Herne the Hunter
Windsor Great Park belongs to the Queen. The ghost of a strange figure called Herne the Hunter has reputedly been seen along the Long Walk, and also on the Royal Golf Course.
The story goes that Herne was one of the Royal keepers in the time of King Richard II (1367-1400). Herne had two large black hounds and was hated by the other keepers because of his great skill. King Richard was hunting a stag, but the stag turned on him and he would have been killed if Herne hadn’t stood between the enraged animal and Richard. However, in so rescuing the King, Herne himself was wounded and fell to the ground, apparently dead. At this point a strange dark man appeared and said he could cure Herne. Richard asked him to go ahead and the dark man cut off the stag’s head and put it on Herne’s body. The Dark Man then took Herne away to his hut on Bagshot Heath some miles away, to complete the cure. The King was so grateful to Herne that he swore that if Herne recovered he would make him his chief keeper. The other keepers disliked Herne even more at this and wished that he would die. The Dark Man overheard them and offered them a bargain – if they would grant him the first request he made, he would ensure that, though Herne would recover, he would lose all his woodland skill. They agreed and everything happened as the Dark Man had foretold. Herne, was thrown so low at the loss of his skill that he found a mighty oak and hanged himself from it. Instantly, his body disappeared.
The other keepers didn’t laugh for long either, because they too lost all their woodcraft. They sought out the Dark Man and asked him to help them. He said that if they went to the oak the following night, they would have a solution to their problem. When they went to the Oak, the spirit of Herne appeared to them. He told them to go and get hounds and horses for a chase. This they did and when they returned Herne took them to a Beech tree. There he invoked the Dark Man who burst from the tree in a shower of sparks and flame. His first request of the unfortunate keepers was that they form a band for Herne the Hunter. Bound by their oath, they had to swear allegiance to Herne. After that, night after night, they hunted through the forests. The tale of the Wild Hunt is common in Germanic mythology. Its approach is presaged by flashes of lightning, wind in the tree tops, the rattling of chains and tolling of bells and the terrible din of a pack of dogs in mad pursuit; if you hear the baying of the ghostly hounds in the sky, run away, because if they catch you, you too will be forced to follow Herne and the Wild Hunt, ranging across the night skies for eternity.
Herne’s Oak was treated with some reverence and on 31 August 1868 it fell to the ground. Queen Victoria planted a young oak in its place There is clearly more to Herne than a simple hunter. His name has etymological similarities to that of the Celtic horned god – Cernunnos, also shown with antlers on his head. We should also remember the dances of ancient tradition that take place at villages like Abbots Bromley where the men dance with stag’s antlers on their heads. Herne seems to have caught the national imagination because other stories about him from various times in the past describe him as having red eyes and an owl on his shoulder. Shakespeare mentions him in The Merry Wives of Windsor, where he is clearly a woodland spirit, to be avoided and feared. He is also described elsewhere as being a horseman who appears when Britain is about to face a national crisis – he was seen before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 and again on the death of King George VI. A lady saw Herne as far away as Cookham Dean one summer evening in the 1920s. She said that she saw the figure of a tall man wearing antlers emerge from the undergrowth on the Common. The man disappeared into a group of three oak trees and didn’t reappear though she watched for some time.
J A Brooks tells that in 1976 a young guardsman posted to the East Terrace at Windsor Castle was found unconscious. When he came to, he swore that he had seen a statue grow horns and come to life.
Herne the Hunter