It roamed the countryside spreading death and terror – a giant, ferocious hell-hound with flaming eyes and savage claws.
For centuries, the beast that came to be known as Black Shuck struck fear into the hearts of all who crossed its path.
Just a single glimpse was enough to impart a fatal curse; the briefest encounter sufficient to suck the life from any hapless victim.
Is it him? The bones are believed to date back to the 16th century, when the legendary hell hound Black Shuck (pictured in an artist’s impression) was rumoured to roam East Anglia. They show the dog was a ‘large male’
One thing, however, has always been absent from the many tales of the dog-like entity and its sinister appearances in the East of England flatlands: A single fact.
Now that may be about to change with an answer to the question: Did it exist only in folklore … or was it flesh and blood?
Yesterday, 500 years after Black Shuck first went on the prowl, archaeologists were examining the skeleton of a 7ft long dog unearthed in the remains of an ancient abbey.
It was discovered a few miles from two churches where Black Shuck is said to have killed worshippers during an almighty thunderstorm in August 1577.
What’s more, it appears to have been buried in a shallow grave at precisely the same time as Shuck is said to have been on the loose, primarily around Suffolk and the East Anglia region.
Experts will subject the bones and surrounding material to 21st century dating techniques.
But first, the legend. The beast’s most celebrated attack began at Holy Trinity church, Blythburgh. A clap of thunder burst open the church doors and a hairy black ‘devil dog’ came snarling in.
It ran through the congregation, killing a man and boy and causing the church steeple to fall through the roof. Scorch marks still visible on the church doors are purported to have come from Shuck’s claws as it fled.
Local verse records the event thus: ‘All down the church in the midst of fire, the hellish monster flew, and, passing onward to the quire, he many people slew.’
Next stop was 12 miles away in Bungay, where two worshippers were killed at St Mary’s church. One was left shrivelled ‘like a drawn purse’ as he prayed.
Brendon Wilkins, projects director of Dig Ventures, which organised the dig, pictured, said he believed the dog could have lived around 1577 because it was buried alongside pottery fragments from the period
Ruins: Dig Ventures projects director, Brendon Wilkins, said the grave was dug partly over the foundations of what appeared to have been a kitchen area – indicating it had been created after the abbey fell into disrepair
In his 1577 pamphlet A Straunge And Terrible Wunder, the Rev Abraham Fleming told how the Satan-like beast came ‘running all along down the body of the church with great swiftnesse and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible fourm and shape’, wringing the necks of two parishioners as they knelt.
Spookily, a later work reveals: ‘Although his howling makes the hearer’s blood run cold, his footfalls make no sound.’
Subsequent appearances of Shuck – a name believed to derive either from an old English word for demon, or from local dialect meaning ‘shaggy’ – have immortalised it.
An image of Black Shuck is incorporated in Bungay’s coat of arms, and the nickname for equally legendary Bungay Town FC is the Black Dogs.
Painstaking work revealed the skeleton of an extremely large dog.
Estimates suggest it would have weighed more than 14 stone and stood 7ft tall on its hind legs.
The grave was less than 20 inches deep and unmarked. Pottery fragments found at the same level date from the height of Shuck’s alleged reign.
Radio carbon dating tests will now give an exact age for the bones, results that will serve either to enhance the shaggy dog stories – or perhaps to support the far less entertaining theory that here lies a 16th century abbot’s beloved old hunting dog.