Herne the Hunter, Berkshire
Like most of our legends, there is no definitive version of Herne the Hunter, and the origins of the story are much debated - does it relate to some Celtic horned god; is it based on the germ of a true tale? What perhaps makes the story most interesting is that for several hundred years people in and around Windsor Great Park swear they have sighted the ghost of Herne and his attendant hunt.
In the reign of Richard II (who met the stickiest end of any monarch, but that is another story) there was a highly capable huntsman at Windsor, who with his two great black hounds would find and flush out game for the king to hunt. Because of his abilities this man, Herne, provoked jealousy among his fellows, jealousy that was made worse when he received the favour of the king.
One day as the royal hunting party was riding in the forest Herne got on the track of a white stag, cornering it for the king to make the kill. The terrified beast, maddened by the arrows that had slowed it, turned on Richard and sprang at him, mortally wounding the king's horse. As the beast was about to spring at Richard Herne threw himself in its path, the antlers causing appalling and surely fatal injuries to the loyal servant, who in spite of this managed to deal it a death blow with his knife.
Richard called for aid, and out of nowhere appeared a local wise man, Urswick, known as the Dark Man. Urswick said he could cure the hunter, and his offer was immediately accepted. Urswick cut off the antlers of the dead stag and bound them to the top of Herne's head, and had the wounded man carried to his home on Bagshot Heath.
True to his word, after several weeks, the wizard's potions wrought a cure, and Herne returned to his duties. Richard, grateful for Herne's selflessness previously, made him chief keeper of the forest.
The now junior hunters became yet more jealous, and they conspired to bring him down. First they hid several deerskins in Herne's quarters. Then they worked on Urswick, telling him Herne had doubted his skills, and told the court that the potions had nothing to do with his recovery. The slighted Dark Man worked his magic to remove Herne's skills as a hunter, to such an extent that the king doubted his faithful servant, wondering why he could find no game anymore. When the jealous hunters hinted that Herne was out poaching at night the king had his quarters searched, and found the hidden skins. Saddened by this seeming betrayal, Richard dismissed Herne.
The next day the body of the faithful Herne was found hanging from a great oak in the forest. He had taken his own life, unable to bear the loss of his skills and his royal favour.
The jealous huntsmen rose in the pecking order, but they too were unable to find game, a curse seeming to have fallen upon them. When Urswick was consulted he advised the king and his hunting party to gather the next night at Herne's oak, where they would find a solution. This they did, and were greeted by the sight of the ghost of Herne, horns on his head, demanding the return of his hounds and the death of his treacherous comrades if ever the hunt was to have success again. Richard immediately had the pair hanged, and now they follow the horned man on ghostly hunts, the great black hounds baying before them, illuminated by lightning and accompanied by thunder. Herne has another companion on the hunt too, a horned owl that sits on his shoulder.
If you hear the hounds in Windsor forest, run away, for those they catch are forced to join their chase. And some say that their appearance presages the death of the monarch within a twelvemonth.
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