Throughout English history, tales of spectral black dogs have provoked fear and anxiety. Often believed to be omens of death, historical accounts of malevolent black dogs can be found in almost every county in England. These nocturnal apparitions were variously described as ghosts, hellhounds, and shapeshifters, and were sometimes associated with witchcraft or the devil. Despite their sinister reputation, there are reports in which ghostly black dogs take on the role of benevolent guardian.
Black Dog of Newgate
Tales of a spectral hound haunting Newgate Prison in London date back to 1596. The creature was believed to be the ghost of a scholar imprisoned under suspicion of being a warlock. The sorcerer arrived at Newgate Prison during a period of severe famine. He was besieged by the other inmates shortly after his arrival and cannibalized. Those guilty of this crime began to see a monstrous black dog roaming throughout the prison—a creature they believed to be a manifestation of the dead scholar. The spectre took revenge on his murderers by killing and eating them, or, later, driving them to madness.
Though most tales of Black Dogs in England were of sinister creatures, an account written in 1879 describes a benevolent shapeshifter who preferred to take the shape of a great black dog. In the historic county of Westmorland, the black dog Capelthwaite was known to assist with farm chores such as the herding of sheep. Despite his good nature with locals, this trickster acted spiteful towards outsiders. Eventually he was banished by a local vicar for his mischievous behavior.
Another black dog described as benevolent in nature is the Gurt Dog. This spectral guard dog watches over children and solitary travelers in the Quantock Hills of Somerset.
Accounts of an enormous ghostly dog roaming throughout East Anglia go back to 1577. This black shaggy dog was known to visit churchyards at midnight, with a howl that could make a man’s blood run cold. Described as a harbinger of death, with fiery red eyes, Black Shuck was sometimes associated with Huntsmen on black horses, like those of the Wild Hunt. Though most sightings of this spectral dog elicit fear, Black Shuck is sometimes described as a green-eyed guardian to solitary or lost travelers. Black Shuck has been known to make more recent appearances in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, and Essex where ghostly black dogs have become ingrained in the culture.
The Yeth Hound is known by several other names, including Wish Hound, Gabriel Hound, Ratchet, and Yell Hound. Found in Devon and Cornwall, Yeth Hounds are harbingers of death, said to be the spirits of unbaptized infants, doomed to roam the moors for an eternity. Death comes shortly to those who hear their howls. Despite their ghostly wailing, Yeth Hounds are described as headless creatures.
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may have been inspired by the stories of Yeth Hounds heard in Dartmoor. Doyle described the dog as “an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen.”
The Barghest (or Barguest) is a large spectral hound with fiery eyes, seen in the lanes and snickelways of York, especially near Clifford’s Tower. It may appear leading a baying funereal procession of local dogs after a notable death. When a Barghest lays across a threshold, death is certain to come to that house.
The Barghest can become invisible and walk with the sound of rattling chains, and it is unable to cross rivers. The long, sharp claws of the Barghest inflict wounds that will never heal. Troller’s Gill, a limestone gorge in Yorkshire, is said to be haunted by a barghest that can turn a person to stone with just a look.
To learn more about the legendary black dogs of England and the locations they haunt, order The Wolf Pack from our Etsy shop. The pack contains a map of the Black Dogs of Britain with descriptions of more than a dozen English black dogs. The pack has artifact reproductions from the legendary Canines and Lycanthropes of Europe, including a newly published reprint of The Were-Wolf by Clemence Housman (1896), a full-color postcard, and a bookmark, as well as the Black Dogs of Britain map. The Wolf Pack comes pre-wrapped with paper and string, ready for gift-giving.