Dungeons and Dragons: The Myths and Legends of England’s Churches

In August 2023, the Church of St Mary, Bungay, Suffolk was the site of festivities as it was one of the venues for the inaugural Black Shuck Festival. This was a weekend of arts, crafts, theatre, music, literature and history for all ages. The aim was to immerse visitors in the rich folklore of the area, with the focal point being the legend of the Black Dog of Bungay. The East Anglian legend of Black Shuck tells of a wild black dog that entered St Mary's Church during a violent storm on 4th August 1577. The animal then reappeared at the nearby Holy Trinity Church, Blythburgh. It was at the latter site where, legend has it, the beast clawed at the great door of the church and its scratch marks can still be seen to this day. As a sidenote, Blythburgh hosted a “Blessing of the Animals” last summer, with the caption “All creatures great and small very welcome”, so it can be assumed that the myth of Shuck is not something that continues to terrify. The point of the legend is not to warn of an actual monster, but rather to provide a link to our shared pasts simply by the fact that the story has continued to live on and be told and re-told hundreds of years later. This is evidenced by the festival of Black Shuck being made up of artists and storytellers. The celebration is not praising a demonic dog. Instead, it celebrates the power of any story that can capture imaginations and drive people to come together and create, while also engaging with the examples of our history that lie right in front of us.  

© Andy Marshall "Hunky Punks" at Church of St Mary The Virgin, Hemington

Heritage sites are fantastic at this, as they remain a solid, hopefully everlasting, icon of an ancient past. Take, for instance, St Lawrence’s Church, Broughton, Buckinghamshire, which boasts a mural of incredible beauty depicting St George and the Dragon. Or St Stephen’s Church, Fylingdales, North Yorkshire, which is situated within the “Black Meadow”, a site steeped in folklore that, depending on who you ask, has either been curated or created by the writer Chris Lambert. The Church of St Leonard, Linley, Shropshire, boasts an ornate carving of the Green Man, which is often associated with a Celtic fertility spirit, but in actuality stems from an early Judeo-Christian legend of the Quest of Seth. Seth, being the son of a dying Adam, attempts to re-enter Paradise in a quest to revive his father. He is not allowed entry but is given some seeds from the fruit Adam and Eve ate. When he returns, he finds his father dead, but places the seeds under Adam’s tongue, buries him and then shoots sprout to produce the rest of mankind. Here we have a merging of two faiths, both with images of male figures of fertility, but in radically different ways. Green men can be found in hundreds of churches across the country and featured on the invitation cards for the Coronation of King Charles III.  

However, St Leonard’s has further folkloric credentials, as it also marks the spot of sightings of a will-o-the-wisp, which is light found hovering above marshes and bogland, either because it is a spirit aiming to mislead travellers, or, if you are scientifically inclined, the result of the combustion of natural gases emitting from the swamp water. Beyond this, St Leonard’s rests near the Stiperstones, a quartzite ridge that was one of Britain’s main sources of lead in the 1870s. It is another mythic site, including the story of six songbirds who are looking for their lost companion. Legend has it that if the seventh is found it will mark the end of the world. 

The myths and legends held within the stones of CCT’s sites tell of our relationship with the landscape and the shared fears between past and present. Evidently, whether it is the 1st, 16th or 21st century, we have continued to be preoccupied with mortality, the lives of our children and the fate of the world. And dragons are simply scary whoever you are.  


Header image credit: Andy Marshall