The legend of the ghost of Herne the Hunter has been associated with Windsor at least since Shakespeare’s time. It was used by him for local colouring in The Merry Wives of Windsor. The earliest extant account of the whole legend seems to be the one in William Harrison Ainsworth’s Windsor Castle (1842). Some contemporary neopagans, apparently following Margaret Murray’s God of the Witches (1931), identify Herne as an aspect of Cernunnos. This is my own treatment of the story: on this blog I usually write about stories, rather than tell them, but I’ve made an exception here in honour of the season. I’ve based it fairly closely on Shonaleigh‘s version, but I also consulted Ainsworth.

Herne was a boy in King Richard’s days, when Windsor was a great forest: a young man from the kitchens, apprenticed to the huntsmen, consumed with the desire to excel. In time the king noticed the young man, and began to praise him for his skill. But he was reserved and awkward, difficult to take a liking to, and the other huntsmen did not warm to him.

One winter’s day, when the whole court was out at the chase, the boy faced down a great stag, just as it threatened to trample the king. He stood in the path of the charging beast, and the stag gored the boy even as he killed it. But the king was unhurt. As the remarkable young man lay beside the dead stag, the king swore aloud that if he lived, young though he was, he would be appointed head huntsman. The other huntsmen stood watching. Then, out of the forest, there came a stranger, darker than the shadows of the forest behind him in the winter sunlight. Before the astonished court, the dark stranger cut the antlers from the dead stag’s head, and bound them by the hide on the head of the maimed boy, and announced that, in order to be healed, the boy had to wear the antlers day and night until they rotted, and the day they fell away from him altogether, his strength would be regained in full.

The bewildered king told the huntsmen to leave the boy in the dark stranger’s care. Carrying the boy between them, they followed the stranger into the depths of the forest.

The king went home.

When the huntsmen returned, they would say only that the boy was lodging with the dark stranger, and would be back soon enough.

Sure enough, after three months, he emerged from the forest, and at once rejoined the king’s service. He said had worn the antlers until they rotted away, and the dark stranger had proved as good as his word. His wound was healed, and he had no lingering sickness, and at first he seemed quite his old self.

But when the boy returned to the hunt, it very soon became clear that his luck had abandoned him. He was useless as a huntsman now. He would fumble over the simplest of tasks, and as time passed it became clear that he would never kill quarry again.

At last, with great sorrow, the king summoned the boy and told him that he must return to the kitchens. He would never fulfil his lonely desire for excellence in his chosen craft. Leaving the king’s presence, the boy went straight to the great oak in Windsor Park, threw a rope over its broadest bough, and hanged himself. That might have been the melancholy end of it.

But after the burial, the morning after the full moon, all Windsor Park was found to be mysteriously desolate. Unseen hands had torn the lawns up in the night, cut and slashed the branches, and scorched the woodland while the court slept. The forest was still charred and smouldering, and a pall of smoke hung heavy in the air. Overnight, the forest had become a desert. The troubled king summoned his huntsmen to account.

Sir, said the head huntsman, judge us as you see fit. We spoiled the forest, I and my fellow-huntsmen. Months ago, when the boy Herne killed the deer under the great oak, and first wore its horns on his head, we carried him to the dark stranger’s house. By the time we came there, the stranger had already seen how much we hated the boy – hated him because of his skill, and the favour it won him in your eyes. Then the dark stranger told us that he had only promised to save his life. He could easily send him back a living fool, he said, to trouble us no longer. And he would do it, if in return we agreed to gather again under the great oak, the first full moon after the boy’s death. We said we would, and came home. When the boy came back, he had indeed become a fool, and soon afterwards he died at his own hands, and so we saw that the dark stranger was as good as his word. And so we were as good as ours. We went to the great oak last night. The stranger was waiting there for us. He stood aside. In the shadows behind him, under the oak, we saw the boy Herne, just as he had been in life, with the living antlers on his brow. The dark stranger told us that, since we had not been content to follow Herne before by the king’s command, we would follow him now by the terms of our own bargain. Some power greater than our own wills overmastered us then, and all that night we followed Herne as our lord and head huntsman, and we ravaged the forest as we went. Herne led us, and I have never seen such mastery of the hunter’s craft. His skill was perfect, and he laughed to see us breaking the forest as we rode through it.

We woke this morning in our own beds, and came at once to your summons.

The head huntsman fell silent. The king considered.

I see, he answered. Your service to Herne is now over, seemingly, and your bargain with the dark stranger is fulfilled. But you still have to pay your debt to me.

With those words he hanged them all from the same great oak, because they had plotted against his loyal servant, and spoiled his property, and so made traitors of themselves.

Then he took new huntsmen into his service, and they began the work of mending the forest.

For King Richard, that was the end of the matter. But still you can still see them all, if you go at night to the great oak in Windsor Park: even now, when the forest is all but cleared, and the great oak is long since felled, and the line of kings has failed, and the very winters are warm, you can see the shadow of the horned hunter, his retinue riding behind him, with terror in their faces and death in their hands. And anyone foolish enough to look among those faces will see Herne’s old tormentors and fellow-huntsmen in the ranks of the retinue, in among all the timely and untimely dead of the world, running and riding, searching restlessly until the world’s ending. And at the head of them all, still to be seen, rides their lord, Herne the Hunter, perfect at last in the mastery of his craft.