WEIRD SUFFOLK: Thunderbolt and lightning, very very frightening the day Black Shuck terrorised Suffolk
- Credit: Eastern Counties Newspapers
It began in Bungay and ended in Blythburgh and saw the birth of a Suffolk legend which has prowled the county for centuries: this is how Black Shuck’s story began.
There's an extra layer of tension in the town of Bungay and the village of Blythburgh when lightning strikes: for it was in a flash of lightning that Black Shuck made his first terrible visit to Suffolk. Cowering from hailstones and ball lightning, the terrified parishioners of St Mary's Church were drenched as they made their way to collectively pray they would be spared from a storm many believed had been brewed in hell.
It was Sunday August 4 1577 and life in the town would never be the same again. Reverend Abraham Fleming wrote an account of what happened next in his essay A Straunge and Terrible Wunder, starting with a description of the storm "darkness, rain, hail, thunder and lightning as was never seen the like...". What happened next was like a scene from a horror film. As thunder roared and lightning fell in sheets, the congregation knelt in fear, praying to the Almighty for salvation from the storm they knew could tear down a town made of timber and thatched houses with an unstoppable inferno. But fire was not their greatest foe. Suddenly, the doors flew open and a huge black dog ("or the divel in such a likenesse") ran down the aisle and "wrung the necks" of two worshippers, killing them instantly.
As it tore round St Mary's ripping flesh with cruel teeth and sharp claws, causing one cowering parishioner to "shrivel like a drawn purse" and others to believe the end of the world was nigh, there was a flash of lightning and the dog disappeared. Black Shuck had left the building: and was on his way to another of God's houses. The tale says he left Bungay's congregation and the church they were worshipping in broken - townspeople lay dead, dying or mauled, two more were killed by a lightning strike to the belfry.
Some say that the story had grown from a belief that disasters connected to lightning strikes were attributed to the Devil and that in a church cloaked in darkness, it was easy for those inside to believe the horror wreaked inside was due to a legendary Shuck rather than a natural catastrophe. Weird Suffolk prefer the Reverend's explanation: "All down the church in midst of fire, the hellish monster flew and, passing onward to the quire, he many people slew." At Blythburgh, which rises from the saltmarshes like a majestic ship beached aground, the scorch marks from Black Shuck's claws are still etched into the door after his visit hours after the devastation at Bungay.
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Twelve miles from Bungay he struck again at Holy Trinity Church: as before, there was no warning - a clap of thunder burst open the doors and Black Shuck appeared.
With his name taken from an Old English word for demon, the hound set to his dreadful work, as recalled by Reverend Fleming: "...there also, as before, slew two men and a lad, and burned the hand of another person that was there among the rest of the company...
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"This mischief thus wrought, he flew with wonderful force to no little feare of the assembly, out of the church in a hideous and hellish likenes."
Local historian Christopher Reeve and historian and anthropologist Dr David Waldron have suggested that a fierce electrical storm recorded by contemporary accounts on that date, coupled with the trauma of the ongoing Reformation, may have led to the accounts entering folklore.
But Black Shuck's appearances are not confined to this small corner of Suffolk: accounts of the Devil Dog are legion, with tales from Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Essex and Lincolnshire and some accounts are relatively modern.
Weird Suffolk received news of one such sighting just a few weeks ago...