The Legend of Herne the Hunter
‘Herne’ was one of the keepers of the ‘Forest of Windsor’ in the reign of ‘King Richard II’ and known for his great hunting and woodcraft skills. Whilst King Richard favoured Herne his fellow hunters it is said hated him and plotted to cause Herne’s downfall.
One day the royal party were out on a hunt the king was nearly killed when attacked by a stag. Herne stepped in to help the king taking the main blow and fell to the floor. He seemed to be dead. Suddenly a dark figure appeared amongst the party and announced himself as ‘Philip Urswick’. He then proceeded to inform the king that for a reward he would cure Herne.
After cutting the head off the stag and binding it to Herne’s head, the party took Herne to Urswick’s own hut which was located on ‘Bagshot Heath’. Urswick vowed that he would take great care of Herne. King Richard then announced that if Herne recovered he would promote Herne to be the chief keeper.
Unbeknown to the king the other hunters were later in contact with Urswick and told him of their loathing for the favoured keeper announcing that they were disappointed that he had not died in the incident. Urswick promised the hunters revenge but only if his first wish and the reward was granted. He told them that Herne would recover but would loose all his hunting skills. Satisfied with his answer, the hunters agreed.
Keeping his promise to the king it seemed, Urswick soon had Herne returned to court whereupon he was promoted to chief keeper. Herne seemed to have recovered thoroughly until it became apparent that his hunting skills had disappeared. The king was extremely disappointed with Herne revoked the promotion. It is said that this is the reason why Herne, being so grieved by the king’s actions, hanged himself from an Oak tree in Windsor forest. His body disappeared under suspicious circumstances.
Urswick did not reveal the charm that he had cast upon Herne to the king. A new chief hunter was appointed but he too, once promoted, lost his skill. The same happened to his successor too. Urswick was asked to remove the charm. Before making any agreement, Urswick informed the hunters that they would have to meet him at the Oak. Once there they would be told what had to be done to dispel the charm.
The group of hunters arrived at the Oak as asked and after waiting a short time Urswick appeared. He told the them that Herne’s death was on each of them and that horses and hounds should be brought to the oak the next night. Agreeing they made preparations and returned to the forest. On reaching the Oak Herne appeared on a horse and told them to follow him to another area of the forest. Herne took the party to a Beech tree and whilst there Urswick suddenly appeared out of the tree covered in flames. Herne had summoned Urswick to appear. Urswick then made the party swear an oath to Herne that they would form a band of hunters with Herne as their leader to dispel the charm.
Urswick’s promise had been satisfied and the hunters became a faithful if not loving band of men loyal to Herne. For many nights the group would raid the forest taking deer until very few were left. King Richard came to learn of their pursuits, and decided to make a visit to he oak. He was angry and desired revenge upon the men.
Once there Herne appeared to the king and learnt of his anger. Herne listened and said that if the king wished him to leave the forest, taking his power with him, the king would have to agree to a request. Doubtless Herne wanted revenge upon his enemies who had desired his death. The king agreed to his request, and the group of men were hanged. Herne was then never seen again.
It is reputed though that Herne returned and reigned supreme, taking control of the forest of Windsor for eight years after the death of King Richard.
Many versions of the Herne legend exist. Some say that Herne hanged himself after committing a terrible crime, whilst another tells of a forest demon that takes on his appearance. The demon is said to place stag horns on its head haunting the forest still trying to convince keepers that it is Herne and that they should sell their souls to him.
‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ : William Shakespeare
‘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 around 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.’
The Merry Wives of Windsor : William Shakespeare
‘Why, yet there want not many, that do fear
In deep of night to walk by this Herne’s oak.’
On August 31 1863 the famous Windsor Oak fell from natural causes, but was soon replaced by a new young Oak tree by Queen Victoria on the same spot.