None of the villagers could remember a storm of such ferocity. As they huddled in the church of St Mary’s in Bungay, Suffolk, the scene of their Sunday morning worship, doubtless they whispered, between prayers for mercy and forgiveness, that August 4th 1577 would live in the church records for all time. They were right, but for reasons more terrible than they could imagine, for they were a due a visit from the infamous devil dog of eastern England, the beast known as Black Shuck.
At the height of the storm, amid roiling thunder and the tumult of rain and lightning, the great church doors crashed open and to the horror of the parishioners, a huge, snarling black dog bolted along the nave towards those kneeling in prayer before the altar. Before anyone could move, the demonic monster killed two men by breaking their necks with its powerful jaws and then breathed fire at a third man, burning him to death. The dog left as fast as it arrived, bounding through the storm-lashed countryside to the village of Blythburgh, thirteen miles to the south-east, where it assaulted the Holy Trinity Church with flame, leaving scorch marks present to this day.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public DomainSo goes the story of Black Shuck’s most infamous attack, immortalized in a pamphlet of the time written by Abraham Fleming entitled A Strange and Terrible Wonder Wrought Very Late in the Parish Church of Bungay, a Town of No Great Distance from the City of Norwich. Such pamphlets were common in those days, and were much like our lowbrow newspapers, often dealing with supernatural events or the celebrities (often highwaymen) of the moment. Fleming’s remains the most famous account of the ghost dog said to haunt the lanes and woods of England’s eastern counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire, accounts that stretch back for a thousand years, to the days that Vikings raided the lands.
Descriptions of Black Shuck’s appearance vary, but agree that the dog is larger than any normal breed, standing as tall as a calf and perhaps seven feet long in length. The eyes of the creature number from one to several, all blazing like fire with hatred. With a black, shaggy coat, terrible claws and fangs, and a shambling, derisory gait, the dog cries tears of burning coal and lets forth with a howl so wretched and obscene in nature it drives men insane to hear. And even if madness does not claim any soul unlucky enough to witness Black Shuck forming from a fog into solid shape, there is still no escape; providing the monstrous hound does not kill you there and then, any mortal who sees the dog dies within twelve months of the event.
Although this apparition haunts various sites across the east of England, Black Shuck appears to favour the north Norfolk coast, especially the area between the seaside towns of Sheringham and Overstrand, with Beeston Bump near the town of Cromer a particularly favoured spot. There, Black Shuck walks the bleak and lonely coastal lanes at night, looking for a solitary traveler to claim for his next victim.
And near to Cromer, in 1901, a famous writer heard tell of this beast and included a similar creature in one of his most famous books. Returning from his work as a doctor in the Boer War, a sickly Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took a holiday in the town of Cromer to convalesce. One evening found Sir Arthur at dinner with the master of Cromer Hall, Benjamin Cabell, who entertained his esteemed guest with the legend of his ancestor, Squire Richard Cabell of Buckfastleigh in Devon, in the south-west of England.
Squire Richard had an evil reputation and in 1677, murdered his wife when she tried to leave Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Evelyn Simakhim, only to be killed in turn, his throat ripped out, by Mrs Cabell’s faithful pet dog. Since then, the dog haunts the wilds of Dartmoor, always ready to avenge the death of his mistress. (Another version of the legend gives a differing account, claiming the squire’s evil matched only his love of hunting, and on the anniversary of his demise, Cabell’s hunting hounds race the moors, clawing at the entrance to his tomb). Tying this in with local accounts of Black Shuck, Sir Arthur based his next Sherlock Holmes story, the great sleuth’s first since his ‘death’ at the Riechenbach Falls, around the legends, and The Hound of the Baskervilles remains arguably Holmes’ most famous adventure. Not only did Sir Arthur borrow Black Shuck and his brethren for the story, but also based Baskerville Hall's appearance on the exterior of Cromer Hall.
Where did this foul dog come from, if not Hell itself? A clue is in the beast’s name, for ‘Shuck’ is said to come from the Nordic word scucca, meaning ‘demon.’ Vikings raided England countless times from 789AD to the late eleventh century, and the coastal regions of the east were most vulnerable to their attacks. Imagine, generations of families, living in dread of the sight of a Viking longship, its dragon-headed prow plowing the cold waters of the North Sea...little wonder fears and superstitions built up around their visitations. The Vikings thought of themselves as wolves when in battle, and the most terrible of their gods, Fenrir, took the form of a wolf. All this developed over the centuries into a story of a ferocious dog stalking the coast of England, bringing death to all who saw its form. A ghost, yes – but a ghost of the Viking terrors of old.
This leads us back to the Bungay incident of 1577. If we discount the tale of Black Shuck, what really happened during that Sunday service? The official records state that two men did die that fateful morning, not of demonic forces, but of a lightning strike, which badly injured another churchgoer. One theory goes that if something did gain access to the church interior, causing panic and death, then the rare phenomenon of ball lightening, sometimes mistaken for UFOs could be responsible; this would also account for any tale of a man burning to death. Lightning would also explain apply to the damage to the church in Blythburgh.
Earlier this year, two academics, Professors Richard Hilman and Pauline Ruberry-Blanc, put a different slant on Abraham Fleming’s sensational account. They believe Fleming rewrote the events in Bungay to express the ‘divine wrath’ felt towards church authorities in the area, engaged in persecuting the local Puritans in favor of the more conventional Anglican community. Fleming’s intention in using the devil dog legend, so Hilman and Ruberry-Blanc believe, was to represent sin penetrating the hallowed confines of the Church. Fleming’s pamphlet is a protest on behalf of the Puritans whose repression by the church could be viewed as an act of the Devil. Hilman and Ruberry-Blanc note that when the Fleming pamphlet appeared in France, the translator revised the story as criticism of the English turning away from Catholicism.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Keith EvansBut one cannot always let sleeping dogs lie, even devil dogs. The Eastern Daily Press newspaper reported on May 15th 2014, of the discovery of the bones of a huge dog during an archaeological dig at Leiston Abbey, around six miles south of Blythburgh. The bones of the dog, most likely an impressive specimen of Great Dane, were uncovered near to where the abbey’s kitchen once stood. The Abbey’s religious activity covered the period 1363 to 1536, so fits in with the Black Shuck timescale, leading to speculation the skeleton might prove the remains of the hell-hound. All legends, they say, contain a grain of truth, and perhaps the canine remains are that of what people thought at the time as Black Shuck, a huge dog scavenging the countryside looking for food, dying and then buried in holy ground to keep its spirit from wandering the night. The dull truth is probably the dog was a pet of a lonely monk, and the kitchen its favorite part of the abbey!
Black Shuck may not prowl the windswept fields of East Anglia so much today, but his legacy continues. Some lanes and roads, such as one in Overstrand, take his name; a local amateur soccer team, Bungay Town FC, go by the nickname of ‘the Black Dogs’; one can enjoy a pint of Black Shuck ale, made by the Suffolk-based Hellhound brewery, at one of the many Black Dog pubs in the region. It would take a brave person however, on leaving a country inn on a moonless night, for their heart not to beat faster on hearing the padding of paws from behind, and a low, guttural growl coming as if from the gates of Hell...