The present church of St Mary is the parochial nave, aisles and tower of the priory church of the blessed Virgin Mary and the Holy Cross, built for an order of Benedictine nuns which had been founded about 1160 by Gundreda, wife of Sir Roger de Glanville. It replaced an earlier Saxon church on this site which was one of five churches in Bungay mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086. Stretching eastwards from the present east wall are the ruins of what was the conventional quire, where the nuns heard Mass and recited their daily round of Offices. These fragments incorporate work of the 13th century and stretched some 60 feet eastwards from the nave, deflecting very slightly to the north.
It was during the 15th century that the present nave, aisles, porch and tower were built and wills of mediaeval people shed some light on this work. In 1442 Thomas Croft bequeathed money towards building the tower; in 1444 a chaplain named Reginald Cakebread left £1 towards building the ‘new’ tower which is also mentioned in wills of 1456 and 1471-73. The aisles and porch were clearly being worked upon during this period too and were possibly completed about 1450.
The 16th century saw great changes at St Mary’s. After 1536 when the Priory closed as a result of the dissolution of the lesser monasteries by King Henry VIII, the nuns quire and the nunnery buildings were allowed to go to ruin. Whilst the nave and aisles were retained as the parish church with the Reformation in the mid-16th century, much of the colour and carving, the great Rood, the statues and a host of other visual aids to teach the faithful were removed and the interior was equipped for the liturgical requirements of the reformed church with its services and scriptures in English. More damage was done by the Puritans in 1643-44 in their zeal to rid churches of superstitious images and inscriptions.
Their inspector, William Dowsing of Laxfield, probably visited this church to specify which carvings, paintings, stained-glass windows, Latin inscriptions, etc. were to be destroyed.
The greatest damage of all however was caused by a terrible fire on 1 March 1688, which devastated Bungay town, leaving some 200 families homeless and badly damaging this church, especially the tower and south aisle, melting the bells and destroying much of what was combustible inside. It is said that the inhabitants, seeking refuge, entered the church with their treasured possessions already burning. Following this disaster, major restoration and refurbishment took place. The south aisle roof was completed in 1699 and the handsome new altarpiece was installed in 1701 – the year that the church was reopened.
When David Elisha Davy visited St Mary’s in 1810, the internal decor formed a wonderful 18th-century period-piece. The interior was seated with uniform wainscoted box pews, the entire length of the south aisle was filled with a large gallery, and upon another gallery at the west end stood a fine organ, at that time a rarity in parish churches, which had 1,100 pipes and 21 stops – the gift of Robert Scales, who died in 1728. Dominating the interior, rising majestically above the communion table, which was enclosed on three sides by rails, and filling the width of the east wall, was the mighty panelled altarpiece. This had five compartments with the Ten Commandments in the centre, above which were the royal arms of King William III flanked by the painted figures of Moses and Aaron, who were in turn flanked by the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed.
Restoration and reparation continued throughout the 19th Century, with the addition of new seating and the blocked porch windows being reopened and reglazed. The altarpiece was replaced by the present stone panelling and reredos.
In 1977 it was decided that Bungay should have one parish church and, accordingly, St Mary’s was retired from full-time parochial use. In 1981 it was vested in the Redundant Churches Fund (now The Churches Conservation Trust) to be conserved by and for the Church and the Nation as a sacred, beautiful and historic building. Since then extensive work has been carried out on its maintenance and repair under the direction of its appointed architects, initially Mr Neal Birdsall and subsequently Ruth Blackman of Birdsall, Swash and Blackman.
Some people come to see St Mary’s not because of its architecture and fittings, but because of the Legend of the Black Dog. A terrible storm struck the town of Bungay on 4th August 1577 and from this event has come the legend of the Devil appearing in the form of a Black Dog in St Mary’s Church.
“All down the church in midst of the fire,
The hellish monster flew –
And passing onward to the quire
He many people slew.”
While the congregation were assembled for worship, a thunderstorm blew up a – “great terryble & ferfull tempest… such darknes, Rayne, hayle, Thunder & lightyng as was never seen the lyke”, as it was described in the contemporary Churchwardens’ Account book.
The church was plunged into darkness and suddenly a black dog, or “the divel in such a likeness” appeared before the terrified congregation. “Running all along the body of the Church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste”, he seized upon to people praying for mercy, and “as it seemed, wrung the necks of them bothe at one instant clene backward, in somuch that even at a moment where they kneeled they stragely died”. Then he leaped upon another man, and “gave him such a gripe on the back, that therwith all he was presently drawen togither and shrunk up, as it were peece of leather scorched in a hot fire; or as the mouth of a purse bag, drawen togither with a string”. Miraculously this man “albeit he was in so straunge taking dyed not”. Meanwhile, the Clerk of the church, who had gone outside to clean guttering, was thrown to the ground during a violent clap of thunder; and at the same time, the wires and wheels of the church clock were “wrung in sunder and broken in pieces”.
A similar event took place at Blythburgh on the same day, where claw-marks were left on the door. It is certain, however, that if any had been left on the woodwork here at St Mary’s they would have been lost in the fire just over a century later.
Apart from this notorious episode, the Black Dog has been cited in Bungay on numerous occasions up to the present day. Although his reappearance has always terrified witnesses, and has sometimes been connected with the tragic events, fortunately no similar disaster has been repeated. The Dog is often thought to be the same beast as Black Shuck, the spectre which haunts East Anglia. Shuck is particularly associated with coastal regions and is usually encountered by solitary individuals at night. Meeting him is considered to be a portent of death or disaster, and many tales about him have been circulated in local folklore.
Nowadays people often seek to explain the events by suggesting that a real dog got into the church, and, rabid, or frenzied by this storm, attacked and killed members of the congregation. However, only men in the belfry were killed and a real dog would find it difficult to climb up the narrow steps or ladder into that area. In addition, the factual accounts would have been sure to mention a real dog’s involvement. Although no marks survive in the church the Black Dog has made a big mark on Bungay’s history. The story remains the town’s best known and most popular legend, recorded in many books of folklore, and in tourist guides. His image appears on the town’s coat of arms, on the weather-vane in the Market Place, and on the gate of the Council Office in Broad Street. He has his name to an antique shop, the football team, the running club, and the annual marathon. A spectre of terror in previous centuries, he has now become established as a rather endearing symbol of the town.
(Words – Christopher Reeve – extracted from pamphlet “The Black Dog of Bungay: A Straunge and terrible Wunder wrought in the Parish Church of St. Mary).