The earliest recorded manifestation in England of the Wild Hunt took place at Peterborough, in connection with the arrival of a new abbot, Henry of Poitou, who ‘did nothing good there and left nothing good there’. These are the words of the monk who kept up the chronicle of events now known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle at Peterborough Abbey. Under the year 1127 he wrote:
Let it not be thought remarkable, when we tell the truth, because it was fully known over all the country, that as soon as he came there … then soon afterwards many people saw and heard many hunters hunting. The hunters were black and big and loathsome, and their hounds all black and wide-eyed and loathsome, and they rode on black horses and black goats. This was seen in the very deer-park in the town of Peterborough, and in all the woods that there were between this town and Stamford, and the monks heard the horns blow that they were blowing at night. Trustworthy people noticed them at night, and said that it seemed to them there might well be about twenty or thirty hornblowers. This was seen and heard from the time he came there all Lent up to Easter.
Similar packs of spectral hounds are known all over England. They go under various names: in Devon, the Yeth (Heath) or Wisht Hounds; in Cornwall, Dando and his Dogs. The ‘wide-eyed’ Peterborough hounds also sound very much like the Norfolk Shuck (see SHERINGHAM, Norfolk). Often such packs are not seen, but heard passing overhead at night during bad weather, like, in the North, the Gabble Ratchets or Gabriel Hounds (see HAMMERWICH, Staffordshire).
The apparition of huntsmen riding black horses and accompanied by black hounds was said to have been witnessed in many places in Western Europe, and was mostly encountered in forests and woods, its coming heralded by thunder and the noise of wind in the trees. In 1803, John Leyden characterized it as ‘invisible hunting’:
… heard at midnight, or at noon,
Beginning faint, but rising still more loud
And nearer, voice [sic] of hunters, and of hounds,
And horns hoarse-winded, blowing far and keen …
The name Wild Hunt is now often applied by folklorists to other noisy, invisible, aerial phenomena, such as the Gabriel Hounds and the Seven Whistlers (see MARAZION, Cornwall), which may or may not have been originally connected: possibly, in the course of time, different themes have become merged.
A spectral procession, not always a hunting party, and usually seen on the ground, was several times reported in the Middle Ages. Walter Map, writing c.1190, speaks of ‘nocturnal companies’ known as familia Herlethingus, ‘the household of Herlethingus’, and led by King Herla, an ancient British king. Last seen in the marches of Wales in 1154 about noonday, when the countryside was raised against them, they rose into the air and vanished. ‘Herlethingus’ is one of several names associated with this procession from the eleventh century: familia Herlechini, maisniee Helequin, Hurlewaynis kynne, all meaning the household of some being possibly related to Harlequin, who first appeared on the Paris stage towards the end of the sixteenth century.
When a Norman parish priest named Walkelin encountered them one moonlit night in 1092, says Ordericus Vitalis (1075–1143), they appeared as a great crowd, their heads burdened with sheep and bundles of clothes like robbers, accompanied by an army ‘in which no colour was visible, but only blackness and fiery flames’, all mounted on great war-horses and fully armed. Walkelin said to himself, ‘Doubtless these are Herlechin’s people.’ He had often heard of them, but never seen them.
Walkelin saw in the procession neighbours who had lately died, and among the familia Herlethingus ‘many persons were seen alive who were known to have died’. This is no doubt why the Hunt is associated with midnight and midwinter – Walkelin saw it in early January – the times when the dead in European tradition are most active.
The presence of the dead in these processions link them to an early ‘Fairy Rade’, or riding of fairies. In Sir Orfeo, a medieval version of the classical story of Orpheus and Eurydice, Orfeo, after the loss of his wife, retires to a wilderness, where:
He might se him bisides
(Oft in hot vnder-tides)
The king o fairy with his rout
Com to hunt him al about
With dim cri and bloweing,
& houndes also with him berking …
Among them on that hot afternoon (vnder-tides) is Heurodis, his dead wife.
Other long-dead kings than Herla were also said to lead the Hunt. One of these was King Arthur. In France, the name la Chasse Artu, ‘Arthur’s Hunt’, goes back to the early thirteenth century; in the nineteenth, his hunting horns sounded above the wind on moors around Castle-an-Dinas, Cornwall. In Germany and France, it was often Charlemagne (742–814). Other historical figures included Edric Wilde, lord of the manor of Lydbury North, Shropshire, in the eleventh century.
In north-west Europe, the Hunt was called by names such as Woedende Jager and Odinsjagt, its leader Woden (Odin), the Germanic god of war, who received slain warriors in Valhalla. As the gatherer-in of pagan (therefore unredeemed) souls, he became a target for the Church and in the Middle Ages was equated with the Devil, consequently also said to lead the Hunt. Thomas Heywood, in his Hierarchie of the Blessed Angells (1635), records a curious tradition that the Devil’s minions, necromancers, could likewise turn themselves into aerial huntsmen.
The Hunt was exploited before and after the Reformation to frighten congregations. It pursues and punishes the wicked: Walkelin saw a man tortured by demons and women riding on saddles stuck with red-hot nails. In nineteenth-century Devon, tradition said that on the stormy night in 1677 when Sir Richard Capel of BUCKFASTLEIGH died, the Wild Hunt raged around the house waiting for his soul.
Blasphemy and Sabbath-breaking are common sins. In Denmark, King Valdemar rides out every night between Burre and Gurre Castles, Zealand, having said Our Lord might keep his Heaven so long as he was able to hunt. Dando, a parson of St Germans, Cornwall, was so passionately fond of hunting that he rode to hounds even on Sundays. One Sunday they were joined by a stranger on a fiery horse. Afterwards, as this stranger took a share of the game, Dando cried, ‘You shan’t have it! I’ll go to hell for it rather than you shall get it.’ ‘So you shall,’ replied the other and bore Dando off on his horse, the hounds behind them. Plunging into the Lynher, they went down amid fire and steam, but, says Robert Hunt in 1865, Dando and his Dogs can still be heard pelting past in full cry early on Sunday mornings.