‘The hell-hounds, and their ghostly huntsmen, are still heard careering along the gloomy avenues of Whittlebury,’ wrote Thomas Sternberg in 1851, using the name of the village of Whittlebury for Whittlewood, on the outskirts of which it lies. This ancient wood, called in Anglo-Saxon Witelwuda, is a former royal forest – an appropriate setting for the spectral chase first recorded in England at PETERBOROUGH, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough, in the early twelfth century, and commonly identified with continental tales of the Wild Hunt.
In Northamptonshire, the hunters were known as the ‘wild-men’ and the ‘wild-hounds’. Of the Huntsman himself, Sternberg writes, ‘Both Whittlebury and Rockingham contend for the honour of his presence.’ The Whittlebury tradition, as narrated in the Sporting Magazine in 1849, ascribes to him a romantic origin. A daughter of one of the noble rangers of the forest, famed equally for beauty and coquetry, was passionately loved by a knight, but, after encouraging him, she subsequently turned cold. Driven mad, he plunged a sword through his own heart. Soon she also died and was doomed to be hunted eternally by the demon knight.
Sternberg offers the rationalizing explanation that the story was put about by poachers in Whittlewood, to keep observers away. If so, they did not invent it. This is a version of an international folktale which tells how the Wild Huntsman pursues a supernatural woman through the forest: usually either a man intervenes, or the Huntsman catches her, kills her, and cuts her up like game.
John Dryden is sometimes said to have got the idea of the spectral hunt in ‘Theodore and Honoria’ from the Whittlewood legend heard during his residence in the county. But while it is true that Dryden came of Northamptonshire landed gentry (he was born at Aldwincle), his poem, published in Fables, Ancient and Modern (1700), is a translation of a story told in Boccaccio’s Decameron in the fourteenth century.
‘Relentless as a rock’, the fair Honoria persistently rejects Theodore’s advances, and to put distance between them he goes to live in a nearby grove. One morning, walking in the woods, he hears screaming. Presently, a naked woman, young and beautiful, comes running towards him:
Her face, her hands, her naked limbs were torn,
With pressing thro the brakes, and prickly thorn;
Two mastiffs gaunt and grim her flight pursu’d,
And oft their fasten’d fangs in blood embru’d: …
Not far behind, a knight of swarthy face,
High on a coal-black steed pursu’d the chace;
With flashing flames his ardent eyes were fill’d,
And in his hand a naked sword he held:
He chear’d the dogs to follow her who fled,
And vow’d revenge on her devoted head.
The knight tells Theodore that he loved the woman, but she rejected him and he killed himself. Both were damned and daily she flees before him, daily he kills her, feeding her heart and bowels to his dogs, daily she revives. Even as he speaks, she springs up from the ground and sets off again, the ‘hell-hounds’ in pursuit, the knight not far behind.
Theodore now invites Honoria to a feast in the grove. The hunt is enacted as before; the knight again tells his tale. Honoria takes the horrific sight as a warning and, through mingled fear and remorse, rewards Theodore’s constancy by marrying him.
In both the medieval tale and the Northamptonshire story, the prevailing idea is that violent deeds may be re-enacted over and over again by the spectres of the players in the original drama. Rather than Dryden being inspired by the Northamptonshire tale, it is likely that, by the nineteenth century, someone had grafted his story onto a vaguer local tradition.