Renegade Nell’s Real History & Folklore: Queen Anne, Jacobites, Herne the Hunter & Billy Blind

The Disney+ fantasy blends real history with British myth and fantasy.

Louisa Harland in costume as a highwaywoman/ Nell Jackson in Disney+ Renegade Nell
Photo: Photo by Robert Viglasky. © 2024 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Nell Jackson is the latest historical TV creation by Sally Wainwright, the writer-director who brought “the first modern lesbian” Anne Lister to screen in HBO/BBC series Gentleman Jack. Anne was a real-life 19th century figure who left behind thousands of diary pages for her biographers to decode. Being fictional, Nell Jackson obviously left no such legacy, but her fantastical story does cross over with real historical events and established folklore from the British Isles.

Eight-part Disney+ series Renegade Nell is set in 1705. To pinpoint the date in TV terms, that’s 100 years before Bridgerton, 200 years after The Tudors, and 40 or so years before Outlander‘s wigs-and-corsets era. Or for moviegoers, 1705 is the exact year in which Yorgos Lanthimos’ Oscar-winner The Favourite, which also featured Queen Anne, was set.

Queen Anne and the Jacobite Plot

Queen Anne (played in Renegade Nell by Jodhi May) was the English monarch for 12 years in the early 18th century, from 1702 to her death in 1714. At the time the Disney+ series is set, Anne and her husband Prince George of Denmark had ruled for three years, having succeeded her sister Queen Mary II and King William III (also known as William of Orange).

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As memorably depicted by Olivia Colman in The Favourite, Anne suffered from ill health including gout following a rich and alcoholic diet (leading to her nickname ‘Brandy Nan’) and had no surviving children despite multiple pregnancies. She was also rumoured to have been a bisexual who had lesbian relationships at court.

Adrian Lester  in costume as the Earl of Poynton in Disney+ series Renegade Nell

The Jacobite plot planned by the Earl of Poynton against Anne in Renegade Nell was fictional, but there were many such attempts to remove her from the throne and replace her with her half-brother James Francis Edward Stuart (nicknamed by some ‘The Old Pretender’, to distinguish him from his son Charles Edward Stuart, who later sought the throne and was nicknamed ‘The Young Pretender’).

Who were the Jacobites? Scottish and English supporters of the last monarch in the direct male Stuart line: James II of England/James VII of Scotland. He had been deposed in 1688 by his Dutch protestant son-in-law William of Orange in ‘The Glorious Revolution’, and died in 1701. Jacobites wanted his Catholic son James Francis Edward Stuart, and later, his grandson Charles Edward Stuart, on the throne. To summarise very briefly: King James II/VII converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, leading to protestant William invading England, deposing him and ruling in his place alongside his wife, James’ daughter, Mary. After they died, Mary’s sister Anne – also a Protestant – succeeded them as English monarch, opposed by the Jacobites. Under Anne’s reign, Scotland and England were united under The Acts of Union that created an early Great Britain in 1707.

This came after centuries of discord for the monarchy in the British Isles, following the 16th century dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry VIII, who had converted from Catholicism to Protestantism. A century later, the English Civil War had led to the execution of King Charles I in 1649, followed by 11 years of England as a republic before the monarchy was restored and King Charles II was crowned in 1660.

Adrian Lester’s villainous Earl of Poynton in Renegade Nell was a secret Jacobite/supporter of the male Stuart line, who planned to kidnap Queen Anne and take her to Scotland to be executed while an invasion put James II/VII’s son on the throne. It took Nell and her crew to foil the plot and keep Anne in power.

Herne the Hunter and Billy Blind

“When Herne rides again, it heralds the death of the monarch.”

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In episode three ‘A Private Joke with the Queen’, the Earl of Poynton uses his occult magic to summon a dark warrior through whom he can fight Nell. That supernatural being is Herne the Hunter, an antlered figure associated in the show with a prophecy predicting the death of Queen Anne.

Herne the Hunter is a character in English folklore variously thought to be the ghost of a Windsor Forest keeper who took his own life, a man killed by a stag who went mad and tore off its antlers to wear on his own head, a mythological Pagan being, and a fire-breathing white stag.

A reference to the name and to an oak tree (thought to be the site of the dead antler-man’s hanging) in William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor have long been associated with the character, but this excellent, informative 1996 essay by Jeremy Harte in publication On the Edge Vol. Three picks apart the Shakespeare references and sorts the hearsay from the verifiable sources.

Nick Mohammed in a green suit and wings as supernatural sprite Billy Blind in Renegade Nell

Billy Blind, played in Renegade Nell by comedian and actor Nick Mohammed (Ted Lasso), is a folkloric character from myth. He’s variously described as a Scottish sprite or house spirit, and mentioned several times in James Francis Child’s compilation Child’s Ballads as a puckish figure who provides help to those in need. Billy tells one man that his bride is no virgin but already pregnant; helps a woman in labour foil a witch’s plan to stop her from giving birth; reveals the noble birth of a lowly shepherdess loved by a Knight; and helps a woman marry her true love before he’s betrothed to another.

In Renegade Nell, Billy is a winged sprite who was sent to aid Nell on the battlefield where she lost her husband at war. It’s him who imbues her with the strength of ten men, and together, Billy tells Nell that they’re destined for a mysterious great purpose. In the closing moments of episode eight, Nell volunteers Billy to save the life of Lord Blancheford by entering his body to rescue him from the Earl of Poynton’s cursed pendant. Billy does it, and loses Nell in the process…

…until series one’s very last moment, in which Nell and her sisters ride back to The Talbot pub in Tottenham (having been cleared of murder and pardoned of all wrongdoing by Queen Anne). As the carriage travels, a bright light is seen speeding towards it. Could it be Billy returning, or even another folkloric sprite sent to help Nell on her mysterious journey?

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Renegade Nell is available to stream in full on Disney+