In this Blog article I would like to write about Church Grims & Black Shuck – two Spectres that cannot be separated in my imagination. As readers of my blog will testify, I have a keen interest in the Social History & Beliefs of this fair Isle that I call Home. The UK has a wealth of supernatural ghouls that needs no Harry Potter (however, HP may have switched on a whole host of new celebrants). Indeed, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Sybill Trelawney, the divination teacher, associates Harry’s tea leaves with the Grim, which she calls “a black dog who haunts churchyards.” Church Grims make a digital comeback in the iOS and Steam game Year Walk, which is based on Swedish mythology, the Church Grim is the last creature the player encounters. In the game, the Grim takes the form of a cloaked goat-headed figure and if the player touches its heart they can see the secrets of the universe (derived from an old southern Swedish folktale).
The Church Grim, or Kirk Grim if you are North of The Border (Kyrkogrim (Swedish) or Kirkonväki (Finnish)), is a figure from English and Scandinavian folklore, said to be an attendant spirit, overseeing the welfare of its particular church. English Church Grims are said to enjoy loudly ringing the bells. They may appear as black dogs (even as other animals, such as rams, horses, roosters or ravens) or as small, misshapen, dark-skinned people. The Swedish Kyrkogrim are said to be the spirits of animals sacrificed by early Christians at the building of a new church. In parts of Europe, including Britain and Scandinavia, it was believed that the first man buried in a new churchyard had to guard it against the Devil. To save a human soul from the duty, a completely black dog would be buried alive on the north side of the churchyard, creating a guardian spirit, the church grim, to protect the church.
The Scandinavian and Nordic Kyrkogrim or Kirkonväki can also occasionally appear as pale-skinned ‘ghosts’, said to be the spirits of the folk who lived in the proximity of the church that they now ‘guard’. William Henderson in his 1878 Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties attributes it to a foundation sacrifice and points out that the Kirkogrim of Sweden appears in the form of a lamb, which in the early days in Christianity in Sweden was buried under the altar. The Kirkegrim of Denmark took the form of a ‘grave-sow’.
Being born in the County of Norfolk (and therefore being superstitious), I associate this Church Grim with the beast Black Shuck. According to folklore, the spectre haunts the landscapes of East Anglia, primarily coastline, graveyards, side-roads, crossroads, bodies of water and dark forests. W. A. Dutt, in his 1901 Highways & Byways in East Anglia describes the creature thus:
He takes the form of a huge black dog, and prowls along dark lanes and lonesome field footpaths, where, although his howling makes the hearer’s blood run cold, his footfalls make no sound. You may know him at once, should you see him, by his fiery eye; he has but one, and that, like the Cyclops’, is in the middle of his head. But such an encounter might bring you the worst of luck: it is even said that to meet him is to be warned that your death will occur before the end of the year. So you will do well to shut your eyes if you hear him howling; shut them even if you are uncertain whether it is the dog fiend or the voice of the wind you hear. Should you never set eyes on our Norfolk Snarleyow you may perhaps doubt his existence, and, like other learned folks, tell us that his story is nothing but the old Scandinavian myth of the black hound of Odin, brought to us by the Vikings who long ago settled down on the Norfolk coast.
It is Dutt’s description which gave rise to one misnomer for Black Shuck as “Old Snarleyow”; in the context of his description it is a comparative to Frederick Marryat’s 1837 novel Snarleyyow, or the Dog Fiend, which tells the tale of a troublesome ship’s dog.
According to some legends, the dog’s appearance bodes ill to the beholder – for example in the Maldon and Dengie area of Essex, the most southerly point of sightings, where seeing Black Shuck means the observer’s almost immediate death. However, more often than not, stories tell of Black Shuck terrifying his victims, but leaving them alone to continue living normal lives; in some cases it has supposedly happened before close relatives to the observer die or become ill.
By contrast, in other tales the animal is regarded as relatively benign and said to accompany women on their way home in the role of protector rather than a portent of ill omen. Some black dogs have been said to help lost travelers find their way home and are more often helpful than threatening; in his book, Apparitions of Black Dogs, Dr. Simon Sherwood notes that benign accounts of the dog become more regular towards the end of the 19th and throughout the 20th centuries.
One of the most notable reports of Black Shuck is of his appearance at the churches of Bungay and Blythburgh in Suffolk. On 4 August 1577, at Blythburgh, Black Shuck is said to have burst in through the doors of Holy Trinity Church to a clap of thunder. He ran up the nave, past a large congregation, killing a man and boy and causing the church steeple to collapse through the roof. As the dog left, he left scorch marks on the north door which can be seen at the church to this day.
The encounter on the same day at St Mary’s Church, Bungay was described in A Straunge and Terrible Wunder by the Reverend Abraham Fleming in 1577:
This black dog, or the divel in such a linenesse (God hee knoweth al who worketh all,) running all along down the body of the church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible fourm and shape, passed between two persons, as they were kneeling uppon their knees, and occupied in prayer as it seemed, wrung the necks of them bothe at one instant clene backward, in somuch that even at a mome[n]t where they kneeled, they stra[n]gely dyed.
Adams was a clergyman from London, and therefore probably only published his account based on exaggerated oral accounts. Other local accounts attribute the event to the Devil (Abrahams calls the animal “the Divel in such a likeness”). The scorch marks on the door are referred to by the locals as “the devil’s fingerprints”, and the event is remembered in this verse:
All down the church in midst of fire, the hellish monster flew, and, passing onward to the quire, he many people slew.*
Dr David Waldron and Christopher Reeve suggest 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.
However, as reported in The East Anglian Daily Times, in May 2014 a large dog was excavated at Leiston Abbey and was linked to the legend of Black Shuck. Carbon dating of the bones “indicated a date of either 1650-1690, 1730-1810 or post 1920” and the animal “was likely to have been interred when there was no surface trace of the original building remaining”.
- Enid Porter, The folklore of East Anglia, Volume 1974, Part 2