Herne the Hunter is a supernatural figure who, according to Shakespeare, roamed the Windsor Forest. One of many such “Wild Huntsmen” from British folklore, Herne was unique in that he was described as part beast himself, and walked the woods as a solitary figure, unaccompanied by hounds. What is not widely told is that the legend of Herne the Hunter is actually from Worcestershire where he is bound to the old Feckenham forests.
Feckenham was once a sister to the Arden forest so closely associated with Shakespeare. It was huge, and you may recall the tale of the spectral Sir Peter Corbett of Harvington, doomed to hunt for eternity within it's bounds, from my last post. There is also the legendary figure of Callow, yet another magical hunter who has many associations and placenames bearing his name throughout Worcestershire and was said to haunt Feckenham Forest.
Herne was said to have killed a white stag in the forest, this animal was known and considered sacred to the abbess of nearby Bordesley Abbey and she angrily cursed him. Struck down by holy justice, Herne was condemned to hunt forever within Feckenham, half man half beast, with the antlers of the stag he killed growing out of his own now barely human head. He carried a chain with him, said to be from the abbey where the abbess had intended to keep the stag as a holy pet. As Shakespeare put it -
There is an old tale goes that Herne the Hunter
Sometime keeper here in Windsor Forest
Doth all the winter time, at still midnight
Walk round the oak, with great ragged 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
Shakespeare spent several months in hiding away from London and his home of Stratford on Avon, as Jesuit priests and their supporters were being hunted down amid intelligence suggesting a plot to overthrow Queen Elizabeth. His early patrons were catholics connected to this chaos and so he kept his head down in a tiny village in Feckenham Forest called Earl's Common, according to folklorist Roy Palmer “while he waited for trouble in London to blow over”. It is said he stayed at an inn called the Drainer's Arms and no doubt the ale loving young bard would have listened intently to local tales and legends by the roaring log fire.
The Temple Oak is a vast old oak tree, reckoned to be 1500 to 2000 years old, that stands at the edge of a field a mile from Earl's Common. It is hollow, and was like this at the time of Shakespeare's stay. It has associations with the Knights Templar but is also crucially said to be one of the places Herne the Hunter would frequent, bound to it as if he fed on it's lifeforce. Young Will wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor, some say at Elizabeth's request, while “on lockdown” and it is easy to see now how he must have moved the legend to Windsor Forest and had Falstaff, dressed as Herne, hiding inside a hollow old oak. Simon Andrew Stirling, in his “Who Killed William Shakespeare” expands on this idea with a wealth of evidence, even suggesting that Shakespeare may have actually hidden inside the Temple Oak himself as the priest hunters visited Earl's Common.
As for Herne himself, he may be a hangover from the worship of the horned figure commonly called Cernunnos, interestingly the Gaulish “karnon” means horned and it's Germanic translation is “hurnaz” which became simply “horn” in Old English. You don't have to take huge leaps there to see how the name of Herne might have come about and what sort of figure he was. The twin horned godlike figure is common throughout Germanic Europe and was revered by the pagan Anglo Saxons, as evidenced by archaeological finds. The figure of Herne the Hunter was memorably brought back into the public consciousness in the TV series Robin of Sherwood, where this more sympathetic character mentored and protected the legendary English outlaw hero.
The Temple Oak is in fine health today and here's hoping it lives on for centuries more, watched over by it's supernatural, primeval guardian.
The magnificent Temple Oak
Herne the Hunter by artist Arwen's Grace
Herne the Hunter as portrayed in Robin of Sherwood
Medieval bridge across to Earl's Common, walked by Shakespeare many times
Horned figure from the Finglesham buckle, pagan Anglo Saxon grave goods
A fine Tudor hall in Earl's Common, this would have stood there like new during Shakespeare's time