It is the 8 September 1598. A group of hunters are riding in the Fontainebleau Forest. At their head is a cavalier who speaks loudly with a rough accent. His dress is neglected, his big nose reddened, his beard and moustache badly maintained, his fingernails black with dirt, a fairly strong smell emanates from him. This is King Henri IV of France.
Since morning, the royal hunt has been travelling through the underbrush in pursuit of a stag. Soon, they will stop in a clearing to eat some little meat patties and empty numerous flasks of Jurancon wine which the King has transported with him in all of his outings. However, for the moment, they haven’t had anything to drink – and it is important to stress this fact.
Suddenly, the King stops his horse and tells everyone to listen. All the cavaliers obey. They then hear, coming from a distant place, which they estimate to be about half a league away, that is to say around two kilometres, the voices of a pack of hounds, cries and sounding of horns…
The King asks his companions if they too can hear hunting horns and hounds. The Count of Soissons, who has cupped his big hand around his ear, nods and declares that it is astounding. The King would like to know who it is who dares to hunt at the same time as himself. Someone suggests that it could be an echo of their own horns. The King dismisses this explanation:
“Our horns have never sounded any of the airs that we are hearing now… Listen…”
It is true, the music coming to their ears – of course very muffled by the distance and the forest’s density – does not correspond to any of the airs which have accompanied the group’s hunt since morning. The King decides to investigate.
He is about to spur his horse when, suddenly, the same sounding of horns, the same cries, the same hound voices explode at twenty paces from him, as if, by some spell, the mysterious hunt had made a prodigious leap through the forest.
Astonished, the King and his friends turn toward the track near them whence the noise of the horns and hounds seems to be coming. The track is empty. The King asks if anyone can see anything. They see only the sun playing on the ferns, through the trees.
And yet, the hunters, the horns, the noisy pack are there, close by. Calling voices, neighing horses, metallic sounds, like weapons clashing, can be heard.
Suddenly, these sounds, these noises, these fanfares move. They were coming from the right, now they are coming from the front, then the left, then from behind, then, again, from the right. Invisible, the phantom hunt slowly circles the King and his companions. Henri IV is worried. He orders Soissons to go to see what is happening.
Anxiously, the Count heads his horse towards the place whence the noise is coming and soon returns to say that he sees nothing but, like everyone else, he can hear the hounds and the horns.
At this moment, a big, dark, bearded man with long hair and flaming eyes surges from the underbrush and cries out in a terrible voice:
“You wanted to see me! Here I am!”
Then he turns toward Henri IV and says:
“Turn over a new leaf!”
And he disappears.
Immediately, there is silence in the forest. Not one cry, no sound of hounds, no horns, not a hoof beat. The phantom hunt seems to have evaporated. The King orders his companions to find the man.
They search the thickets, the bushes, the ferns, they look at trees, clumps of rocks, nothing! The strange person has also disappeared. The King decides to question the peasants.
And without a word, almost without a sound, everyone starts off and heads towards Fontainebleau. All of them seem to feel superstitious fear to the point that no-one dares to break the silence. Not even the King, who is usually so talkative, so joyful, so prompt to jest.
After half-an-hour of travelling along tracks of moss and Spring ferns, the little troop arrives in a clearing where there are tree fellers and charcoal smokers. Henri IV calls to them and explains that he has seen a mysterious person surge in front of him like a devil, his eyes full of sparks. The woodsmen nod their heads and tell him that it is the Master of the Hunt who often hunts around there. The King wants to know who this Master of the Hunt is.
“It’s a ghost who roams in the forest… Oh! He’s apparently not nasty. We see him from time to time. But to tell the truth, we don’t like it much… Once I saw the Master of the Hunt near Franchard. He came out of the ground, right there, in front of me… He was two strides away. He looked at me for a good moment without saying anything. I didn’t dare move. Then he laughed out loud and disappeared little by little like smoke…”
The Count of Soissons asks:
“And you say that this Master of the Hunt is a ghost?”
“For sure he’s not a human like us. It’s the Master of the Hunt! Or the Black Hunter as he’s sometimes called. Sometimes, he’s accompanied by a whole invisible hunt. A hunt that makes the devil of a noise, with dogs, cries, horns…”
The King tells him that that was what they had heard.
“Well then, it’s the Saint Hubert Hunt.”
And the woodsman explains that it is a mysterious hunt composed of ghosts of men and ghosts of dogs who have been haunting the Fontainebleau Forest for a long time.
Most impressed, Henri IV and his companions return to the castle where they recount their adventure.
And the whole French kingdom soon learns and marvels, that the King of France had met a ghost…
Many questions have been raised about this story and the craziest suppositions have been made. First of all, it was thought that an attempt on the King’s life had been made, then that it was a diabolical apparition… Finally, people with no imagination concluded that the sovereign had been tricked by facetious poachers who had had fun imitating the sound of horns and the voices of hounds. Henri IV had therefore been the victim of a joke.
If it were poachers, why did they tell him to “turn over a new leaf”?
In April 1599, that is to say eight months after the incident in the Fontainebleau Forest, Gabrielle d’Estrees, whom the King was about to marry, died of poison, and Henri IV took for wife the overweight Marie de Medicis. Rumours then began. It was murmured that at Fontainebleau, the King had not been the victim of a bad joke, but of a plot cooked up by a high-placed person. Which one? The Papal Legate.
The Papal Legate – who was in Paris at this time – was Alexandre de Medicis, who wanted the King of France to marry his fat cousin. And it is explained that, to strike the King’s mind and bring him to repudiate Gabrielle, the Legate contacted the famous poachers and gave them the task of setting up the whole thing. Which is supposedly why the Master of the Hunt was accompanied by a phantom hunt and why he told the King to turn over a new leaf…
Although this explanation was accepted by all of the contemporary chroniclers, the story does not end there. In 1625, in 1647 and in 1672, the Master of the Hunt appears again to stag hunters, still accompanied by his invisible whippers-in and his phantom pack of hounds. And in 1698, it is Louis XIV himself who sees him. He would say:
“A person of supernatural appearance surged before me, making my horse rear, and addressed a few words to me.”
Words that the King never repeated.
And that is not all. In 1897, an English tourist who was riding a bicycle in Fontainebleau Forest, recounted that she had met, near the Croix du Grand-Maitre, a dark man who had surged from a bush and who ran with the lightness of a deer, calling out:
“Yak, Yak, Yak…”
These periodical apparitions of frightening men could be simply scruffy, threatening-looking people roaming the forest, whom imagination and the memory of legends transform into supernatural beings. They could also be hallucinations, “concrete ghosts”, according to one psychoanalyst. In this case, Freud explains that the hunter is, of course, a sexual symbol because he is hairy!… Apart from this interpretation, the hypothesis of an hallucination – individual or collective – should perhaps not be rejected for the Master of the Hunt is a character who is found in most Western folklore. In the North of Europe, for example, he is called the Black Hunter.
The invisible hunt is an extremely widespread myth. In the Blesois, it is the flying hunt of Thibault le Tricheur, in Touraine the Briquette Hunt, the Arquin Hunt or the Menee d’Helquin. In Berry, it is Rigaud’s Hunt or Baudet’s Hunt; in Bourbonnais, the Maligne Hunt or the Gayere Hunt; in Bretagne, the Gallery Hunt; In the Maine, the Artus Hunt led by the famous King Artus who governed the Bretons in the IVth Century; in the Orleanais, King Hugon’s Hunt; in Sweden, Odin’s Hunt; in Germany, the Wooden Heer.
George Sand studied these strange phenomena and collected a few. Madeleine Bosquet, the author of a work on Normandie romanesque et merveilleuse, published a certain number of witness statements which are rather troubling.
One night when Ronsard was returning home, near Vendome, the poet, who was a bit deaf, heard the sound of a hunt and saw a cavalier appear who wanted to take him up behind him. Anyone else would have made the sign of the cross to make this vision go away. Ronsard, who had been a soldier, preferred to draw his sword, and everything disappeared.
But this meeting troubled him to the point that he noted his impressions in a poem, which I shall not try to translate here.