Herne the Hunter has a very famous beginning. He is first mentioned in Shakespeare’s ” Merry Wives of Windsor”
Mrs Page. 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.
This is the first record in writing of Herne the Hunter the Royal Family’s Family Ghost. Appearing at times of important changes to the Royal (often death), and to the country as a whole (war and financial disasters). His story dates back to the time of Richard the Second, or Henry the VIII or Elizabeth I, depending on whose story you believe. A royal woodsman who for several given reasons, magical or other wise hanged himself on that blasted oak.
He has appeared since in Literature, William Ainsworth’s Windsor Castle, and John Masefield’s Box of Delights. The latter became a brilliant TV series in 1984. That year another TV series Robin of Sherwood, included Herne as a protecting forest spirit.
He is described as wearing deer’s horns on his head. Carrying a length of chain and walking around the “Blasted Oak”. Also he is said to lead on horse back “The Wild Hunt” through Windsor Great Park, and blow a mighty hunting horn.
The site of the famous blasted oak, and the fate of the tree has been hotly disputed. It was said to be by the side of a fairy haunted dell in Windsor Great Park. George III was supposed to have had it accidentally cut down while clearing the forest of dead trees. Queen Victoria believed another tree was Herne’s Oak, and when this blew down in 1863 she had it replaced. When this blew down in 1906 Edward VII had a replacement planted in a new location. It still stands in the private royal part of Windsor Great Park .
It is believed by some that his origins is in Celtic and Anglo Saxon Mythology. That he is a memory of the Celtic God Cernunnos or the Pagan Anglo Saxon God Woden. Gods of the greenwood and forests, but particularly of the oak. Cernunnos had deer’s horns on his head, Woden lead a wild hunt with phantom dogs and lost souls through the forest. Much of what is written in great detail of Herne the Hunter, is about his many possible Mythological roots. In fact two books have been written on this side of him. Herne the Hunter a Berkshire Legend, by Michael John Petry, and In search of Herne The Hunter, by Eric L Fitch. I will concentrate in this article on the few actual sightings that people have of him.
Most of the reported sightings seem to be in 20th Century, but a member has written to the Ghost Club Journal of an incident on 15th November 2012. He was returning from work at dusk near the south eastern corner of Windsor Great Park. He heard the sounds of a hunting horn and the yelping of a pack for hounds. It suddenly cut off. He he used this route for several days a week for eight years. This was the only time he heard it. There was no trace of a real hunt nearby.
There are the anecdotal stories, that he appeared in just before certain national disasters. Appearing before the Great Depression in 1931, with a white stag ghost and the ghostly form of the blasted oak. Also just before the second world war in 1939, and on the Death of George VI in 1952. No sources or witnesses are given with these sightings.
However signings with witness names do exist. Mr Evan Baille the father of the Lord Burton, who died in May of 2013, heard the hunting horn and the baying of the hounds when he was at Eton. In 1926 there was a report from Mrs Walter Legge JP, who lived at Farm House, Windsor. She had just gone to bed one night, when she heard the baying of hounds coming from the direction of Smith’s Lawn. It got louder and died away in the direction of Windsor Castle. She heard the sounds on another night at midnight, this time heard also by her daughter.
Another lady living at Windsor in the 1930’s heard the hounds and saw them running the open ground of the great park in the moonlight.
Elliott O’Donnell the famous Ghost Hunter, had lunch with the Dean of Windsor in Autumn of 1936. He asked him if he had heard anything of Herne. He replied that ” I can tell you that two Eton College boys are rumoured to have heard Herne’s Phantom Hounds, on their way back to the school one evening not so very long ago. They were in the Park when they heard the distant baying of hounds and the sound of a horse’s hooves careering madly over the ground. They looked in the direction of the sounds but could see nothing to account for them. The sounds kept drawing nearer to them, and they were distinctly conscious of the rush of many feet past them, accompanied by a cold current of air. That is the story the boys are alleged to have told on their arrival at the College.”
I have found that in 22nd September 1947 the American magazine Life ran an long article on Britain’s ghosts, Saying that in Britain, there were more Ghosts in houses, then termites in houses in the US, Written before “Ghost Hunters” hit TV in the States, of course. It started with a reporting from a woman who told to the London Evening News that she had seen in Windsor Great Park the shadowy figure of a man on a horse. Seeing her he gave a maniacal laugh and galloped off into the woods. The sound of a hunting horn followed.
A story told by a Morris dancer to folklorist R L Tongue involved a Teddy Boy killed by an invisible arrow in the 1950,s The Teddy boy and two other lads were mucking about in Windsor Great park breaking down small trees. The Teddy boy then found a hunting horn on the ground and blew it. A giant yelp came from the trees and the baying of some hounds followed. They all ran to a local church. Teddy boy stumbled, and as he reached the church last there was the sound of an arrow in flight, (as an archer I can tell you arrows make no sound in flight) and he dropped down dead. No sign of hounds hunter or arrow were found.
A similar thing happened in 1962; A group of youths are said to have found another huge hunting horn in the great park one night and blew upon it. Their call was answered by another horn, as well as the sounds of hounds baying nearby. Herne himself appeared this time riding a black horse and wearing enormous ragged antlers. The youths threw down the horn and ran for their lives.
These sounds of hounds and hunting horns are said to represent the great pagan wild hunt. The hounds are sometime called Gabriel Hounds or Gabriel Ratches, which also is a name for the braying hound like sound, wild geese make in flight at night.
The Windsor Castle grounds also have a history of haunting as several soldiers guarding it have discovered In 1906 it as reported that a guard on duty at the castle, had seen something which had frightened him so much that he fired his rifle at it. He was sentenced to three days’ confinement in barracks for firing without proper cause. Charles Fort recorded that the London Daily Mail, March 6th thought that he had shot at one of the pair of elephant statues in the moonlight. The Elliott O’Donnell reports in his book Haunted Britain that it was a group of ghostly figures, who disappeared after he had shot at them.
I have written to the Archivist of the Coldstream Guards, but they keep no records of so minor punishments as three days confined to barracks. He thinks that the sentry was probably spooked by a statue, and was let off lightly for letting off a rifle in the grounds of Windsor Castle.
Fortean Times reported a similar incident in 1976 which sounds more like Herne the Hunter
A MOVING EXPERIENCE AT WINDSOR
It appears that on the night of 22nd September a 19-year-old Coldstream Guardsman on duty overlooking a sunken garden in the grounds of Windsor Castle saw something which frightened him so much he collapsed. After he was discovered and recovered in hospital.
He swore to hospital doctors that a statue of a horned man in chains suddenly came alive before his eyes. Despite several mentions of the story in the press very few details are known because the Army have refused to make any more information available. The unnamed Guardsman was sent away for several days rest and attempts to get statements from the barracks near the castle have met with silence.
We wrote to the Guardsman via his commanding officer and received a reply from a Major EBL Armitage (1st Battalion CGs) who kindly informed us that he had passed the letter to the soldier who in turn asked the Major to reply for him. The soldier said ‘that he wished to be allowed to forget this rather frightening incident.’
The Major added that he hoped we ‘will understand his feelings and will wish to respect his desire to say no more of the matter’. Rogerson & Chris Castle, for clippings from Sunday Express 22 Sept & 10 Oct 76; Daily Mirror & the Guardian 27 Sept 76.)
So Herne the Hunter, a Berkshire local legend brought to the attention of the world by our greatest playwright, still seems to be reported haunting the area of Windsor Castle, accompanied by the pagan Wild Hunt complete with hounds and the lost souls. He is now an important figure in modern pagan witchcraft and the New Age Movement. Whatever you believe, if you find a hunting horn in Windsor great park, best not to blow it.