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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2584

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First published: 1843

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical romance

Time of work: Sixteenth century

Locale: England

Principal Characters:

Henry VIII, King of England

Catherine of Aragon, Queen of England

Anne Boleyn, Catherine’s successor

Cardinal Wolsey, Lord High Chancellor

The Earl of Surrey, a member of the court

The Duke of Richmond, Henry’s natural son

Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald, the fair Geraldine

Mabel Lynwood, the granddaughter of a royal forester

Morgan Fenwolf, a gamekeeper

Herne the Hunter, a spectral demon

The Story:

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, planned to use Mabel Lyndwood, granddaughter of a royal forester, to attract Henry.

One night, Herne the Hunter appeared to Surrey in his prison tower and showed the fair Geraldine to the young man in a vision. After the demon had disappeared, Surrey was unable to find a holy relic that the girl had given him.

Wyat, however, had not gone to France. Kidnaped by the demon, he was imprisoned in a cave and forced to drink a strange brew that affected his reason and made him swear to become one of Herne’s midnight huntsmen. Fenwolf, who was a member of the band, promised to betray the King into Wyat’s hands. While riding through the home park, Henry and the Duke of Suffolk were attacked by Herne’s followers. Henry, coming face-to-face with Wyat, was about to kill his rival, but Mabel Lyndwood suddenly appeared and asked the king to spare Wyat because he had saved Henry’s life when the attack began. Henry sternly ordered Wyat, once more in possession of his senses, to continue on his way to France. Fenwolf was captured by royal guards who had ridden out in search of the King and was imprisoned in the castle. Later, he escaped under mysterious circumstances. After failing to track down Herne, Henry ordered the haunted oak felled and burned.

In disguise, Catherine of Aragon appeared at Windsor Castle and sought an audience with Henry in order to convince him of her love and to warn him against Anne’s fickle and unfaithful nature. When Anne interrupted them, Catherine foretold Anne’s bloody doom.

Shortly afterward, Herne appeared before the King on the castle terrace and prophesied Henry’s fearful end. A terrible storm broke at that moment, and the demon disappeared.

Meanwhile, Mabel Lyndwood had been brought to the castle, where her grandfather was being held for questioning following the attack on Henry. Henry found her in the kitchen and gave orders that she was to be cared for until he sent for her.

Old Lyndwood was questioned by the King, but he refused to talk. Henry then ordered the guards to bring Mabel to her grandfather’s cell. There Henry threatened them with death if the old forester refused to reveal his knowledge of the demon hunter. That night, a strange messenger, after presenting the King’s signet ring to the guards, led Mabel and her grandfather from the castle and told them to go to a secret cave. Meanwhile, the castle was in an uproar. When the guards, led by Henry himself, cornered the demon in one of the upper chambers of the castle, the specter disappeared after pointing out to Henry a coffin containing the body of the hanged butcher.

Determined at last to put Catherine aside and knowing that Wolsey would block his attempts so long as the Cardinal remained in power, Henry removed Wolsey from office and disgraced him publicly. Anne Boleyn would be the next Queen of England.

Released from imprisonment, Surrey learned that the fair Geraldine had gone back to Ireland. Surrey and Richmond, riding near the castle, met Wyat, who had returned secretly from France to discover the whereabouts of Mabel Lyndwood and to rid the forest of the demon hunter.

His disclosure of his plans was overheard by the hunter and Fenwolf, who were hiding in the loft of a nearby cottage. A short time later, Herne and Fenwolf quarreled over Mabel’s favors. When Fenwolf tried to stab the demon, his dagger would not pierce the demon’s body. Herne, who claimed that he was more than a hundred years old, asked Mabel to love him and to pray for his liberation from the spell that caused him to walk the earth and do evil. Wyat, who had been captured by the hunter, was offered his freedom if Mabel would accept the demon’s love. Herne also promised her jewels and revealed that she was the unacknowledged daughter of the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey.

The hunter finally told her that whether she loved him or not he intended to marry her the next night near an ancient Druid ruin. Fenwolf overheard his declaration and promised to release Mabel if she would wed him. The girl refused; she said that Fenwolf was almost as evil as the demon himself.

The next day, Mabel managed to free Wyat from the cave where he was confined, and the two made their escape. Old Lyndwood and Fenwolf planned to destroy the hunter by setting off a blast of powder in the cave. In their flight, Wyat and Mabel were forced to swim their horse across a lake. Mabel fainted. On the opposite shore, Wyat encountered Surrey, Richmond, and a party searching for the demon. Mabel was placed upon a litter of branches. At the moment, Herne the Hunter rode up, seized the girl, and raced with her toward the cave; the others were in pursuit until their way was blocked by a forest fire that followed the roar of an explosion from the direction of the cave. Fenwolf was burned in the blaze. The next morning Wyat, Surrey, and Richmond found old Lyndwood kneeling over his granddaughter, whose dead body he had dragged from the lake. The searchers found no trace of the demon hunter.

Seven years passed. Richmond had married Lady Mary Howard, the sister of Surrey. Surrey had been forced to wed Lady Frances Vere, for the King had refused him permission to marry the fair Geraldine. Wolsey and Catherine were dead. Anne had become Queen but she was beginning to realize that Henry was growing cool toward her and their little daughter, Elizabeth. Although she was not faithful to the King, she would not allow another to share Henry’s affection. Jealous of his attentions to Jane Seymour, she reproached and threatened her rival. Jane replied by accusing Anne of misconduct with Sir Henry Norris.

While the court was at Windsor Castle, Herne the Hunter appeared once more. Disguised as a monk, he led Anne and Norris to an apartment where they found the King and Jane Seymour together. Anne knew then what her end was to be; but when Norris asked her to flee with him, she refused.

In May, some jousts were held at the castle. Norris, who had formed a compact with the demon hunter, defeated the King in the tourney. As his reward, Anne gave him a handkerchief that Henry had presented to her. Furious, Henry charged her with incontinence and sent Norris to the tower. Soon afterward, Anne also was imprisoned. Herne visited her and offered to carry her and her lover to a place of safety. Rather than sacrifice her soul, Anne refused. At her trial, she was pronounced guilty and sentenced to die.

Henry was in retirement at Windsor Castle on the day of her execution. As her head rolled from the block, Herne the Hunter appeared before Henry, bowed mockingly, and told the King that he was free to wed once more.

Critical Evaluation:

WINDSOR CASTLE illustrates various ways in which serious organizational problems can arise despite the author’s careful adherence to what looks like neat structural division. The book shares with the body of William Harrison Ainsworth’s fiction a variety of significant features: a complicated series of more or less interwoven actions and intrigues interlaced with historical matter, introducing a complex dimension all its own, as well as important architectural and scientific backgrounds and supernatural events, or what appear to be fated occurrences. The book is also well researched, and descriptions and action scenes are as superbly drawn as in Ainsworth’s other novels. The author’s use of subplots, however, is a feature that is disturbing and requires some consideration.

It must not be assumed that Ainsworth’s subplots are always mere padding. Frequently, such subplots significantly enlarge the scope of the principal action of the novel, but in WINDSOR CASTLE, Ainsworth repeatedly introduces motifs that he fails to develop fully. For example, the unhappy romance of Surrey and the fair Geraldine, although it serves to illustrate the power of Henry VIII, is too sketchily treated to sustain interest.

There are other loose ends in the book, but they do not really impair the structure. Book 6, for example, takes place seven years after the first five parts, but, showing as it does the downfall of Anne Boleyn, it is a logical consequence if not an integral part of the main action. Furthermore, it is not disturbing to have the supernatural dimension involving Herne the Hunter and his repeated incursions, because they consistently affect the king and have a definite place in advancing action and creating atmosphere.

This interesting novel of the reign of King Henry VIII combines two traditions of English fiction: the historical romance and the Gothic romance of mystery and terror. An element of the weird is imparted to the novel by the mysterious figure of Herne the Hunter, an apparition out of the imagination of medieval England and still a creature of legend in the history of Windsor Castle. In his novel, Ainsworth gave Herne the function of a somewhat disorganized conscience. Linked to forces of evil as well as to those of good, he never has a clearly defined symbolic value.

Although Ainsworth allows himself to stray too often from the main track of his narrative, the average reader will not be disturbed by this lack of unity since the novel contains all the exciting action, colorful descriptions, and living history for which the author is justly famous.