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The Black Dogs of Bungay

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Do you believe in ghosts? As well as the headless, chain-clanking type, which goes, "Whhooooooooo", there are some which are more likely to go, "Whhooof" or let out a blood-curdling howl. For there have been a number of sightings of terrifying, red-eyed hounds known as Black Shuck.

The hounds appear in a dramatic flash and disappear into mist or cloud. The ghostly dogs seem to be connected with the memories of wicked humans, as if their black spirits are turned into such creatures. Meeting such a hound can be quite a nasty experience.

The tiny market town of Bungay near Lowestoft has a long and wild history. Bungay has had its fair share of dirty rascals and black ghostly beasts. One such rogue was Hugh Bigod, first Earl of Norfolk, who crossed the River Waveney and came to live in Bungay Castle.

He was born at the end of the 11th century and lived for nearly 80 years. He was a treacherous man who rarely kept a promise and enjoyed mischief making. Folk were mighty scared of him.

It was after the death of King Henry I in 1135, that Hugh's wickedness really became apparent. Both King Henry's daughter, Matilda, and his nephew, Stephen, claimed the throne and the two sides went to war. Devious Hugh grasped the chance to use the turmoil for his own gain.

At first, he decided to help Stephen become king and was given the Earldom of Norfolk in return for his support. Hugh and the King fought together in the battle of Lincoln, but when the going got tough, Hugh deserted Stephen and left him to fight on alone. The king was captured and imprisoned.

Law and order broke down and gangs of bandits roamed the land. Hugh took the opportunity to increase his wealth and engage in some trouble making of his own. He joined forces with another rebel, Geoffrey de Mandeville.

Together they led the most feared gang of all. The pair spread terror throughout East Anglia, burning villages, capturing and torturing people and demanding money for their release. So cruel and evil were their actions that the grass withered and died in their shadows.

Eventually, Stephen regained the throne and made his peace with Hugh but the countryside was in ruins. After Stephen died, Hugh helped Henry of Anjou become king and was allowed to keep his title of Earl, despite his evil deeds. In 1165, the wicked Earl built a Castle at Bungay, which was virtually surrounded by the River Waveney. From here he bullied and terrorised the local people.

He soon became fed up with the laws of Henry's rule and, in 1174, King Henry II returned to England from a visit abroad to find Hugh Bigod plotting and causing trouble with the king's own sons. Hugh had taken over a castle at Framlingham and, when commanded to explain his bad behaviour, he laughed at the Authorities. His sneered reply soon became famous: "Were I in my castle of Bungay, Upon the Waveney, I would ne care for the King of Cockney."

Henry II and his army marched straight to the eastern counties. Evil Hugh was eventually forced to surrender to the King's forces. His castles, including Bungay, were destroyed as punishment.

Having lost his power, Hugh Bigod left England to join a crusade. He died shortly afterwards. Although Hugh died on a holy crusade, few people thought that his soul would be welcome in heaven. As time passed, events were to confirm this.

It was over a hundred years before Hugh's descendant, Roger Bigod, rebuilt the castle at Bungay. A few decades later, a young lad was going about his daily tasks in the castle, when he had a terrifying encounter. Blocking his way was a monstrous black hound. The dog had burning red eyes, enormous teeth and fur so dark you could see your reflection in it. Terrified by his ordeal, the poor lad died soon after.

When the frightening ghostly vision started to appear in several places throughout the castle, the local people knew there must be a connection to the troubled soul of the evil Earl. It was felt his wicked life would not allow him to rest in peace. The devil dog, Black Shuck, would appear in a chilling flash and bring misfortune to those that looked into its burning eyes.

As the years passed, the phantom dog became part of local folklore until one stormy Sunday in 1577. It was a warm August day when the skies above Bungay unexpectedly turned black. A violent thunderstorm shook St Mary's church with such "..darkness, rain, hail, thunder and lightning as was never seen the like." Storms were greatly feared at this time, because whole villages could easily be set ablaze.

The people inside the church knelt in fear, praying for mercy, when suddenly Black Shuck appeared before them. With incredible speed and surrounded by fire, the evil beast raged through the church, attacking the congregation with its cruel teeth and claws. An old verse records:

"All down the church in midst of fire, the hellish monster flew
And, passing onward to the quire, he many people slew".

Two people who were praying were touched by the black hound and killed instantly, while a third was 'shrivelled up like a drawn purse'. Fortunately, the Rector was on the church roof at the time cleaning the gutter and escaped the attention of the dog. He rejoined his terrified congregation and led them in prayer.

Seven miles away, in Blythburgh Church, as the storm still raged, Black Shuck again appeared, "slaying two men and a lad" and burning the hand of another person. The door in Blythburgh Church still has the scratch marks of the Devil dog's claws.

How do we know about these events? Well, a gentleman called Abraham Flemming wrote about the strange goings on - from the comfort and safety of his home - in London! For the terrified congregations in Bungay and Blythburgh, life was never quite the same.

Today, the legend lives on in Bungay. The devil dog is included in the town's coat of arms. The Castle is now a ruin but the two tall towers of the gatehouse and part of the thick-walled keep remain.

Hugh Bigod brought terror to the people of Bungay during his life. Was his wicked soul continuing to torment after his death, through the appearance of Black Shuck? Or did local superstition make an unexplained death and a lightning strike seem more sinister than they were? Back in 1577, nobody could explain why Black Shuck appeared. They just hoped he would never return!

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