'A Strange and Terrible Wonder'

On that fateful day of the fourth of August 1577 ‘Into the parish church of Blibery the thing entered, placing himself on a beam, wheron suddenly he gave a swing through the church and slew two men and a lad, and burned the hand of another person among the rest of the company, of whom divers were blasted.’  The thing was the Devil in the guise of the ghastly hound of the East Anglian marshes, Black Shuck.  Abraham Fleming’s words turned a violent thunderstorm from a natural event into a text for the sinful.  He used a superstitious image to dramatise his religious message.  Behave or else!

Fleming (c.1552-1607) was not yet a clergyman – he was not ordained until 1588 – but his religious zeal was already evident in his published work.  London born, he spent five or six years working in the city’s publishing houses before graduating from Peterhouse, Cambridge, in 1582.  He worked as a translator, editor, indexer and compiler.  One of his earliest works was a translation from the Latin ‘Of Englishe Dogges’ and his account of the great storm that hit Bungay and Blythburgh in 1577 was just one of a number of descriptions of marvellous events.  He is best remembered as the general editor of the 1587 edition of Raphael Holinshed’s ‘Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland’ for which he obtained much new material in extending the coverage of Elizabeth I’s reign.  His firmly protestant and anti-papal beliefs were clearly revealed.  His sentiments were expressed so strongly that they attracted the attention of censors and some of his more virulent passages were toned down.

Eventually religion became more important to Fleming than publishing.  After ordination he became chaplain to Katherine Howard, Lady Howard of Effingham, and from 1597 countess of Nottingham.  Eventually, under the patronage of Archbishop John Whitgift, he was placed at St Pancras, Soper Lane, London. He was well-known as a preacher and although none of his sermons was published, his devotional works remained in print well into the seventeenth century.  He died at Bottesford in Leicestershire, aged about fifty-six.

The Blythburgh event was also described in Holinshed’s Chronicles.  Given Fleming’s editorial involvement, the account is obviously not an independent one.  Fleming’s use of the Black Shuck legend is interesting.  He saw that his message about the sinfulness of the times could be strengthened by employing an image with which the superstitious people of Blythburgh would have been familiar.  Although Fleming wrote that the creature ‘Flew with wonderful force to no little fear of the assembly, out of the Church in a vicious and hellish likeness’, he made no reference to those ‘claw-marks’ on the inside of the north door, mentioned by many modern guide-book authors.  If the marks had been there would he not have mentioned them?  Evidence, no doubt, that they are of a much later and more prosaic origin.  That subject is explored in another Blythburgh History Tale.