Thursday, October 31, 2019

Beware the Ghost of the Grand-Veneur!

You're stealing through the Forest of Fontainebleau at dusk, a thick carpet of pine needles and fallen leaves muffling your footsteps, your breath rising in wispy clouds of white. The full moon peaks through the mist, bouncing off menacing piles of boulders, deepening shadows that obscure the dangerous maws of caves and the beasts that lurk within them. Owls hoot, frogs croak, unseen vermin skitter through the underbrush. Suddenly, new noises pierce the night: the thudding of hooves, the barking of dogs. The sounds grow louder and louder as they approach. The long, sad cry of a horn shreds the air, and before you appears a hunter, dressed in black, mounted on an all-black steed. A pack of dogs, eyes flaming like coals, mill, snarling and yapping, about the horse's legs. As the horse rears, forelegs flailing, the hunter stares down at you with blank, black eyes. He blasts his horn again, and as quickly as they appeared, horse, rider, and dogs vanish into the mist, leaving no trace of their presence but the chill that settles deep in your heart.

The Fantôme du Grand-Veneur, the Ghost of the Head Huntsman, has just appeared to deliver a grave warning: something dire is about to happen. Your own death, most likely. Heart pounding in terror, you flee, wishing you'd never set foot in the forest.

The ghost of the Grand-Veneur, also known as "le Chasseur Noir" (The Black Hunter), has been appearing in the Fôret de Fontainebleau, the dense forest of oak and pine that surrounds the château, for centuries. Tradition holds that the ghost is the spirit of a royal huntsman who was assassinated during the reign of François I and now roams the forest during the night with his pack of dogs. He appears during times of trouble to foretell tragic events. Numerous kings, including François himself, Charles IX, Henri IV, and Louis XIV, reportedly encountered him. The phantom announced an early death to Louis XVI and the assassination of the duc de Berry. Napoléon I received a visit on the eve of his abdication.

In a letter dated September 25, 1598, the diplomat Jacques Bongars recounts how the Chasseur Noir appeared to Henri IV during a hunt and warned him to "mend his ways":

On dit que le Roi retournant de la chasse en sa maison de Fontainebleau à dix heures du soir a entendu un chasseur qui faisait grand bruit. On assure même qu'il appelait ses chiens par leur nom (...) Le Roi étant entré dans le Château, fit venir les plus vieux des habitants du Bourg, pour savoir d'eux ce que ce pourrait être. Ils lui répondirent qu'on voyait paraître quelquefois, au milieu de la nuit, un Chasseur à cheval, avec sept ou huit chiens, qui courent la forêt, comme en chassant sans blesser personne. 

They say that the King, returning from the hunt to his home at Fontainebleau at ten o'clock at night, heard a hunter making a great noise. People swear he was calling his dogs by name... The King, having entered the palace, summoned the oldest inhabitants of the town, to learn from them what it might have been. They told him that sometimes people saw appear, in the middle of the night, a hunter on a horse, with seven or eight dogs, galloping through the forest as if hunting, without hurting anyone.

The Chasseur Noir appeared to Henri IV once again, this time with grave consequences. The king was hunting deer in the woods, and had stopped to dine with his mistress Gabrielle d'Estrées and several courtiers. The sound of dogs and horns arose nearby. The king sent his man Bassompierre to investigate. A quarter of an hour later, Bassompierre returned, greatly shaken. The Chasseur had spoken to him, telling him to warn the king that if he didn't repudiate his mistress that very day, a great misfortune would befall her. The king laughed off the Chasseur's prediction. Three days later, Gabrielle d'Estrées died of hideous convulsions.

Either the Grand-Veneur truly had prophetic powers, or his myth served as a convenient cover for a poisoning plot. The latter seems more likely.

In any case, don't ignore the Grand-Veneur's warning, should he appear in your path!



"Qui était vraiment le Chasseur Noir de la forêt de Fontainebleau?" BFMTV, 07/23/2017.
"Petit Promenade en Foret de Fontainebleau" Rando sac au dos--par Bleausard, 3/9/14
"La légende du chasseur noir de la forêt de Fontainebleau," Fontainebleau-Photo.