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The Legend of Herne the Hunter and the Wild Hunt

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Cynthia has a degree in History and Business Economics. She loves archaeology and would happily spend every holiday exploring ancient sites

Herne the Hunter by George Cruikshank

Herne the Hunter by George Cruikshank

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.

Herne The Hunter

Herne The Hunter

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.

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.

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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!

Copyright 2010 CMHypno on HubPages

Stone Herne Image Derek Harper Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic


CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on October 17, 2013:

Glad you enjoyed reading the hub MysticMoonlight and thanks for such a kind comment

MysticMoonlight on October 16, 2013:

Fascinating read, CMHypno. Many of the details you included here I'd not read about before and found them so intriguing. Great read.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 06, 2013:

Glad that you enjoyed reading about Herne the Hunter That Grrl. Like most old British legends, there are several versions and the story itself probably grew out of even older myths and legends of horned gods and wild hunts

Laura Brown from Barrie, Ontario, Canada on April 02, 2013:

I've read about the story before but you had details I didn't know (or didn't remember). I'm enjoying several of your posts this morning.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on December 05, 2011:

No, I haven't seen these documentaries, CMHypno, but I wish I could. I was born in Britain and grew up there, but I'm living in Canada now.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on December 05, 2011:

Thanks for reading the hub Alicia and glad that you found the story of Herne interesting. Have you been watching the Tony Robinson documentaries on Channel 4 about beliefs and superstitions in Britain?

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on December 04, 2011:

I've heard of Herne before but knew very little about him. Thanks for the information about Herne the Hunter and the Wild Hunt. The legends about early Britain are fascinating. It's interesting to speculate about how they originated and how they all fit together.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on January 11, 2011:

I agree with you Seeker7, we are very lucky with our history and general spooky stuff here in the UK. Thanks for reading about Herne the Hunter and leaving a comment

Helen Murphy Howell from Fife, Scotland on January 11, 2011:

Hi, Fascinating stuff. I think Britain does have some of the best history and mythology on the planet. I have been fascinated with Herne for a long time so I love this article.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on December 07, 2010:

Glad that you found the hub on Herne the Hunter informative, home witch and thanks for leaving a comment

home witch from Manchester on December 06, 2010:

I found this really interesting and informative.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on July 21, 2010:

Glad that you enjoyed reading about the legend of Herne the Hunter, jambo87. There are so many fascinating myths and legends across the world,and Britain does have an interesting ancient belief system to explore

jambo87 on July 20, 2010:

I don't no much about British myth, and this really enlightened me on a very interesting tale. Nice work!

Sandy Mertens from Wisconsin, USA on June 03, 2010:

Fascinating information on the myths and legends.

Elizabeth from Some Sunny Beach, USA on June 02, 2010:

Interesting article but myth may not be as mythical as you think! In the early 1800's in the town of Sayre in Bradford County, Pennsylvania an excavation of ancient burial mounds gave way to an amazing discovery. Buried deep below the ancient mounds archeologist unearthed human skeletons measuring approxiamately 7 feet in length. Although the height of these skeletons were remarkable the more notable features of these tall skeletons were not their height, but the strange 3" horn-like potrusions above the brow region on their skulls! At the time, it was estimated that these human-like beings walked the earth around 1200 AD. Presumably, before the tales of Herne the Hunter! Interesting to say the least and could be a good possibility to the myths and legends that have been created over the centuries. Great Hub!

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on June 02, 2010:

Arthur in antlers! Certainly will give a certain 'olde worldde' twist to the Christmas season in your neck of the woods. Send me a photo!

Arthur Windermere on June 01, 2010:

Hah! Excellent. I'll be looking forward to the antlers. Just in time for my rutting season.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on June 01, 2010:

Hi De Greek, from what I've heard, you are busy creating your own legends in the Midlands! Anyway Robin Hood was from not too far away, and I'm sure you've got some ghosts and ghoulies in your own locality

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on June 01, 2010:

Hey, Hello,Hello glad you enjoyed reading about Herne the Hunter and thanks for leaving a great comment.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on June 01, 2010:

So Nell, you actually met Robin Hood? Britain is a great place for myths and legends, and usually there is a local twist to them. There are several stories of a horned huntsman and a Wild Hunt from different parts of the country.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on June 01, 2010:

Hi Arthur, if they sell them on Amazon, I'll get you a pair of stag's antlers for Christmas. That should cause a stir with the ladies down at your local bar and affirm your masculine strength and virility!

It seems that Philip Urswick was a local wizard or shaman, and that he made a secret deal with the other keepers to strip Herne of his abilities if he was cured. Quite when this deal was done is unclear. Wizards and magicians were often tricksters, and known for working in obscure ways and riddles. The white hart was the heraldic cognizance for King Richard II, so there is some more symbolism going on there as well I think.

Thanks for the read and the great comment

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on June 01, 2010:

Hi Katiem, glad you enjoyed reading about Herne the Hunter and his legend. Britain's pagan past is still very evident in our folklore, legends and place names

De Greek from UK on June 01, 2010:

We have some insane stories here in the Midlands, but we just can't mutch yours. I give up :-))))

Hello, hello, from London, UK on June 01, 2010:

Thank you for a wonderfullly written hub. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Nell Rose from England on May 31, 2010:

Hi, I love this legend. As you said there are so many legends intermixed with Herne that nobody is sure where it started. The pagans have always had a horned god somewhere in there beliefs. I particularly liked the story in robin hood. I actually have met Michael Praed who played robin! I was mad about him in the eighties and he was filming just up the road in the pub! great hub thanks nell

Arthur Windermere on May 31, 2010:

"The horned gods of ancient Britain were associated with hunting, fertility and male strength" - what a coincidence! Me too.

Hey CM,

Very interesting stuff. I enjoyed the parallels to other legends. And this Urswick character is really fascinating. Just one thing I'm not clear on. Urswick stripped Herne of his skills, he claims, to please the other keepers. But we know he just happened by chance on the dying Herne. At least, there was no indication that the white stag, etc., was at the behest of the keepers working with Urswick. Or is there? You'll have to clarify this for me.


Katie McMurray from Ohio on May 31, 2010:

Fascinating and well written. I found The Legend of Herne the Hunter magical. I know people today that are said to be pagans. Thanks for sharing.

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