the Ghostly Hunt
of Herne the Hunter
the Ghostly Hunt
of Herne the Hunter
Phantom howls heard on the night air around Windsor signal that it’s time to draw your curtains and lock your doors: for Herne the Hunter and his spectral followers are galloping across the sky gathering lost souls.
Back in the fourteenth century, Herne was one of King Richard II’s many huntsmen employed on the Windsor Castle estate. Herne loved his job and considered himself a lucky man to be able to earn his living at what he liked doing best. There were few of the King’s men who knew as much about hunting and the crafts of the wood as Herne did. Windsor was his home, and he knew every path, ride and bridleway crossing the Forest there. When the King was in residence, Herne would spend almost every day out hunting with the monarch. Even such seemingly routine outings as these could, however, be fraught with danger.
Out early one crisp morning, the royal buckhounds picked up the scent of a noble white stag. They bayed and howled, and off they ran with the King and his men riding close behind. The horses’ hooves thundered through the Forest and the party quickly began to gain on the beast. Before long, his white flashing hindquarters could be seen darting in and out of the trees ahead. Herne was up at the head of the chase with King Richard by his side. Arrows were let fly. The stag was hit! Wounded, it bounded on through the thickening trees with the huntsmen close on its heals. Suddenly, the trees seemed to fall away as a clearing opened up before them. The surrounding forest was too dense for the deer to enter. It was cornered.
The stag turned to face its pursuers, pawing the ground and shaking its antlers. The Master of the Buckhounds quickly had his men hold back the dogs. Barking and snapping, they strained on their leashes in protest. Herne and the others moved back to clear a semi-circle around the prey. The King urged his horse forward and unsheathed his knife. He would have the honour of making the kill.
King Richard’s horse edged nervously towards the deer, but, before the monarch had time to dismount, the stag suddenly sprang forward. In a mad frenzy, the animal’s antlers ripped into the poor horse’s flesh, before turning on the King. In a sudden burst of bravery, Herne threw himself into the deer’s path, pushing King Richard clear. The Sovereign was saved, but poor Herne paid dearly for his heroism. He was badly mauled by the piercing antlers before he managed to slide his knife into the stag’s throat. It was all over in a matter of seconds. Both lay motionless on the ground. Blood poured from their wounds.
The King’s men rushed forward to help Herne, but there was little they could do. The stag’s wounds had proved fatal. Surely Herne’s would too? The King was most distraught to think that one of his men had laid down their life in order to save his own. He screamed at his men to, “Do something!” But the royal physician was back at the castle, and the burly hunters knew nothing of medical matters.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a stranger on a black horse appeared from behind a large beech tree. Introducing himself to the King as Philip Urwick, he asked if he might examine the wounded man. Some of the huntsmen, wandering where the man had sprung from, shouted that Urwick must be a poacher and should be arrested at once. However, others knew him to be a local wiseman from Bagshot Heath, and warily advised the King that, if he wanted Herne to live, Urwick, though not to be trusted, was probably the best man for the job. The King recognised the term “wiseman” as code for a powerful wizard and eagerly gave permission for him to tend to Herne’s needs.
The wizard knelt down beside Herne and inspected his injuries. Urwick appeared to be mumbling something, but no-one could quite make out the words. Then he stood and shouted the most extraordinary demand to two of the huntsmen: “Remove the antlers from this great stag. If this young man is to stand any chance of survival, we must fix them securely to his head.” The courtiers looked at the King with puzzled expressions. He shrugged his shoulders, but nodded to them to continue. When Herne’s new headgear was in place, he was lifted onto a make-shift litter and escorted through the Forest to Urwick’s hut on the Heath. He lay as a corpse the whole journey long.
Time passed, and Herne was tended back to health by Wizard Urwick. After a month of drinking phials of strange potions, he was eventually allowed to remove the deer’s antlers from his head, and so made his return to Court. Back at Windsor Castle, he made a great hit with the Sovereign who was delighted with his sturdy young hero. For his bravery, the King rewarded Herne with a bag of gold, a golden chain and a silver hunting horn. He was even moved into apartments within the Castle. He soon became the royal favourite, and King Richard insisted he stay by his side on all royal outings.
Now, as you can imagine, royal patronage such as this was the most sought after commodity at Court, and it seemed to many that Herne was receiving more than his fair share. Two of his fellow huntsmen, in particular, became exceptionally jealous of the attention that the King gave to Herne. In revenge, they started spreading rumours that Herne was a practitioner of black arts, learnt while in Urwick’s care. When the whispers reached the King’s ears however, he dismissed the idea as ridiculous and put a stop to any further gossip on the subject. He had already had Philip Urwick thoroughly investigated: a mysterious recluse, he appeared to be a wise man who, on the whole, used his powers for the good of others.
So the envious huntsmen had to resort to more substantial methods to discredit Herne. They hatched a plan to frame him for poaching, and planted three fresh deer skins in his quarters. As they retreated from their hateful task, the two bumped into Herne. They immediately feared their presence might arouse his suspicions; but, on the contrary, the oblivious Herne proceeded to ask his supposed friends to deliver a purse of moneys to Wizard Urwick as a small token of thanks for his expert doctoring. Seeing an even better chance to ruin the royal favourite, the huntsmen kept the money for themselves and set off for Bagshot Heath. Finding him alone in his hut, the two claimed they were there to see justice done: for the King and Herne had both forgotten Urwick. While Herne was showered with gifts for his impulsive act, all the wizard’s hard work had passed without so much as a thank you. They claimed that Herne poked fun at the wiseman and his “so called” skills. “He says anyone can tie a pair of antlers to the head of a man who has fainted and claim to have brought him back to life. He says you kept him prisoner here so that your story of healing his wounds would hold water.”
The two huntsmen were so convincing that Urwick quickly believed all of their lies. He became incensed, throwing his arms in the air and cursing the day he ever agreed to help the ungrateful monarch. Having sown the seeds of revenge in the wizard’s mind, Urwick’s two visitors suggested some appropriate action. Perhaps the wizard could use his magical powers to remove Herne’s skills in hunting. Urwick was delighted. “I like the way your minds work,” he said with a smile.
The following day, the King rode out with his hunting party as usual. However, though Herne was given the honour of finding a suitable quarry, he was unable to do so. This state of affairs continued for several days, and King Richard became quite puzzled. Then, the three deer hides were discovered, hidden in Herne’s quarters. It became clear to the King that his favourite huntsman had taken advantage of his honoured position. Herne had been too tired to exercise his skills by day because he had been so busy employing them by night. The evil huntsmen’s plan had worked. Grieved by the treachery of such a trusted servant, King Richard was forced to dismiss Herne.
Herne was devastated. He took his horse and galloped through the Forest in a crazed frenzy. He had not only lost the skills of his livelihood but he had been publicly disgraced into the bargain. He was found, next morning, by a poor pedlar, hanging from an oak tree . . . Dead!
The jealous foresters were delighted with the results of their deviousness. Now they would be able to rise in the King’s favour themselves: but this was not to be. Nothing connected with their service to the King went right for the two men. They too began to lose some of their own hunting skills. They were late for appointments, and they were left behind in the hunts. Finally things became so bad that the two of them were forced to seek the help of Wizard Urwick once more.
On hearing their story, the wizard revealed that if things were to return to normal the huntsmen must appeal to Herne’s ghost for mercy. So he took them to the oak on which Herne had hanged himself and, throwing his arms high in the air, he called for Herne’s spirit to appear. There was a sudden gust of wind and Herne slowly materialised before their eyes, complete with curative antlers. In a solemn voice he instructed them to assemble all the royal horses and hounds under the same oak tree at midnight the following night. The foresters agreed, though they knew it would be difficult.
The next evening though, the two men managed to persuade their superior to grant them the stable watch, and so were easily able to slip out with the animals and do exactly as they had been told. For nights afterwards Windsor Forest rang with the noisy sounds of the hunt, until soon, not a deer was to be had there. King Richard was furious. His endless chases produced no prey, and he rampaged through the castle demanding to know what curse this was that plagued him so. The two foresters’ hunting skills had improved, but now there were no deer to hunt! They finally saw no alternative but to disclose their evil story to the King, and place their fate in his hands. When King Richard at last knew the whole story, he was beside himself with frustration and remorse.
That night King Richard took a stroll in the Royal Park to clear his head. As he wandered aimlessly, it began to rain. The clouds rolled in and a great storm quickly blew up. Annoyed that his thoughts had been interrupted, the King ran for the Castle and shelter. Just then, the sky lit up and a great bolt of lightning struck the nearest great oak. King Richard stopped dead in his tracks. Through the clearing smoke, he could just make out a figure standing beneath the tree: a figure with, could it be, antlers on its head?! Richard realised at once that this was the spot where Herne had taken his own life, and cautiously he stepped forward. Herne’s ghost emerged from beneath the foliage to explain to the confused monarch what he must do to restock his hunting ground. “Both the foresters must be justly punished for their crimes.”
The two huntsmen were immediately put to death, hung upon Herne’s own oak. As if by magic, all the deer simultaneously returned to the Forest. Herne’s ghost was never seen again in the reign of King Richard until the day of his murder in Pontefract Castle on the orders of his successor, Henry IV. During every winter since, Herne has returned at midnight to ride the lanes of old Windsor Forest again on a fiery black steed. He wears his antlers always, and glows with a phosphoric blue light. On his shoulder sits a horned owl with piercing red eyes, and gripped in his hand is a sinister rattling chain - the present from his grateful master. With his hounds and the two resentful huntsmen, who are compelled to ride with him for eternity, Herne leads a wild hunt through the Forest and across the night’s sky, searching for damned souls lost in the wilderness. In the past, his followers would increase as he claimed the souls of poachers hung in the Curfew Tower of the Castle. It is said that they chase the white hart which ultimately led the way to Herne’s unhappy end. Sometimes the hart itself is seen beneath Herne’s Oak, breathing fire and tearing at the tree’s roots with its antlers. You should take special care, however, to watch for the man himself, standing alone beneath his natural gibbet. He materialises there when the sovereign is unjust or close to death, or when the nation is otherwise in danger. He reminds all of his own unjust treatment after saving the monarch from death’s eager grasp.