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Hunting for Herne's Oak

This tree was spotted at the theatre in Stratford...

3 February 2007

Theatre-goer Ed Pomfret recently recorded an ancient tree spotted in Shakespeare's 'Merry Wives of Windsor' at the RSC Stratford.

There is an old tale goes that Herne the hunter,
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;
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:
Act IV SCene IV

Expert Verifier David Alderman has tracked down the story for us.

Herne the Hunter's Oak was located in Home Park, Windsor not the Great Park. Gilpin recorded the tree in 1791. It died c 1796 and finally fell in a gale in 1863. Herne, a forest keeper (see 'Merry Wives of Windsor') is said to have hung himself from the tree and his ghost haunted it at midnight. A sapling grown from it was planted in Wales by Sir D Dundas of Richmond (London). Queen Victoria had a cabinet made from the timber and W Perry made a casket to hold a first folio of Shakespeare.

Not to be confused with this, there is an oak called Herne's Oak in the Carthamartha Woods near Launceston, Cornwall which is still alive but in poor condition and propped (Desmond Harris). It is suggested this was probably a meeting place for hunters.

Further to this, a member recently found a newspaper cutting relating to Herne's Oak, whilst looking through a victorian needlework box!

"Its identity has been disputed; but in Pote’s “Plan of the castle and town of Windsor”, published in 1749, the position of this tree is marked down as “Falstaff’s Oak”. When writing the Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakspere (sic) is said to have been sojourning at the “Bottle on the Moore”, now the “Hope Inn”, Frogmore, and the scenery of the play was taken by him from the then state of the Park.

The “Fairies’ Dell” has, in the length of time, been more or less filled up. The late Prince Consort, with that good taste for the preservation of literary traditions which he always displayed, had much of the earth removed, when it was discovered that the large oaks at the bottom of the dell had been left standing in an upright position.

Now that this venerable oak has fallen, it is to be hoped that steps may be taken to restore the “Fairies’ Dell” to its former level, and that those upright oaks, though only shattered trunks, will then be restored to light. “Herne’s Oak” was blown down on Monday, the 31st of last month; and, wherever the English language is spoken, that piece of news is read with regret.

It is the tree to which Shakspere has given immortality; and so its trunk, crumbling already into dust, must be preserved amidst the choicest relics of the past, as is the branch which fell from it twenty years ago, in the royal stores at Windsor Castle." - The Reader

Herne The Hunter. Photo: Garden of England Sculpture Ltd/ Tim HawkinsPhoto