Welcome to Berkshire, friends. Everyone’s favourite non-descript home county/unwilling satellite state of the ever-encroaching nightmare that is Greater London (make no mistake; it will claim us all).
This quintessentially green and pleasant land is generally associated with things like sheep farming, Legoland, and Reading FC, a football club so unremarkable it had to invent a rivalry with Oxford United just to feel something.
Of course, it’s not all Lego bricks and woolly jumpers down in the ‘Shire. Many strange and eerie tales emanate from this storied county, and none more so than the fascinating legend of Herne the Hunter. A weird, malevolent entity who inhabits the area formerly known as Windsor Forest, Herne the Hunter boasts a mysterious past, a roaring horn, and a giant pair of antlers jutting from his terrifying visage. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to state that Herne is the most grotesque and frightening creature in the entire vicinity of Windsor Castle.
Besides his thunderous horn and fetching head-growths, the Hernester has several other distinguishing features. He rattles ghostly chains, blasts trees with his pox-riddled touch, frightens cattle and turns their milk to blood, and is generally accompanied by his pack of fearsome hellhounds (as if we haven’t had enough of them).
Herne is something of an enemy of nature, spreading death and decay in a similar manner to other primal beasties such as the Orcadian Nuckelavee. He is a harbinger of destruction, with his appearances said to foreshadow great storms, natural disasters, and even the deaths of kings and queens.
But where did Herne the Hunter come from? What are his origins? Why is he so mean?
Well, it really depends on who you ask. Believe it or not, the first ever recorded mention of Herne the Hunter actually occurs in the pages of The Merry Wives of Winter (1597), aka nobody’s favourite Shakespeare play.
Herne is mentioned in the play by a character named Page, who says the following:
— William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act IV, scene 4.
There is an old tale goes, that Herne the Hunter
(sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest)
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Receiv’d, and did deliver to our age
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.
Impeccable iambics as ever, Will. However, nobody actually knows where Shakespeare might have heard the legend himself in the first place, and several different theories have been suggested as to who and what our kid Herne actually is. The first, put forward by none other than Jacob Grimm (of Heath Ledger fame, no less), states that Herne the Hunter is actually a twist on the classic ‘wild hunt’ of old Norse mythology.
This tale was presumably brought to Britain by Danes, Vikings and other assorted Norsemen during their excursions across the North Sea to bother the local hicks, and tells of a galloping procession of monstrous hunters (ghosts, elves, faeries, Tories, etc.) marauding through sky, field and forest alike. Their arrival was said to foreshadow blizzards, storms, plagues and famines, and they were usually led by a significant historical or mythological figure (Odin, Theodoric the Great, the Angel Gabriel, Peter Andre, what have you). What’s more, this figure usually comes with a large hunting horn and a pack of baying hounds.
A lot of this seems to match up with what we know about Herne the Hunter, so it seems like a credible origin for the story. However, it’s far from the only one. Some believe Herne to be the manifestation of an ancient Saxon deity, while other theories suggest more ghostly beginnings.
One rather Faustian version sets up Herne as a cruel and vicious poacher, who enjoyed sneaking into the forbidden forests around Windsor Castle to hunt the King’s stag. He got his comeuppance one night when one of the royal beasts turned round and gored him, leaving him bleeding out and trying desperately to hold his guts in place. With no other options, the dying Herne called out to the Devil, who took his immortal soul in exchange for transforming him into a hideous, undead stag-man for all eternity.
Another twist on the story portrays Herne in a more sympathetic light, casting him as a desperate man who only ventured onto the King’s lands in order to find food for his starving family. He’s quickly caught and hanged on the spot, strung up to a tree that would be henceforth known as Herne’s Oak. A final variant has Herne wandering into the woods to hang himself from Herne’s Oak, pushed to the edge by some shame or misdeed he simply couldn’t live with.
In fact, Herne’s Oak branches off (hehe) into a whole other story in itself. While Herne the Hunter is heavily connected to the tree, and many supposed encounters with him are usually said to be in the vicinity of it, the tree itself is the source of much debate. Nobody could quite agree on which of the many trees in Windsor Forest Herne’s Oak actually was. The most likely candidate was a tall, strapping old oak in what is now Home Park, which was eventually felled in 1796. But this was far from the end of the tale.
The debate around Herne’s Oak raged on into the 19th century, with the tree’s location becoming such a popular topic of conversation that even Queen Victoria herself liked to get amongst it. A new Herne’s Oak close to the original (and then claimed to be the original all along, of course) was finally christened in 1838 with the queen’s blessing. This one lasted until 1868, when it was unfortunately blown down. Victoria, apparently considering this to be a highly pressing issue, ordered that a replacement be planted immediately.
This third (by my count) Herne’s Oak held onto the title until 1906, when the entire area was replanted. One of the new trees became the fourth and final Herne’s Oak, which still stands to this very day. Blimey, this tree’s been recast more often than James Bond.
Anyway, with that boring diatribe about tree placements out the way, I think it’s time to draw this one to a close. Herne the Hunter is certainly one of the more hotly debated elements of British folklore; a mysterious forest ghoul who could be anything from a vengeful ghost to a mythological huntsman. Nobody really knows the truth.
But hey, if you ever happen to be out in the Berkshire wilderness in the dead of night and catch sight of a misshapen figure with antlers, chains and a pack of wild dogs, maybe you can ask him yourself.