In a record of events now known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an English monk from Peterborough Abbey wrote under the year 1127 that “many men saw and heard many hunters hunting. The hunters were black and large and hideous, and their hounds all black and broad-eyed . . . and they rode on black horses . . . and the monks heard the horns that they blew at night.” According to the chronicler, this omen warned of the destructive greed of a new abbot in Peterborough.
This was the first recorded appearance in Britain of what is now referred to as the Wild Hunt. Packs of spectral hounds have reputedly been seen or heard throughout the British Isles, and they are variously called the Gabriel hounds, the gabble retchets, the yeth or heath hounds, the Wisht hounds, and the Cwm Annwn, or hounds of hell. They are related to the individual apparitions of black dogs seen in some parts of the country. The “wide-eyed” hounds of Peterborough, for instance, resemble Shuck, a black dog with fiery eyes as big as saucers that is said to haunt the Norfolk coast.
Where-ever the hounds were heard passing overhead on cloudy nights, they were believed to be harbingers of doom. Anyone bearing them would throw themselves face down on the ground to avoid seeing these beings associated with the restless dead, souls damned or lost in limbo. In both Britain and Germany the Hunt was thought to include the souls of un-baptized babies, and in France it was said to be led by King Herod pursuing the Holy Innocents – the children of Bethlehem he massacred in attempting to kill the infant Jesus. In another version in Germany and also in Scandinavian countries, the leader of the Hunt was sometimes said to be Woten, or Odin, the god of the dead. As the gatherer of pagan souls, he was equated in the Christian Middle Ages with the devil.
In about 1190 Welsh historian and poet Walter Map wrote of “nocturnal companies” known as “the household of Herlethingus” led by King Herla, supposedly an ancient British king. Map says, “They were troops engaged in endless wandering . . . and in them many persons were seen alive who were known to have died.” Other ancient kings, real or imaginary, also led the Hunt. It was referred to around 1200 as “the household of Arthur,” and in later French folklore was “Arthur’s Hunt.” Whatever the name, it remained a terrifying specter, exploited by medieval priests and later the Puritans to teach fear of hell-fire and Judgment. Consequently, in England by the nineteenth century the leader of the Hunt – if not the devil himself – was usually some local villain condemned with his howling dogs to eternal ghostly wandering.