Herne the Hunter

Herne the HunterHerne the Hunter is an antlered ghost, associated with Windsor Forest and Great Park in the English county of Berkshire. 

The first recorded mention of Herne appears in William Shakespeare’s play, The Merry Wives of Windsor and little else was written about him until the 16th century.

Shakespeare describes Herne as “a spirit” and “sometime a keeper…in Windsor forest” who is seen to “walk round an oak, with great ragg’d horns” at midnight during winter-time.

Samuel Ireland (chief victim of the Ireland Shakespeare forgeries by his son William Henry Ireland; who purported to have found lost manuscripts of the playwright) expanded on the story as follows. “The story of this Herne, who was keeper in the forest in the time of Elizabeth, reads thus: That having committed some great offence, for which he feared to lose his situation and fall into disgrace, he was induced to hang himself on this tree.” Ireland suggests that the unholy method of his death gave cause to his unquiet spirit to haunt the forest.

The hauntings have been reported in Windsor Forest (covering all of East Berkshire and parts of south Buckinghamshire, northeast Hampshire and northwest Surry) and specifically the Great Park. Some hauntings report he appears antlered beneath the tree on which he was hanged, known as “Herne’s Oak”, others claim to see him riding his horse, accompanied by other wild huntsmen and the captured souls of those he encounters on his journey. He is described as having a phosphorescent glow and is accompanied by a horned owl, demon hounds and other creatures of the forest.

The fact that Shakespeare and Ireland identify Herne as a real historical individual is supported by one theory by Shakespearean scholar James Halliwell-Philipps. He postulates that Herne is the ghost of Richard Horne, a yeoman caught poaching during the reign of Henry VIII in the woods. Halliwell-Philipps identified a document that listed Horne as a “hunter” who had confessed to poaching. The earliest edition of The Merry Wives of Windsor spells the name “Horne” and speculated they are one and the same.

Herne’s Oak

There has been some speculation and controversy of the location of Herne’s Oak. Some Ordnance Survey maps show Herne’s Oak a little of the north of Frogmore House in the Home Park (adjoining Windsor Great Park). This is widely believed to be the location of an oak which was felled in Shakespeare’s time in 1796.

In 1838, Edward Jesse claimed that a different tree in the avenue was the real Herne’s Oak. This claim gained in popularity, largely to the thanks of Queen Victoria. The tree was blown down on 31 August 1863 and had a new tree planted on her instruction on the same site. The Queen’s tree was removed in 1906 when the avenue was replanted.

Possible origins

There are theories of his origins that predate Shakespeare, connecting his appearance to pagan and ancient lore.

Some have speculated that Herne as a Wild Huntsman is part of the European Folklore believed to be derived from the Gaulish deity Cernunnos. This origin has been dismissed by many, partly as Herne is a figure specific to Berkshire and the fact that no clear evidence of the worship of Cernunnos has been recovered in Britain.

In the Early Middle Ages, Windsor Forest came under the control of the pagan Angles, who worshiped their own gods, including Woden, who was sometimes depicted as horned. His Norse equivalent Odin rode across the night sky with his own Wild Hunt and hanged himself on the world tree Yggdrasil. It has been suggested that the name Herne is derived from the title Herian, a title used for Woden in his role as leader of fallen warriors.