(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

In April, 1529, the young Earl of Surrey was at Windsor Castle preparing for the arrival of King Henry VIII. One night, having dismissed his attendants with orders to meet him at the Garter Inn in the nearby village, he began a walk through the home park. On the way, he passed near an ancient tree known as Herne’s Oak, where a demon hunter was reported to lie in wait for the wayfarers through the forest at night. Suddenly, a blue light surrounded the old tree. Beneath its branches stood the figure of a man wearing the skull and antlers of a stag upon his head. From the left arm of the specter hung a heavy rusted chain; on its right wrist perched an owl with red, staring eyes.

When Surrey crossed himself in fear, the figure vanished. Hurrying from the haunted spot, he encountered another traveler through the park. The man was Morgan Fenwolf, a gamekeeper who led the Earl to the inn where the young nobleman was to rejoin his companions.

Surrey arrived at the Garter in time to witness a quarrel between a butcher and an archer who called himself the Duke of Shoreditch. The butcher spoke angry words that came close to treason and declared himself opposed to Henry’s desire to put aside Catherine of Aragon. When words led to blows, Surrey and Fenwolf stepped in to halt the fight. The self-dubbed Duke of Shoreditch insisted that the butcher be imprisoned. As he was led away, the butcher charged that Fenwolf was a wizard. Much amused, Surrey rode off to Hampton Court to meet the royal procession.

Henry and his court arrived at Windsor Castle amid the shouts of the crowd and volleys of cannon from the walls. In his train, Lady Anne Boleyn, dressed in ermine and cloth of gold, rode in a litter attended by Sir Thomas Wyat, the poet; the youthful Duke of Richmond, the natural son of the king and the Earl of Surrey, Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord High Chancellor, was also in the procession.

Informed on his arrival of the arrest of the treasonous butcher, Henry ordered his immediate execution. The body of the butcher was swinging from the battlements as Henry escorted Anne Boleyn into the castle.

After Surrey had told Richmond of his ghostly encounter in the park, the two young men agreed to go that night to Herne’s Oak. There they watched a ghostly chase—the demon hunter pursuing a deer, a great owl flying before him, and black hounds running silently beside his horse.

On their return to the castle, their haggard looks led to many questions from the ladies attending Anne Boleyn, among them Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald, the fair Geraldine, as she was called, an Irish beauty with whom both Surrey and Richmond were in love. Later that night, suspecting that they may have been the victims of a hoax arranged by Morgan Fenwolf, Surrey and the Duke returned to the forest in search of the gamekeeper. There they found the body of the hanged butcher. Pinned to his clothing was an inscription which indicated that a political party opposed to the King now considered the butcher a martyr to their cause.

Bad blood was brewing between Surrey and the Duke over the fair Geraldine. Finding the girl and the young Earl meeting in a secret tryst, the Duke challenged Surrey to a duel. Royal guards stopped the fight, and Surrey was imprisoned for drawing steel against the King’s son.

Orders were given for a royal hunt. During the chase, Anne Boleyn was endangered by the charge of a maddened stag, but her life was saved by a well-aimed arrow from Morgan Fenwolf’s bow. To avoid the charging stag, Anne threw herself into the arms of Sir Thomas Wyat, who was riding by her side. Henry saw her action and was furious.

Henry’s jealousy immediately gave cheer to the supporters of Catherine of Aragon, who hoped that Henry would give up his plan to make Anne the next Queen of England. Shortly after the return of the party to Windsor, a spy informed Henry that Wyat was in Anne’s apartment. Henry angrily went to see for himself; but before his arrival, Surrey, just liberated from his cell to hear the King’s judgment on his case, hurried to warn Wyat and Anne. Wyat escaped through a secret passage. Surrey explained that he had come to ask Anne’s aid in obtaining a royal pardon for his rashness in quarreling with the Duke of Richmond. Through Anne’s favor, his sentence was shortened to confinement for two months.

Herne the Hunter continued to haunt the home park. One night, the Duke of Richmond went alone to the forest and there saw the demon accompanied by a band of spectral huntsmen, one of whom he recognized as the butcher. The horsemen rode rapidly through the forest and then plunged into a lake and disappeared. Sir Thomas Wyat, angry and wretched at having lost Anne to Henry, met the ghostly hunter and promised to give his soul to the powers of evil if he could win back Anne. The demon assured him that he should have his wish. Soon afterward, however, Henry decided to send Wyat on a mission to France.

Cardinal Wolsey, thwarted in his attempt to make Wyat the agent of Anne’s overthrow,...

(The entire section is 2076 words.)