Thursday, June 20, 2019

Bad Dog: the Black Shuck of Suffolk.

August 1577. Suffolk, England.
A terrible storm rages over head as the parishioners of Blythburgh take shelter in the Holy Trinity Church, hiding from what they believe what must surely be Gods wrath. It sounds as if the very heavens themselves are tearing at the seams, but here in their pretty little church they are warm, dry and safe. Or so they think. A flash of lightning lights up the church interior, accompanied by a rumble of thunder best described as a roar, startling those huddled within. Shock soon turns to horror, as the roar of the thunder is replaced by the snarling of a beast and they realise that a huge black hound is among the congregation, running up and down the nave. The people panic, trying to get away or shield their loved ones as the great dog snaps at their heels. It's pandemonium. Fear fueled chaos, but it's over almost as soon as it started. The hound makes it's escape, forcing it's way out of the church and leaving claw marks burnt into the door, as well as three corpses and a lot of terrified people in it's wake. And the horror doesn't stop there. Leaving Blythburgh behind, the hound traveled to Bungay.
Twelve miles from Blythburgh, the people had taken shelter in St Mary's Church and they too thought they were safe. They weren't expecting a hellhound to burst through the doors in a flash of lightning. Once again, it terrorised the flock, biting, snapping and this time buring. No one saw it coming, nobody dared stop it and, by the time it had finished, two men were dead, others injured, the church door was destroyed and a lightning strike had caused the church steeple to collapse.
This, dear readers, is the Black Shuck. Alternatively known as Old Shuck, it is one of England's most infamous black dogs.
I've only covered this topic once before, and briefly, in a post about haunted Dunwich. It's name is said to have it's roots in the Old English word Scucca, meaning Devil or Fiend. A good way to describe a terrifying hound of indeterminate breed, being either of ghostly or demonic origin. It's described as black and, size wise, anywhere between the height of a calf to a pony. It's eyes are the size of saucers,  glowing red and firey. Some reports say that it only has one eye, giving it an even more terrifying, cyclopean appearance. Variations of this monstrous mutt has been sighted all over England and it was even the inspiration behind the Hound of the Baskervilles. Wherever you go, it seems that every county has a not so good boy haunting it's lanes and fields, although interestingly it's purpose seems change depending on the region, much like whether or not a black cat is lucky. In East Anglia the Shuck is a sign of bad luck, a sighting an omen of death for all who gaze upon it. In other counties it seems to exist just to stalk and terrifying anyone who crosses it's path, yet in some counties it's a benign presence, helping lost travelers and providing them with a calming companion on their journey.
Pew details from Holy Trinity, a lion or a gigantic hound?
Photo by myself.
The enduring mystery of the Black Shuck is that while we know what the hound is, we don't know WHAT the hound is. It's possible they could be a throw back to the vikings, to Odin and his wolves, Geri and Freki. They could just be a mixture of religion and superstition, the Hellhounds from Christian lore. Older sightings could just be wolves, whilst newer ones could be large stray dogs. The last known wolf to be killed in the UK died in 1680, hunted down in Perthshire. There were also rumours of wolf sightings in Scotland right up until 1888. Could this explain the Suffolk Shuck sightings? Yes and no. While it's possible that one attack could be put down to a rogue wolf and coincidental weather, two attacks seem very unlikely. Not even a starving wolf would attack a church full of people, plus it was August, prey would have been plentiful elsewhere. When it comes to the Black Shuck there aren't many theories trying to explain what it was, just a general acceptance that it is some sort of unearthly dog, with a bad temper. And, while I love a good ghost story and do believe in spectral animals, I have a theory that the Black Shuck that attacked that August may have been a living dog.
As with all my little theories, it's just that: a theory, an unproven one. But, I hope you'll find it an interesting one. You see in 2014, during an archaeological dig at Leiston Abbey in Suffolk, the skeleton of a gigantic hound was uncovered. In life, this dog would have weighed about 200lbs and stood at roughly 7ft on it's back legs. What's more, it is possible that it was buried around the same time as the attacks, and hastily so, judging by the fact that it was buried in a shallow grave near the Abbey's kitchens. It's believed to be the skeleton of a Great Dane, a breed that was likely to have belonged to someone relatively important. Dane's are wonderful dogs, very sweet, but also large and can be more than a little intimidating if you aren't used to them. When I was younger, a friend of my Father had three Great Danes, including one very large black one. His name was Duke, he was a sweetheart and thought he was much smaller than he was, often trying to crawl onto the laps of anyone sitting in the living room. But his bark was loud and fierce, even though it was only used to say hello. He may have been an old softy, but had I seen and heard Duke in a darkened church, in the middle of a storm? I would have been terrified. Darkness, flickering candlelight and flashing lightning could easily twist the familiar into something abominable. I believe that's what happened here. My theory is that the dog found at the Abbey belonged to someone accustomed to visiting the churches in the area, someone who would take their loyal pet with them on these trips. A big dog would certainly provide a bit of protection on the road, no matter how daft it was. When the storm struck in August 1577, the dog either got out or was separated from his owner. As dogs are prone to do, it followed the paths it would often pass down with it's master, leading it to the church. The hound gained access to first the Holy Trinity Church and then, still seeking its owner, St Mary's. Both times it was faced with screaming people, running away from it and trying to knock it away from them, probably even throwing things. Already frightened out of it's wits by the storm, these humans behaviour scared it even more, so it lashed out. In Bungay, its
Claw marks left on the door of the Holy
Trinity Church, photo by myself.
arrival coincided with the lightning strike which destroyed the steeple and melted all but one of the bells inside. Since electricity travels, it's likely that the power from the strike transferred to any other metal in the church, thus causing burns. Adding weight to this is that official records exist showing that the two men killed in Bungay that day were in the belfry when they died. But in the 1500's, they didn't understand how electricity worked, so the deaths and burn were associated with the dog. At some point after this, the frightened dog either ran home to the abbey or was caught by it's owner, but by that time the damage was done. People were scared, some were dead and one church was in ruins. If the dog were to be recognised then the abbey's reputation would suffer, so it was quickly euthanized and buried in a shallow grave were it wouldn't be too obvious. As time passed the hound became folklore and the poor great dane was forgotten.

Like I said, just a theory.

Visiting Blythburgh and Bungay.
The weather couldn't have been less like that in the story if it tried. Plenty of sun and blue skies, a slightly cool breeze that left off after a while. It was early in the morning and after a super healthy breakfast of McMuffins, we set out sat nav for our first stop, Blythburgh.
I think my friends (M and D.) and I were expecting something from a
Holy Trinity Church, photo by myself
Hammer Horror movie, but the Holy Trinity Church is a stunning 15th century building, easily accessible with a car park right next to it. A large church, it's deserving of it's nickname: the Cathedral of the Marshes. I could go on and on about the beauty of this building alone, but you're here for the folklore. Because this is the church with the infamous claw marks. At first we couldn't find them, it turned out that we were looking at the wrong door. Opposite the main entrance is a matching set of ancient wooden doors, and it is here that the Shuck left his mark. The marks are quite deep, but smooth and shiney from years of being touched by the hands of the curious. They are definitely burn marks, but claw marks? The sceptic in me says no, most likely candle burns, but I still love the folklore behind them. Before we leave we explore the church fully, delighting in it's architecture and calming atmosphere. I'd also like to point out that, as well as tours being available there, it does have a small gift shop (cash and correct change only.) and all proceeds raised from it goes towards the upkeep and restoration of this much loved building. Outside the graveyard is also a pretty one, with a path leading around the church and down some steps to the toilets.

Bungay is much bigger than Blythburgh and also has a
St Mary's Church, photo by myself.
castle (accessed through a restaurant, Jester's, which I really recommend for good food.), an observatory and a small museum that you can visit. We didn't just visit the church, but the whole town. The Shuck is everywhere here, even the town football team is named after it. On the outside, St Mary's Church is an imposing building, but inside it is warm and soothing. It's hard to imagine the Shuck wreaking havoc here too, but according to folklore that's just what it did. The hound itself appears here as a beautifully sewn tapestry on the church wall. Take a couple of quid with you, because here you can buy an illustrated booklet telling you all about the Black Shuck and the events of 1577. If ruins or memento mori are your thing then this is also the church for you, as behind it you can find the ruins of a previous church building and the graveyard is home to many well worn, but still beautiful, skull headstones.

Have you been to Bungay or Blythburgh? Do you have any stories to tell, maybe you've seen something a little Shuck-like yourself? Let me know in the comments below or tag me on Twitter! I love hearing from you guys and, unlike the Black Shuck, I don't bite!


  1. I love this tale, and I'm mildly disappointed (but equally convinced) by your theory that it was just a large dog - probably a Great Dane. I do wonder however whether the dog in question wasn't put down out of embarrassment/ as a cover up, but instead whether they truly believed that they were dispatching a hell hound and it had been masquerading as an ordinary dog until that night.