Black Shuck: The mythic hellhound Of Medieval England5 min read
Black Shuck, Old Shuck, Old Shock or simply Shuck is the name given to a ghostly black dog which is said to roam the coastline and countryside of East Anglia, a traditional region of eastern England. Stories about the creature form part of the folklore of Norfolk, Suffolk, the Cambridgeshire fens and Essex.
His name, Shuck, may derive from the Old English word “scucca” meaning “demon”, or possibly from the local dialect word “shucky” meaning “shaggy” or “hairy”.
In any case, Black Shuck is one of many ghostly black dogs recorded across the British Isles.
Sometimes recorded as an omen of death and sometimes a more friendly animal, it is classified as a cryptid, and there are varying accounts of the animal’s appearance.
Its alleged appearance already in 1577 at Bungay and Blythburgh is a particularly famous account of the beast, and images of black sinister dogs have become part of the iconography of the area, also appeared in popular culture.
It seems that the earliest surviving description of devilish black hounds is an account of an incident in the Peterborough Abbey recorded in the Peterborough Chronicle (one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) around 1127. Immediately after the arrival of Abbot Henry of Poitou to the Abbey of Peterborough, there was quite a ruckus:
“Let no-one be surprised at the truth of what we are about to relate, for it was common knowledge throughout the whole country that immediately after [Abbot Henry of Poitou’s arrival at Peterborough Abbey] – it was the Sunday when they sing Exurge Quare – many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen were black, huge and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats and the hounds were jet black with eyes like saucers and horrible. This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns. Reliable witnesses who kept watch in the night declared that there might well have been as many as twenty or thirty of them winding their horns as near they could tell. This was seen and heard from the time of his arrival all through Lent and right up to Easter.”
The events of 1127 are known as the Wild Hunt and It’s not just an English phenomenon.
Stories from across central, western and northern Europe recount loud wild hunts throughout untamed lands, and they help explain the mythological underpinnings of the Black Shuck.
Northern cultures associated wild hunts with the change of the seasons from fall into winter and probably because strong, cold winds came blowing over the landscape and forced people indoors. Anyone who didn’t make it inside during the winter could freeze to death.
Interpreting howling winds as a pack of hunters would thus make sense. Winds aren’t nearly as scary as a pack of rabid dogs on the hunt, but the outcome could be same: If someone didn’t flee from the Black Shuck, they could be killed.
Particularly in England, when winds would come howling in from the sea, there were stories of black hellhounds in more than a dozen areas.
One of the most notable reports of Black Shuck is of his appearance at the churches of Bungay and Blythburgh in Suffolk.
On 4 August 1577, at Blythburgh, Black Shuck is said to have burst in through the doors of Holy Trinity Church to a clap of thunder. He ran up the nave, past a large congregation, killing a man and boy and causing the church steeple to collapse through the roof. As the dog left, he left scorch marks on the north door which can be seen at the church to this day.
The event was described in “A Straunge and Terrible Wunder” by Abraham Fleming in 1577. He was a translator and editor for several printing houses in London, and therefore probably published his account based on exaggerated oral accounts:
“This black dog, or the divel in such a linenesse (God hee knoweth al who worketh all,) running 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 mome[n]t where they kneeled, they stra[n]gely dyed.”
Littleport, Cambridgeshire is home to two different legends of spectral black dogs, which have been linked to the Black Shuck folklore, but there are quite different. In the first, a huge black dog haunts the area after being killed rescuing a local girl from a lustful friar in pre-reformation times, while in the second a black dog haunting the A10 road after its owner drowned in the nearby River Great Ouse in the 1800s.
Either way, anyone who saw a Black Shuck described a large dog with black, mangy fur. These dogs would supposedly be larger-than-normal with some even as big as a horse. They were foaming at the mouth as if deranged, rabid, or ravenously focused on hunting for their next meal.
A description published in 1901 said:
“He takes the form of a huge black dog, and prowls along dark lanes and lonesome field footpaths, where, although his howling makes the hearer’s blood run cold, his footfalls make no sound… . But such an encounter might bring you the worst of luck: it is even said that to meet him is to be warned that your death will occur before the end of the year. So you will do well to shut your eyes if you hear him howling; shut them even if you are uncertain whether it is the dog fiend or the voice of the wind you hear… you may perhaps doubt his existence, and, like other learned folks, tell us that his story is nothing but the old Scandinavian myth of the black hound of Odin, brought to us by the Vikings…”
And in addition to the above, perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the Black Shuck was its eyes, red and big as saucers.
Furthermore, these hellhounds were always said to appear suddenly and without warning, then disappear as quickly as they’d arrived. And if you did catch a glimpse of one, it was believed to be either a protective spirit or a portent of death…
Images from web – Google Research