1840s depiction of Herne the Hunter by George Cruikshank
Many versions of Herne the Hunter have entertained and frightened the folks throughout the centuries. A stable of monarchs from Richard II (1377 - 99), Henry VII (1485 - 1590), Henry VIII (1509 - 47), and Elizabeth I (1558 - 1603) were supposedly the master of this legendary hunter, but his roots go as deep as the oak forest he haunts.
According to the folk tales, Herne was a royal deer keeper accused of practicing the black arts. Such crimes required execution and he was hung from a great oak tree in his own forest. Another version from an era when black arts were perhaps not such a hot button issue claims that Herne hung himself from a twisted old oak, driven to suicide after the king had defiled his daughter.
An execution or suicide in the shade of an elder grove of course calls for haunting. Herne is cursed to hunt the vicinity of the oak where he died, chasing unlucky intruders. A lightning bolt during an especially fierce thunderstorm in 1863 reportedly split apart the hanging oak and freed Herne's spirit. The wood from the broken tree was burnt in the castle fireplaces to destroy the ghost of Herne.
Unfortunately for Herne, the English love of a good ghost story soon recaptured him. Supposedly Queen Victoria herself planted a new oak tree to serve as a tether on Herne's spirit.
Many reports of sightings over the centuries, including the 20th century, have fueled the legend of Herne, but these vivid accounts are likely inspired by imagination and the ease of getting spooked in the woods at night.
Forests possess special powers for frightening us. Large trees twisted by time and the force of storms radiate a living presense that is alien to our own lives. We sense their watchful greatness encompassing us with towering branches and roots that clutch the ground beneath our feet.
The beliefs and practices of ancient pagans often summoned the spirit of the forest with a man wearing antlers. The ghostly legend of Herne is obviously an early modern adaptation of ancient Celtic traditions. The Celtic lord of animals, Cernunnos, whose name means horned one, was associated with fertility and the Underworld. The Celts of the northern British Isles had a War God called Belatucadros, who had horns. According to Wikipedia, Belatucadros was equated with the Roman war god Mars during the Roman occupation of Britain, and lower ranking Roman soldiers worshipped him. Altars associated with this war god were small and plain, suggesting that the lower social classes honored him. Apparently the horned god or horned one has been in the minds of the masses in Britain for thousands of years, providing a familiar image for new tales of death in the forest.
Around 500 A.D. Windsor Forest sheltered a small settlement of Romano Celts about to be overrun by Anglo-Saxons. This enclave of people likely perserved the old legends of the horned god that were adapted into the folk tales of conquering cultures.
The motif of a man with antlers hunting the woodland is persistent. Herne, and other similar incarnations, serve to embody the strong primal forces of the hunter, the hunted, and the forest that is sustained by a cycle of growth and decay.
Mysteries of Planet Earth: An Encyclopedia of the Inexplicable by Dr. Karl R.N. Shuker