Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
— William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor
This was the first mention of Herne the Hunter in English literature, by William Shakespeare. In his play The Merry Wives of Windsor, Master Shakespeare wrote about a bogeyman from Windsor forest that wore antlers, rode a horse, and torment cattle. Occasionally, Herne the Hunter would rattle chains if people would get to close to him. He was also said to blow a hunting horn, echoing through Windsor.
There are several theories behind the origin of Herne the Hunter. The oldest one is that Herne, just like other Wild Huntsmen which are plentiful in European folklore, is derived from the Celtic God Cernunnos. Cernunnos is a horned god of wealth, fertility, life, and underworld in Celtic pantheon. This interpretation was first suggested by R. Lowe Thompson, in his book The History of the Devil – The Horned God of the West Herne. Thompson based his claim on linguistical evidence, drawing a parallel between the origin of the English word horn from Latin cornu. In his book, he said: “As the Latin cornu changes into horn so might Cerne change into Herne.”
Other theory claims that Herne the Hunter is much younger, from Early Middle Ages, when Windsor Forest was a part of a territory controlled by Angles, whose God Woden is actually Odin and who also liked to hunt and suffered the fate similar to Herne’s, being hanged from the tree.
Finally, there’s a Samuel Ireland’s version, who claims that Herne the Hunter is, in fact, a historical person. A yeoman named Richard Horne, who was a gamekeeper for King Henry VIII, but was caught poaching. Rather than suffering the embarrassment, he hanged himself in Windsor Forest, the very one he was supposed to keep free from poachers. Since he committed suicide or, as Ireland puts it “died an unholy death” he has returned as a ghost, sentenced to roam forest forever. In fact, the first version of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor spells Herne as Horne. The fact that the legend of Herne the Hunter doesn’t appear in any other part of England and is purely a local myth lend strong credibility to Ireland’s version.
The hunt for the tree Herne hanged himself was very popular during the Victorian England and several oaks have had the distinction of being claimed as Herne’s oak at one time or another.
Another version that can’t be dismissed is that Shakespeare simply included Herne in order to have Falstaff wear antlers while disguised as him to better represent him as a cuckold (cuckolds have horns after all). This theory has a major flaw, since Falstaff isn’t a cuckold in Merry Wives, but rather is trying to cuckold other men, regardless of how unsuccessful his attempts are. Be that as it may, if you hear chains rattling while walking through Windsor Forest, be wary. It just may be Herne the Hunter.