As with many of William Shakespeare’s plays, The Merry Wives of Windsor is full of real places, real people, and real folklore. For example, Herne’s Oak, where the inept old con man, Falstaff, is lured for his final humiliation, is a real place, located in the play with accuracy. The character and legend of Herne the Hunter were definitely familiar to the Elizabethans, and antiquarian research has demonstrated the exactness of Shakespeare’s knowledge of Old Windsor.
It would seem that there existed in Shakespeare’s day a tradition at Windsor that Herne was one of the keepers of the park, who, having committed an offense for which he feared to be disgraced, hung himself upon an oak, which was ever afterwards haunted by his ghost: thus Herne’s Oak.
The Quarto and Folio editions of Shakespeare’s plays both refer to the legend. The Quarto reads, “Oft have you heard since Herne the hunter dyed.” However, the Folio makes the tale a much more ancient one.
Another, somewhat later, notice of Herne’s Oak is in a “Plan of the town and Castle of Windsor and Little Park” (1742); in a map therein, a tree marked “Sir John Falstaff’s oak” is represented as being on the edge of a pit just on the outside of an avenue which was formed in the seventeenth century and known as Queen Elizabeth’s Walk.
Later still, but adding to the evidence that such a tree existed, is Halliwell’s edition of the Quarto, which includes a set of verses “Upon Herne’s Oak being cut down in the spring of 1796.”
Thus, whether the legend being Herne the Hunter is true or not, really doesn’t matter. The legend did exist, even to the extent that the tree and the park where he killed himself were known to the people of the day.