so different down here, a taste of the Otherworld away from the dense forest which we walked through to get here.

So still. So quiet.

There is a depth of knowing here which you can only feel when you climb deep into the Earth. For a moment I was taken back into another time, a time when secrecy was necessary for survival. When rites could only be performed in the hidden places, away from the banishers claiming there was only one way which was true.

Then back to a time further distant still, when the people had no place to go other than the sanctuary of the woods. Where they escaped to keep their freedom and where they ran into the trees for their survival. Where they fought the rebellion to keep hold of their old ways, and they fought to take back their land. These are distant ancestors of ours, whose story did not make it into the history books when we were at school. In the classroom only the victorious survive. Yet their memory does live on in us, bone deep, as we have an unexplainable yearning for something more than what modern life offers us now.


The Old Ones

As we awaken we find ourselves pulled back into an older part of us, in a time when we owned our own farmsteads, where generation upon generation lived on our land and everything we needed was immediately around us. Where we joined together in community to celebrate the turning of the wheel of the year, honour the Earth and all she provided us. Where the old gods would raise their glasses and toast us as we raised our gaze towards them.

I only realised in recent years why there are so many castles inland. I grew up on the Kentish coast, and at school the castles we visited on school trips and family days out were all facing outwards. Dover Castle and Deal Castle to name a few.

I knew they were Norman built and I just assumed they were created to keep the foreign invaders out. Certainly in recent times with the World Wars of the 20th Century this was the case and they were adapted to face outwards across the English Channel, but not back in Norman times. It didn’t occur to me that it was odd that we had Norman castles throughout England, far inland, in every city and many towns.

Then it struck me. The Normans built the castles to control the indigenous people.


The Shadow of the Conquest

It led me to researching into what happened after the Norman conquest. The history books tell us that William was a conquer. His name is so great that if I were to ask you who the conquer of England was you would be able to name him and the year and location of the victorious battle in Hastings, 1066 almost 1000 years ago. How many other victors, battles, locations and dates could you list? I know I can’t list very many more, and certainly not from that long ago.

If I were to speak of William a few years ago I would have told you he brought organisation and prosperity to England, being the person behind the Doomsday Book, and marked the beginning of the end of the Dark Ages.

Yet, with a little research I was to find out quite a different story.

In the months and years which followed the conquest, there was one of the greatest periods of mass massacre in the history of Britain. Overnight land ownership went from 90% to 10% as William declared that all of the land, animals and people in the whole country belonged to him personally. From this serfdom was borne, a form of modified slavery, along with mass enslavement and devastation of the countryside, refugee crisis and famine.

Those that survived retreated to the cover of the forest and it is believed that it is from here that the legend of Robin Hood was born. English legal records suggest that as early as the 13th Century, ‘Robehod’, ‘Rabunhod’ and other variations had become common epithets for criminals. This band of survivors, not one but many Robin Hoods across our country, the last of the Free Folk, launched attacks on the Normans over the centuries that followed, fighting to hold on to their autonomy and everything they knew to be right.


The Mystical Connection

It is said that these men of the greenwood would seek their spiritual guidance from the forest. This place of sanctuary protected them from the insurgents, and there is a mystical connection between Robin Hood and the Old God Herne the Hunter. More commonly known as The Green Man, he was the bringer of life, and would breath life back into the Earth after the long cold winter.

How true this chimes for our calling today. How amongst the madness of western culture we can find our sanctuary in the forest amongst the trees. Here we can tune in to the wisdom of the Earth, the messages from trees and the animals. Here we can hear the quiet ones speak, and notice the whispers of our own deep inner knowing. Here we can gather guidance and bring this back into the world to bring about change.


The Oppressed and the Oppressors

The story of Robin Hood is one of our most well known and well loved legends. It is the great story of the oppressors and the oppressed. The fight against power and control. The redistribution of wealth and giving back to the common folk what is rightfully theirs. We love it because it speaks to a deep part of us, and one we may not be consciously aware of.

When we internalise the story we can see that the legend of Robin Hood wasn’t just about stealing from the rich to give to the poor. It was about holding onto their freedom, and fighting for what they saw as right and true. This story may be almost 1,000 years old but it still rings true today and speaks to a deep and long forgotten part of us, which is beginning to stir now as we awaken and push our head up towards the sky to get a fresh perspective on life and the world we have been born into.

Through the story we can see that we have our own inner oppressor. By this I am talking about that voice which tells you that you cannot play, that you always need to work, perform your duty to others. That you should be doing something other than the thing that you really want to do. That you shouldn’t be following your own joy. It is a pretty loud voice.

Recognising that we all have our own inner Sheriff of Nottingham is a big step, as we can easily externalise this and blame others. I know when I was working in an office, I would be flat out delivering on this requirement and that, and thinking I had no choice. Yet when I left and set up my own business, I found I was doing exactly the same thing. When I was working for someone else I could blame them, telling myself that I had to do this because I was being made to. Yet, when I was working for myself I had no-one to blame and I still felt oppressed. I quickly realised I was oppressing myself! My internal oppressor has a very dominant, very persistent voice and I still have regular battles with it now.

When we work with story we can see that there are other characters which are also within us. We just need to identify them and drawn them out. So if you can relate to the inner oppressor, then you will be relieved to know that we also have within us a Robin Hood. In fact we have a band of merry men who will fight for our cause, and fight for our freedom. The first step is to recognise they are there, and then we can move into giving them some voice.


Breaking Free

The Eight of Swords tarot card comes to mind when I think of these invisible bars we create in our minds. Here this picture you can see that the lady is loosely bound, blindfolded and standing within a cage of swords. Yet look closer and the image is not as imposing as you might first think. Her hands are not tied, she could easily remove her blindfold, take off her binding around her body and walk between the swords in the ground which are set wide apart. She is oppressed through her own choosing, and she could break free if she set her mind to it.



Recognising Robin Hood and his and band of merry men within us is a big part of our story, as we can then step outside of the cage we have built for ourselves in our own mind and see how things really are and that we do have an option, that we do have a choice.

There has never been a better time to seek the Robin Hood which lies within us, and stir him into awakening so we may step out of these bars of our own creation. We can move away from this servitude which has been embedded in our own genetic memory and move closer to freedom and our true purpose in life.

We can join the last of the free folk who roamed our forests back in the years and centuries which followed that pivotal battle in 1066. That freedom which they were fighting for is within our grasp right now. We just need to find our way to it, and it might just be closer than we think…

How do we find our way to it?

Well in the forest of course.


Further reading and experiences

We are running away to the woods to drop ourselves into the legend of Robin Hood late Autumn this year. If you are drawn to joining us then follow this link.

If you would like to read about the period in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Hastings, then a fantastic novel is The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth. 

Paul has also written a super blog The Old Yoke which explores the idea that the Green Man in fact was Engalnd’s secret symbol of resistance to Norman oppression. Within this piece Paul explains what happened following the Norman Conquest and how the shadow still lives on in our country today.


About the Author


Nicola Smalley is an edge-dweller, shamanic practitioner and writer living in Anglezarke on the edge of the West Pennine Moors in Lancashire, England.
Following a career in corporate sustainability, she now runs The Way of the Buzzard with her husband Jason. Her passion is anything connected to nature and the mysteries of the Earth.

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  1. I love this! As part of my job I am blessed to be able to show school children around one of only 2 standing Norman castles in Cheshire- and yes, they are all about the oppression and subjugation of our native population. The idea of our people retreating into the forests, and their rebellious spirit surviving inside us to this day is completely joyous!

  2. Thank you for this powerful post, It sums up how I have always felt in the woods. I love the Sherrif of Nottingham analogy about what holds us back from being truest free. I don’t think I can get time off work to be with you on this quest but am going to try.

    1. Oh lovely, great to hear you enjoyed the blog Jude and it will be super to share the weekend with you if you can make it. I am not sure where you are based, but we only start the workshop content after the evening meal on Friday, at around 7.30pm, so if you are close-ish you could come from work on the Friday …

  3. Really enjoyed reading this Nicola, thank you for sharing it. I have recently moved house and found myself drawn into the woods at the back of the property. Guided by the sheep, the trees, a herd of horses and finally a buzzard, I found myself standing on a mound of earth facing the back of a church. I felt a strong charge of energy between the church and the woods and wondered what had happened there. I am going to investigate further. Hope all is good with you and Jason. I shall take some action today to soften my internal oppressor.

    1. Fascinating Sarah and I will be intrigued with what you uncover there. Lovely to hear you enjoyed reading the blog 🙂 and that you are working on your internal oppressor!

  4. My knowledge of English history is very patchy so it’s always interesting to learn more.
    But RH, the sheriff, the band of ‘merry men’…they’re all men! Where are the women? Women’s history is so often invisible, like they didn’t even exist. My heart breaks for all those heroines of the past who’s names & stories are so rarely recorded.

    1. Yes, certainly male heavy but I do take some comfort that the heroines are there … Boudica is there in our female history, and Maid Marion was brought into the Robin Hood story at some point over the centuries.

  5. Thanks for this information Nicola. I found I had to stop reading for a while at the paragraph that starts “In the months and years that followed,,,,,,,,,, I felt a surge of emotion rise in me!
    I have been thinking about all of this for a while now, the origin of serfdom – knowing it still exists, class is still the biggest divider in our country today- not sexism, nor racism, oh I know they exit – but I believe they have all been borne out of the class system, divide and conquer! so thank you for the historical perspective.

  6. Enlightening read so much to learn of our true history Thanks for opening up the inner oppression too love the inspiration

  7. I enjoyed reading this blog. I am always drawn to the woods. I am a bit of a workaholic and sometimes I just need to sit with the trees. I am fortunate enough to have a small woods two minutes walk away from home. Just love it ! Thanks Nicola

  8. Thank you for this thought-provoking article, and also for the link to the blog, The Old Yoke. It was all well worth reading.

  9. As ever an enlightening blog. I did not study much English history having spent the bulk of my schooling in Ireland. Of course it is said the idea of Robin hails from the hooded ones of the Fianna … and Finn himself.
    (Reference: p.147, Fire in the Head – Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit – Cowan, Tom, Harper One, New York).
    … one for the reading list?

  10. I grew up in Ireland and so was taught Irish history, so was less deeply aware of Robin Hood ( other than an aunt played Maid Marion in an old TV series! ). It seems though on reading ‘ Fire in the Head ‘ – Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit (Tom Cowan) that Robin and his band have many parallels with Finn and the Fianna and latterly the Fenians. No wonder Williams predecessor King William ( and Mary ) and their supporters ‘ The Planters ‘ see diametrically opposed to what Fenianism stood for. Also I read Robin may have essentially been the embodiment of the son of Herne the Hunter …. all fascinating!

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