Black Shuck: The Folklore and History of the Demon Dog of East Anglia
“So you will do well to shut your eyes if you hear him howling. Shut them even if you are uncertain if it is the dog fiend or the wind that you hear.”
--from Highways and Byways of East Anglia by, W.A. Dutch (1901)
The congregants inside Holy Trinity Church of Blythburgh England are kneeling together in prayer. It is the middle of the night, August 4, 1577, and outside the church a fierce storm has been raging all day and night.
Winds howl and shake the church. Lightning crashes, thunder booms and the rain falls in torrential sheets. The townspeople are gathered together in fervent supplication--praying and hoping against hope that soon the storm will let up.
Blythburgh is located among the marshy fens of East Anglia along the coast of England, and each one of the residents are keeping a watchful and apprehensive eye on the rising tide levels because their livelihoods depend on it. The prospect of calamitous flooding is a constant and fearful reality.
On this stormy night all the townspeople are on their knees fervently praying for the rain to stop, but little do they know that in just a few moments each one of them is about to experience a supernatural terror far worse than anything ever described in even the most fiery of sermons.
There is a crack of thunder that shakes Holy Trinity Church to its foundation. In an instant, an enormous black shaggy hound, foaming at the mouth and with fiery blazing red eyes, bursts through the large wooden double doors of the church and comes howling and sprinting up the aisle towards the nave.
The worshippers scream in terror as the hellish dog runs amok inside. The hound clamps its jaws around a young boy’s throat and yanks out his jugular before mauling the boy’s father and leaving him in a bloody heap next to his son.
The beast lets out a blood-curdling howl and then sprints out the door in a flash. Once the demonic hound has left, the steeple of Holy Trinity Church in the town of Blythburgh, England, comes crashing through the ceiling. To this very day, claw marks are said to be visible, literally burnt into the door of the church, from that fateful night so long ago.
On that very same night, August 4, 1577, it is said that the same hellish beast appeared yet again not very far away, this time in St. Mary’s Church in the English town of Bungay. In St. Mary’s Church the hellhound followed much the same script as in Blythburgh as reported by a contemporary witness:
“The black dog running all along down the body of the church, with great swiftness passed between two persons kneeling and occupied in prayer, as it seemed, wrung the necks of them both, in an instant, clean back.”
-from A Strange and Terrible Wonder by, Arthur Flemming (1577)
Folklore has it that these two ghastly incidents from August 4, 1577 are the work of ‘Black Shuck’, a ghostly and enormous black dog that is said to roam the coastline and forests of East Anglia in the United Kingdom.
Shuck derives, most probably, from the Old English word “scucca” which may have originally meant fiend or devil. It is said that Black Shuck comes out mostly at night and haunts the cemeteries, marshes and lonely churchyards of East Anglia.
In that part of England the demon dog goes by many names. Most common among these names is Black Shuck, but some call him Old Shuck, Shuck or simply dog fiend. In nearby Norfolk, local residents refer to him as “Snarleyow”.
Black Shuck is said to be larger than a man, the size of a carthorse, with coarse rough black fur, blazing red eyes and dripping fangs almost like a vampire’s. It is said that he loves to howl with the winds at night along the fens, coastal marshlands of East Anglia, and that the shadowy devil dog roams the lonely roads of the region in the middle of the night looking for lost and wayward victims to devour.
Some reports say that Black Shuck only has one large red eye in the center of his forehead, like a devilish canine cyclops and some say that Old Shuck appears only in the shadows and will not bother you if you do not bother him. But almost all reports of Black Shuck agree that the ghostly hound’s appearance is an omen of bad things to come for whomever happens to lay eyes upon the demon.
The incidents which supposedly occurred in the towns of Blythburgh and Bungay on August 4, 1577 may be two of the most heinous of Black Shuck’s legendary appearances, but they are by no means the first or the last accounts of encounters with the devilish hound.
Historically, the first true reference to Black Shuck can be traced by all the way to the year 1127. The first reference of Black Shuck in the year 1127 comes to us from a work entitled the “Peterborough Chronicle”.
In the Peterborough Chronicle from the year 1127 it is recounted that on the Sunday after a new Abbot Henry arrived in Peterborough from Poitou in France:
“Many men both saw and heard a great number of ghostly huntsmen. The huntsmen were black huge and hideous and rode on black horses. (T)her hounds were jet black with red eyes like saucers and horrible.”
The apparitions recounted in The Peterborough Chronicle are the first written description of ghost dogs in the area matching Black Shuck’s appearance.
The Peterborough Chronicle, in addition to possibly being the first written reference to Black Shuck, is also, with its description of spectral huntsmen and hounds, a depiction of what in folklore is called a “Wild Hunt”.
In European folk tradition seeing the appearance of a “Wild Hunt” is always considered a portent of impending doom; a bad omen hinting at some impending calamity which is a folklore characteristic that would later be integrated into sightings of Black Shuck.
Although the Peterborough Chronicle dates from the year 1127, and it is the earliest extant written account of any demon dogs matching Black Shuck’s description in the area, it is very likely that the legend of Black Shuck in oral tradition dates back even further.
In the late 9th and early 10th centuries Vikings from Scandinavia conquered and settled in the area of East Anglia. With the Vikings came traditional tales of Norse Mythology as is reflected in many of the works of early Anglo-Saxon literature, most well known of which is the epic Beowulf. Given the known Viking presence and influence in the area it is quite possible that the folklore of Black Shuck derives from tales of Geri and Freki, the two wolves that were said to be companions of the Norse God of war Odin.
Despite his potential mythic and ancient origins, sightings of Black Shuck have continued throughout East Anglia right up to the present day. East Anglia is known for its gloomy climate and for its peat farming in marshy coastal bogs known as fens. Many say that the legend of Black Shuck was the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic work Hound of the Baskervilles, which is renowned for its dreary and morose tone and setting.
Today, the region that is home to Black Shuck is bisected by the A!0 highway which runs from the city of Cambridge to the town of Ely. As the road crosses the fens of East Anglia it becomes lonely and winding. Many motorists still say that they can see the beast of Black Shuck prowling the roadside with his blazing red eyes glowing in the moonlight.
It may be easy for us to dismiss Black Shuck as a fanciful and horrific creation of folklore tradition. We could say that Black Shuck is simply a device used by medieval people to try and explain catastrophic occurrences that they couldn’t understand. And we could just as easily dismiss sightings of Black Shuck in the last two-hundred years as cases of wild runaway imaginations.
However, in 2014 archaeologists excavating in East Anglia near Leiston Abbey discovered buried just below the surface the remains of a large dog that measured nearly seven feet in length. Pottery fragments that were found near the dog’s gravesite and buried at the same depth, have been dated to the late 1500’s giving credence to the horrific stories of Black Shuck terrorizing the residents of Blythburgh and Bungay in the same time period.
Perhaps, given both the archaeological and eye-witness evidence, Black Shuck is more than simply a creation of our overwrought imaginations, or a survival from medieval folklore. Maybe, out among the gloomy fens of East Anglia and stalking the lonely A10 highway on the road to the city of Cambridge, is Black Shuck prowling with his blazing red eyes looking for the next victim he can devour and portending our eventual doom.
As one twentieth century resident told East Anglian author Martin Newell when he inquired about researching the legend of Black Shuck, “if you go looking for him, you better be careful.”