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.
William Shakespeare The Merry Wives of Windsor
On August 31 1863 a large and famous Windsor Oak tree fell in the Home Park. The logs were burned at the castle in order ‘to burn away the ghost of Herne the Hunter’ who had haunted the forest as far back as anyone could remember. One log was not burned and instead was skillfully carved into a bust of Shakespeare. That bust can now be seen in the Windsor and Royal Borough Museum in the Guildhall.
The legend at the time was that Herne was one of the keepers of Windsor Forest during the reign of ‘King Richard II’. Herne was favoured after saving the king from being attacked by the a stag but later hanged himself after committing a terrible crime. Herne is always depicted as wearing a stag’s antlers upon his head.
Other tales are more supernatural and talk of strange powers over the woodland and a band of ghostly riders who follow Herne the Hunter on his nightly escapades. The connection with the supernatural has led many writers to speculate that the old stories go back much further than the reign of King Richard.
It is claimed that Herne is a folk memory of the Celtic Horned God, Cernunnos.
The legend of Herne the Hunter is not found outside Windsor Forest, although evidence of worship of Cernunnos can be found in various spots around Britain and Gaul. The name Cernunnos simply translates as ‘Horned One’ a God of hunting and nature.
The picture on the right is a representation of Cernunnos from the Gundestrup Cauldron, a richly decorated silver bowl dating from the 1st Century AD that was discovered in a Danish peat bog.
Cernunnos is also associated with the Green Man who is found carved across europe and within the bounds of Windsor Forest are a number of pubs called ‘The Green Man’.
By 500 ad Windsor Forest was a small enclave of Romano Celtic settlement shortly to be overrun by Anglo-Saxons who by then controlled all the land around the last remnant of the Romano Celtic population in the South of England.
The elements of the Wild Hunters band and a hanging in a tree from the Herne Legend my have come from Saxon stories of Wodin where both themes appear. It may well be that the Celtic legend survived because the Celts remained in the area for up to 100 years longer than Celts elsewhere in the south of England. Thus when the Saxons took over, there might have been a more peaceful transition of power and perhaps more opportunity for old ideas and stories to survive in situ.
For the visitor to Windsor, the best way to get close to the legend of Herne the Hunter is to come to Windsor during the rutting season and at dawn and dusk listen to the Deer in the Great Park. With just a little imagination you can hear the deer calling out Herne’s name.
In the 1980s television series “Robin of Sherwood” Herne the Hunter is a pagan shaman who occasionally advises Robin Hood in his battles with the Sheriff of Nottingham.