The Black Shuck and The Black Dogs of Norfolk

by | Jun 14, 2023

You can’t look into Norfolk folklore without hearing about the famous demon dog of East Anglia. Commonly known as the Black Shuck. Described as a huge black dog with burning eyes that haunts the Norfolk coast, there are actually several variations of this intriguing giant hound and they can vary from town to town. Other names include: Shock, Old Scarfe, Owd Rugman, Old Shep and The Hateful Thing. The word “Shuck” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “scucca” meaning “devil”. Even in appearance, the Shuck can vary enormously. Some tales depict it as a hound as big as a cow. With a shaggy black coat and fierce yellow eyes, it is completely silent as it moves across the landscape. In some stories, it’s headless, the body of a large dog emitting smoke or flames from its neck where its head should be. Some describe it as part donkey, part dog or with two heads or a form created by the mist from a Haar (sea fog.) One depiction has the Shuck as a giant black dog but with a single, flaming red eye in the centre of its forehead.

The Black Shuck is said to appear as a large black dog.

Is the Shuck always evil?

There are versions of the Shuck legend which portray the beast as less of a monster and more of a guardian of the coastal area. In this version, the Shuck (referred to as Old Shep in this adaptation) used to belong to a couple. The husband tragically dies at sea and is buried near the wreck in Yarmouth. Back at home in Hunstanton, his wife receives the news, and dies of heartbreak, leaving the Shuck alone. Since that day, the Shuck has been padding between the two locations along the coast. It is supposedly visiting both owners in their separate graves and protecting the coast they loved so much.

There is a possibility that the Shuck legend originates in the Early Middle Ages. A time of Scandinavian occupation in the form of the Vikings in the 9th Century. The Danes held control of much of East Anglia at a time when it was known as the “Dane-Law”. Their intricate culture took root in the land as well. The great Norse god Odin was said to send his hunting hounds, Geri and Freki, to East Anglia with the Vikings. They padded around the coast, protecting the Viking settlers from the Saxons. It would also make sense that, as Christians, the Saxons would therefore see the dogs as a minion of the devil. This was due to their prejudices against other beliefs and these views carried on as their faith covered most of Europe.

How have people seen the Black Shuck?

Usually the stories of sightings of the Shuck are quite similar in their telling. A lone person, sometimes on horseback or, in more modern accounts, on a motorbike or bicycle, is travelling through rural Norfolk, often across sea cliffs or coastal roads. The land around them is quiet and empty. A cold wind blowing across the crops and treetops. Suddenly the wind drops and the protagonist finds themselves feeling as though they are not alone. As they look over their shoulder, they are horrified to find an enormous dog, as big as a large calf, padding silently behind them. Often described as keeping pace and a wicked glint in its fiery eyes. Some describe lashing out at the dog, either by throwing something or aiming with a forceful kick, but these attacks just seem to pass through the creature. As soon as the person comes to the realisation that they are at the hound’s mercy, it disappears. Often this is followed by a death in the family of the individual, the Shuck often seen as a portent of death.

The Black Shuck of Bungay

The most famous story involving the Shuck took place just over the border in Suffolk, at the church in Bungay. On August 4th, 1577, the church was filled with parishioners in prayer. Outside, a vicious storm howled, battering the doors and windows violently and making the entire church appear as though it were shaking. The terrified people offered up prayer for their God to save them, but it was not God who answered. With an almighty bang, the church doors were thrown wide open, causing the roar of the wind and rain to increase as it found its way inside. There in the doorway, its black fur matted from the rain, eyes burning like red hot coals in the night, stood the Black Shuck. With a chilling growl it charged into the church, bounding between the terrified onlookers. It moved among the people with great speed, taking two of them around the head with its jaws and breaking their necks with ease. It bit another in the back and he seemed to shrivel and turn black, like leather thrown on a fierce fire. Before anyone had time to react, the beast was gone as quickly as it appeared. It is reported that Shuck then made his way to a church in Blythburgh, where a similar thing happened. The only evidence of its rampage being the large scorch marks in the door it had burst through. These marks can still be seen on the church door today.

It is worth noting that, on that date, it is recorded that a great storm was indeed raging over the area. At some point in the day, a bolt of lightning struck the tower. Two men in the belfry were immediately killed and a third was badly burned. It is very probable that this is originally what happened, and the story was later turned into a sermon about punishment by a demon dog. A “fire and brimstone” puritan preacher named Reverend Abraham Fleming produced a pamphlet of the event called “A Straunge and Terrible Wunder”. In it was his own story that involved the Shuck as outlined above.

The Black Hound of Blickling Hall

One of the more bizarre versions of the legend takes place around Blickling Hall in Norfolk. In the 17th Century, the hall was owned by Knight and politician, Sir Henry Hobart, 4th Baronet. He had a reputation for being argumentative, rude and problematic to his neighbours, often creating disputes around money or land with them. Henry had also fought under William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland and was adept in swordsmanship. In 1698, Henry became enraged when, after putting himself in considerable debt with a political campaign, he was defeated. He believed it was due to rumours circulating that, during the Boyne campaign, he had acted as a coward. For some reason, Henry decided to blame this on local lawyer and fishing enthusiast, Oliver Le Neve. Oliver was far more popular among his neighbours but after having his reputation attacked by Henry, he challenged him to a duel. With only a nearby servant girl to witness the duel, both men met on Cawston Heath and proceeded to draw swords. Henry was a superior swordsman and apparently wounded Oliver in the arm. The tables turned, however, when Henry’s sword point got caught in his opponent’s coat, giving Oliver the room to thrust his sword into Henry’s stomach. A wound which would prove fateful.

The history turns to folklore at the funeral of Henry Hobart. After dying of his wound in the hall itself, his family buried his body in the grounds. During the service, a dog came and sat at the feet of the Sexton, whining loudly. Later that day, Henry’s body was found torn from the ground and from his lead coffin and laid out on the grass. The family attempted to bury him again, this time in the woods nearby, but the ‘common ground spat it out’. His body was finally weighted with stones and lowered into the lake. A few days afterwards, the gamekeeper caught a “monstrous eel” from the waters while fishing. Although it looked ‘evil in appearance’ he took it home to cook in a stew.

Putting the eel into his cooking pot, the gamekeeper went about his business in his home. As he pottered about, he heard a strange sound coming from the pot. Inside, the eel was thrashing around in the hot water, and suddenly, in an explosion of steam, it disappeared. In its place, next to the upturned pot, stood a huge black dog with the eyes of Henry Hobart. It growled and took off through the thin wooden door to the hut. After the release of the hound, it seemed the estate became cursed. Henry’s son caught smallpox, the gamekeeper who had caught the eel killed himself, the estate cook went completely insane, the milk from the estate dairy went sour and crops were blighted. At last, the family sent word to London for help and a ‘famous wizard’ arrived. He whistled across the park land seven times. By his seventh whistle, the black dog came padding across the grass and fawned at his feet. It was then taken to the South East tower and locked inside, lifting the curse and keeping the evil locked in the tower.

The story doesn’t end there though. In the 1860s, William Kerr, the 8th Marquess of Lothian, owned the hall. One day, his sister was sitting in the drawing room of the home, as she often did. Out of the blue, she was startled by a large black dog dashing through the room and disappearing behind a tapestry. The next morning, her brother, who knew nothing of the dog, came in and announced they had finally broken through the blocked up entrance to the South East tower. It was finally open again after being sealed two centuries before. The same tower that the Shuck has supposedly sealed away in all those years before. Since then, the Shuck has been seen on a couple of occasions. During WW2, an airman walking from Aylsham to his base in Oulton looked across the moonlit grounds of Blickling Hall. He reported seeing a huge black dog observing him from a little distance away. Its mouth was open as if it was howling or roaring but no sound came forth. The dog observed him for a few seconds, filling him with a sense of dread, before vanishing into thin air. In 2003, a visitor to the hall saw a huge black dog on the cross roads at Abel Heath in the grounds in a similar incident. So maybe the huge dog was released by Kerr back into the grounds and it once more haunts Blickling.

Blickling Hall still remains an impressive structure in Norfolk today

It is worth noting that the real Henry Hobart is buried in the family vaults at Blickling. The location of his fateful duel is immortalised with a stone plinth and urn, inside a small fenced area, just off the Norwich Road in Cawston.

The Southery Shuck

When the village of Southery, between Ely and Downham Market, was still an island out in the Fens in the early middle ages, it is said that the monks from Ely traveled there in order to construct the first Christian church. They were met by the local pagan fensmen. These were traditional people living in reed huts and living off eels and fish. They took offense to these strangers wading into their lands and demanding the right to enforce their own religion on the locals. The monks started the construction nonetheless and the locals responded by killing several monks. The abbot, in retaliation, sent many armed soldiers into the fens to slaughter the locals. Those men were also found butchered, having misjudged the ability of the fenfolk to use their natural environment to their advantage.

In frustration, the abbot turned to the Baron of Northwald, whose lands included Southery, for help. The Baron had already lost many men in his previous attempts to displace the fen people. He did not want to lose more. Instead, he sent a huge pack of wolfhounds to protect the monks. The wolfhounds, once in the fens, started feeding on the bodies of the armed men and monks killed by the fensmen before. They seemed to get a taste for human flesh, as, after the bodies, they turned on the monks themselves becoming a whole new threat! The surviving monks fled from the fens, and to avoid the now rampaging hounds, the fensmen moved deeper into the wetlands.

With no more people to eat, the large dogs turned on one another. Only a cunning and very large, single female hound survived. Eventually she grew weak from hunger and was rescued by the fensmen who trained her to hunt the baron’s deer to supply them with fresh meat. Eventually the monks returned to attempt to finish the church again. Although the dog was friendly with the local people, she would reportedly growl at any Christians that came near. One year, the hound disappeared for a week, prompting concern from the fensmen. She soon returned, her paws cut and bleeding as if she had walked miles. It soon became apparent she was pregnant. With no wild wolves around this part of England, the monks nearby suspected the wolf was pregnant with the Devil’s child.

The young pup that was born indeed looked as though it was a cross between a hound and a wolf. It grew happily among the fensfolk and, after the mother had passed, resumed the work of fetching fresh meat for the locals. As it grew, the puppy became as big as an Ox. At last, the Christian’s managed to complete their church on the land, and the Bishop of North Elmham rode over to consecrate the building. Among his followers, was a soldier who had been present when the wolf pack had started attacking the monks. He was determined to find and kill the final creature.

Entering the village that the hound called home alongside the other soldiers, the man attacked the large dog. To his horror, he was immediately overcome and his throat was torn out by his quarry. In response, his fellow soldiers loosed a barrage of arrows at the hound and several pierced its side. Howling in pain, the poor creature retreated into the reeds and wetlands, never to be seen again. Since that date, it has been said that the angry howls of the hound can be heard at midnight on May 29th each year. Anyone who hears them will supposedly be dead within the year.

The original church that the monks built now lies in ruins, a replacement being built in 1858. If you go and look at the cornerstones of the old charnel house you may see what looks like large teeth marks. It is said that the wolf-hound has been trying to bite its way through the wall for centuries, trying to get to the bones of the monks that rested inside. Although the bones are no longer present, locals still avoid the ruins at night. When the shadows are long, it’s just possible that there could be an enormous hound with a thirst for Christian blood hiding nearby.

The Modern Day Shuck

If you visit Norfolk, and especially Bungay, today, you will find that the legend of the Shuck still runs strong among the locals. With Bungay hosting a Black Shuck festival every year and several references being found among street names and statues, plaques and street art, buildings and local beers, it is good to know that this ancient part of our local culture is still going strong today.

You also need only go back a couple of generations to hear people’s supposed personal experiences with the Shuck. Many a local pub in the rural areas contain people who will gleefully recount how a neighbour or relative had a run in with the spectral animal. It seems that the legend of the Black Shuck is here to stay, and the stories are forever evolving.

Centuries of retelling has led to the legend taking on a fluid nature, varying in many ways. It has almost become personal to some, with, in some places, the legend differing from household to household. Like with most of these bits of local folklore, however, there is still a strong theme. Don’t go out alone at night into a dangerous rural landscape and respect the world around you. Because you don’t know when you next might be walking along and hear the tell-tale padding of large black paws behind you.


The Legendary Shuck – East Anglian Daily Times

This Hollow Land (Aspects of Norfolk Folklore) – Peter Tolhurst

The Southery Shuck

Sir Henry Hobart

Henry Hobart Duel