As promised, as part of a series of posts exploring the inspiration behind my work-in-progress novel BLACK DOG, I am looking at the legend of Black Shuck – Norfolk’s infamous Hell Hound.
As stated in my previous post, ghostly black dogs are one of the most prominent supernatural phenomena reported across centuries, cultures and countries – and my next post will look at the ‘mythical black dog’ phenomenon as a whole. However, the subject here is Black Shuck – and Shuck has a particular history. In fact, there are legends of Black Shuck roaming the countryside of East Anglia even before the Vikings.
The Hell Hound of Norfolk has had many documented sightings (including my own – see previous post). In 1890 a young boy rescued from the North Sea told a tale of being forced to swim further and further from the shore by a huge black dog who had chased him into the sea. During the 1920s/1930s there were reports from the fishermen of Sheringham describing hearing a hound howling on the cliff tops during stormy nights. As recently as 1970 a sighting of Black Shuck made the headlines when a huge hound was seen pounding over the beach at Great Yarmouth. In 1980 a young woman claimed to have met Shuck while out walking with her son. This sighting took place near Wisbech. Although the woman said that hound had yellow eyes (rather than the traditional red) all other details were the same as that of Black Shuck.
Of course, the most famous sighting of Shuck is said to have occurred in Suffolk in 1577 – in the villages of Bungay and Blythburgh – when Shuck is said to have caused mayhem and death during an appearance in two churches during a storm. The events were recorded in a contemporary pamphlet issued by Reverend Abraham Fleming entitled ‘A Straunge and Terrible Wunder’.
During a storm on Sunday August 4th 1577 a terrifying thunderstorm occurred with such “darkness, rain, hail, thunder and lightning as was never seen the like”. As the people knelt in fear in St Mary’s Church in Bungay, praying for mercy, suddenly there appeared in their midst a vicious black Hell Hound. It began tearing around the Church, attacking many of the congregation with its huge teeth and claws.
The Reverend Fleming’s pamphlet states:
This black dog, or the divel in such a linenesse (God hee knoweth al who worketh all,) runing all along down the body of the church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible fourm and shape, passed between two persons, as they were kneeling uppon their knees, and occupied in prayer as it seemed, wrung the necks of them bothe at one instant clene backward, in somuch that even at a moment where they kneeled.
Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, it ran off, departing for Blythburgh Church about twelve miles away where it killed and mauled more people. At Blythburgh, Shuck is said to have burst in through the church doors. He ran up the nave, past a large congregation, killing a man and boy and causing the church tower to collapse through the roof. As the dog left, he scorched claw marks on the North door – which can be seen at the church to this day (and remain a grim tourist attraction).
Truth or fiction? Well, official records do show that on this date Bungay Church was damaged, the tower struck by lightning and the Church clock broken in pieces. Although there is no official record of injuries caused, the Churchwarden’s written account mentions that two men in the belfry were killed. Furthermore, whereas the door in Blythburgh Church still retains the scorch marks of Shuck’s claws there is no similar surviving empirical evidence in Bungay.
The popularity of the legend has resulted in an image of the Black Dog being incorporated into Bungay’s coat of arms and there are depictions of him on the weather vane and on buildings around the town.
The consequences of seeing or encountering Shuck appear to vary – in some stories he is entirely malevolent and, in others, relatively benevolent. Some say anyone unfortunate enough meet Shuck’s fiery gaze is sure to die within the next twelve months and that his appearance bodes ill to the beholder. But…not always! Other stories tell of Black Shuck terrifying his victims, but leaving them alone to continue living normal lives; in some cases it has supposedly happened before close relatives to the observer die or become ill. In other tales he’s regarded to be relatively benign and said to accompany women on their way home in the role of protector rather than a portent of ill omen.
Either way, sightings of Shuck continue to this day (including my own!) One North Norfolk version of the Black Shuck myth explains his origin thus: it is said a shipwreck occurred off the North Norfolk coast, resulting in two drowned men being washed ashore. As they were strangers, they were buried separately in two different parishes. Shuck is said to be the ghost of a pet of one of the two drowned men who runs up and down between Hunstanton and Cromer, uncertain as to where his master is buried. Author John Harries, in his 1960s Ghost Hunters Road Book, says that the A149 road between Hunstanton and Cromer is “a favourite haunt of Shuck’s, especially where paths run along the clifftops.” And, in case you haven’t yet read my previous blog post, let me remind you…where was it I saw Black Shuck? Yep…the A149! Food for thought amigos!