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The Legend of Herne the Hunter and the Wild Hunt
Do you know the legend of Herne the Hunter and his Wild Hunt? Before the Christianity arrived on the shores of Great Britain, the Celts and even older groups of people before them, worshipped many gods and goddesses. These deities started to overlap and became interlinked and identified with each other over time, and although the old religions were suppressed with the coming of Christianity, many of these deities lived on in folklore and local legend.
One such character is Herne the Hunter, a man with the horns of a stag who rides a horse, and leads a Wild Hunt with a pack of phantom hounds. The horned gods of ancient Britain were associated with hunting, fertility and male strength; part of the cycle of nature and constant renewal of the seasons. The first literary mention that we have of the legend of Herne the Hunter is in Shakespeare’s play ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ which was completed in 1597 and since then the story has become much written about and embellished over the centuries.
As the legend goes, Herne was once a very capable and hard working keeper in the royal estate of Windsor, during the reign of King Richard II in the 14th century. In fact, Herne was so able and good at his job that all of the other keepers resented him and were jealous. King Richard used the forest at Windsor for hunting, and one day when he was out on a hunt, he was thrown from his horse and attacked by a white hart.
The white hart tried to attack the King with his antlers, but Herne jumped in and managed to kill the stag by slitting its throat before it could harm his royal master, but in doing so was fatally gored himself. As he lay fatally injured, a mysterious character called Philip Urswick appeared and offered to heal Herne, but one of the conditions, agreed in secret with the other keepers, was that on his recovery Herne would lose his work skills and experience. King Richard agreed, so Philip Urswick chopped off the antlers of the white hart and tied them on to Herne’s head, where they attached themselves as though they had always been there.
The King rewarded Philip Urswick royally and sure enough, Herne recovered from his grievous injury, although the antlers stayed firmly attached to his head. However, he had lost his prowess as a keeper as predicted. In some versions of the legend Herne loses his position, because he can no longer adequately fulfil his duties, and in others he is accused of theft by some of the other keepers, who had been jealous of his abilities and competence, in order to get rid of him.
Later that same day Herne’s body was seen hanging from the boughs of an oak tree in the forest, but by the time the pedlar who had discovered the body returned with the keepers, the swinging corpse with the antlered head had mysteriously disappeared.
That night the oak tree from which Herne had hung himself was struck by lightning during a great storm and on the following day the other keepers found that they too had mysteriously lost their skills and ability to work. They consulted the enigmatic Philip Urswick on how they could regain their competence and he told them that they had to meet at the oak where Herne had been seen hanging at midnight. When they gathered at Herne’s oak that night, Herne’s ghost, still with the antlers on his head, appeared to them and told them to bring horses and equipment with them the following night and be prepared to go hunting.
They returned at midnight the next night, as ordered, and were made to follow Herne on a wild hunt throughout Windsor Great Park. The wild ride went on and on, until they were stopped short by the figure of Philip Urswick standing in their path. Because he had stripped Herne of his abilities as a keeper to stop the other keepers being jealous, he now wanted his payment from them, and this payment was that they had to join in Herne’s wild hunt and ride with him forever.
So Herne’s Wild Hunt met at the oak every night at midnight and hunted through the park with their demonic pack of hounds, killing the King’s deer and causing a lot of damage. King Richard very soon had had enough of this and rode out to confront Herne. Herne told the King that he was seeking revenge, and that he would stop the wild rides through Windsor Great Park for the rest of his reign, if King Richard allowed him to hang the other keepers from the same oak that he had died on for their jealousy and plotting.
King Richard readily agreed to this demand, the keepers were hanged the next day, and Herne the Hunter and his wild hunt did not ride out again until Richard II’s abdication in 1399. From that time forward the antler-headed Herne is said to lead his Wild Hunt through Windsor Forest nightly and many people have claimed to have witnessed this ghostly parade of hunters and baying hounds.
The phantom huntsman is said to most likely be seen at times of national crisis and in the vicinity where the great oak tree once stood. The oak had stood in Windsor Great Park until 1796, when it was accidentally chopped down. Parts of the tree were turned into souvenirs and replacement oaks were planted in the following centuries, although it is whispered that on an especially stormy night the original Herne’s Oak reappears and can be seen still growing in the forest.
If you think that King Richard II got off lightly for making the deal with Philip Urswick and then sacking Herne, think again, as he was probably starved to death in Pontefract Castle on the orders of his own cousin, Henry IV.
Windsor Great Park, haunted by Herne the Hunter
Horned gods and wild hunts were very common legends throughout Europe, but finding the origins of the specific story of Herne the Hunter is not so simple. The legend of Herne the Hunter is a very local one, and did not stretch very far into Berkshire from Windsor itself. Before the Christian era, this area of Berkshire had been settled by the Angles who had arrived from the region now known as Germany from the early 5th century AD onwards.
One of their many gods was Woden, whose myths bore many similarities to that of Herne the Hunter. Woden was a horned god and was depicted with antlers growing from his head, he hanged himself from an ash tree in order to learn the runic alphabet, and he led his own Wild Hunt across the night sky. Herne the Hunter has also been associated with the story of Herla, a mythical king of ancient Britain who visited the realms of the dead, and on his return two hundred years later was forced to lead a Wild Hunt for eternity.
Horned gods are common in many ancient pagan beliefs from around the world, such as the Greek god Pan, the Roman god Janus and the Celtic god Cernunnos. The legend of Herne the Hunter is also associated with that other old British deity, the Green Man, whose stone image of a male face covered in luxuriant green foliage is found on many old churches. Herne the Hunter has also been linked to the old tales of Robin Hood, as Robin of Sherwood too led his band of Merry Men and stole from the rich to give to the poor, while Herne hunts for eternity to provide for his followers.
Robin Hood also reputedly dressed himself and his followers in Lincoln green, which links him to the Green Man as well as Herne the Hunter. These old legends live on in old English pub names; there are many inns called ‘The Green Man’ or ‘The Horns’ and The Isle of Dogs in London is said to be so called because that is where Herne the Hunter kept his fifty demonic hunting hounds.
So our ancient, pagan past is still all around us, and the old myths and legends have passed into contemporary folklore, some Christian traditions, and many British place names. So be careful if you find yourself near Windsor Great Park on a dark and stormy night, as if you should be unlucky enough to catch sight of Herne the Hunter with his pack of ghostly hounds followed by the Wild Hunt, you might find too that they take your soul and that you have to join the hunt – forever!
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