The mysterious 12th century story of green children of Woolpit
The legend of the Green Children originated in the village of Woolpit, in the county of Suffolk, England, in the early part of the 12th Century, during the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154), a grandson of William the Conqueror, or King Henry II (1154-1189), depending on which version of the story you read.
In the Middle Ages, Woolpit lays within the most agriculturally productive and densely populated area of rural England, and the village had belonged to the rich and powerful Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds.
Different versions of the story have appeared in folklore collections for centuries: it was first chronicled by Ralph of Coggeshall, a 12th Century monk who lived in a neighbouring town, who claimed to have heard the tale from Sir Richard de Calne, a Suffolk baron and landowner.
Late one Summer, the Woolpit villagers were, as usual, busy bringing in the harvest when several of them were alerted to a sound of crying coming from one of the nearby wolf-pits, from which the village got its name.
The man who went to investigate found two children at the bottom of the pit: a boy and a girl, seemingly siblings, both terrified. Neither spoke any recognisable language, their clothing was unfamiliar, and their skin was tinged a curious green colour. After much coaxing the villagers managed to retrieve the children, and took them, starving and frightened, to Sir Richard de Calne’s house. Despite being visibly famished, the children refused to eat every food put before them, and they grew increasingly more distressed, speaking to one other in a strange whispered language.
Finally Sir Richard’s staff presented them with some freshly-picked green beans, and the children leaped on them devouring them in an instant. For several months, the green beans were all either of the children would eat.
As time passed, the girl and her brother gradually learned to eat other foods, and the green tinge began to face from their skin and their hair. The landlord provided them with a home and a basic education, encouraging the children to learn to speak English in the hope they could shed some light on their curious origins. The children were baptised, presumably as protection for their souls in the event of their death, even if this proved to be a timely decision, as the boy became ill and died a few months later. His sister instead remained living with Sir Richard until adulthood, when, it seems, she married a local man, a royal official named Richard Barre, and adopted the name Agnes.
She adjusted to her new life, but she was considered to be rather loose and wanton in her conduct.
As the girl learned to speak English, she described how she and her brother had found themselves in the wolf pit after following the sound of ringing bells down a tunnel from their homeland, a subterranean world she called “St Martin’s Land”, which existed in a permanent state of twilight. Everything there was the same shade of green as she and her brother: the sky, the land, and all the living creatures. The children were unable to explain their arrival in Woolpit: it seems they had been herding their father’s cattle when they heard a loud noise and suddenly found themselves by the wolf pit where they were found.
Efforts by the girl and the villagers to find this tunnel proved fruitless, and it is said that the girl lived out her days in Woolpit, where she could occasinally be seen wandering by the wolf pits in the hope of finding her way back to her homeland.
The only near-contemporary accounts are contained in William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum and Ralph of Coggeshall’s Chronicum Anglicanum, written in about 1189 and 1220 respectively. Between then and their rediscovery in the mid-19th century, the green children seem to appear only in a passing mention in William Camden’s Britannia in 1586, and in Bishop Francis Godwin’s fantastical “The Man in the Moone” in the early 17th century, in both of which William of Newburgh’s account is cited.
Over the centuries, many theories have been put forward to explain this strange account: a folktale describing an imaginary encounter with the inhabitants of another world, perhaps subterranean or even extraterrestrial, or a garbled account of a historical event?
Regarding their green coloring, one hypotesis is that the children were suffering from Hypochromic Anemia, originally known as Chlorosis (coming from the Greek word ‘Chloris’, meaning greenish-yellow), a condition caused by a poor diet that results in a (evident) green shade of the skin. In support of this theory is the girl who is described as a normal color after adopting a healthy diet.
A probably explanation come from Paul Harris who suggested in Fortean Studies 4 (1998) that the children were Flemish orphans, possibly from a nearby place known as Fornham St. Martin, which was separated from Woolpit by the River Lark. A lot of Flemish immigrants had arrived during the 12th century but were persecuted under the reign of King Henry II and, in 1173, many were killed near Bury St Edmunds. If they had fled into Thetford Forest, it may have seemed like permanent twilight to the frightened children, that may also have entered one of the many underground mine passages in the area, which finally led them to Woolpit. Dressed in strange Flemish clothes and speaking another language, the children would have presented a very strange spectacle to the Woolpit villagers.
Others have suggested a more “other-worldly” origin for the children: Robert Burton suggested in his 1621 book “The Anatomy of Melancholy” that the green children “fell from Heaven”, leading others to speculate that the children may have been extraterrestrials. In a 1996 article published in the magazine Analog, astronomer Duncan Lunan hypothesised that the children were accidentally transported to Woolpit from their home planet, which may be trapped in synchronous orbit around its sun, presenting the conditions for life only in a narrow twilight zone between a fiercely hot surface and a frozen dark side.
However, the story of the green children has endured for over eight centuries since the first recorded accounts. Even though the real facts behind the story will never known, it has provided the inspiration for numerous poems, novels, operas, and plays across the world, and continues to capture the imagination of many curious minds. But what really happened we’ll never know….