A few weeks ago I was doing a bit of research on the burial of early modern suicides (as one does) and came across an interesting entry in the register of Butley Abbey, an Augustinian priory in Suffolk. As well as the fascinating account of the crossroad burial of one of Butley’s later priors, Robert Brommer (c.1509/10), I also happened upon an early version of the East Anglian Black Dog legend. Referring to the events of 1513, the chronicler writes:
“It was this year on the feast of St. Michael (29th September), after evening prayer […] that, during a thunderstorm, the Devil in the shape or species of a very black dog appeared in Essex; that is to say, near to a village called Chich, where part of the bell tower of the church of Sts Peter, Paul and Osyth caught fire. Eventually the dog departed without causing harm to anyone, thanks be to God.”
This is a very (very!) loose paraphrase of the original Latin text, but it bears close resemblance to the more famous tale of the Black Dog that terrorised the village of Bungay, on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, in 1577. In both stories the devil-dog appears during a violent storm in which the local church was badly damaged after being struck by lightning. However, whilst the Bungay dog was said to have wrung the necks of two parishioners, killing them both, the residents of Chich (the modern-day village of St Osyth) seem to have escaped unharmed, the cost of rebuilding the bell tower notwithstanding.
Abraham Fleming’s pamphlet on the Black Dog of Bungay (Source: wikicommons)
As noted by the editor of the Register of Butley Priory, the Butley description is one of the earliest accounts of the Black Dog legend yet found in the written record. It would be interesting to see if any such stories can be detected in earlier chronicle traditions. As it stands, these sixteenth-century wonder stories are a stark testament to the pervasive nature of local belief. Devilish black dogs would continue to haunt the locales and landscapes of East Anglia for centuries to come.
Abraham Fleming, A Straunge and Terrible Wunder (London, 1577)
The Register or Chronicle of Butley Priory, Suffolk, 1510-1535, ed. by A. G. Dickens, forward by J. N. L. Myres (Winchester: The Wykeham Press, 1951)