The quaint little English village of Woolpit in Suffolk is home to a mysterious legend. In the 12th century, two nameless children showed up there out of the blue. They spoke an unknown language, ate only raw beans and their skin was green. Were they aliens? Demons? Time travellers? Sick children suffering from chlorosis?
One day, during the reign of King Stephen (the one who fought a war with his cousin, Empress Matilda, and got an honourable mention in my Game of Thrones article two weeks ago), the villagers of Woolpit found two children—a young brother and sister—beside one of the pits they used for catching wolves. They wore unfamiliar clothing but looked human, apart from their green skin. They were taken in by a local landowner called Richard de Calne and initially refused all food. When they came across raw beans, they hungrily tucked in. Eventually they learned to eat food other than raw beans and started to lose their green pallor.
The brother didn’t last. He was sickly and frail. The children were baptised, then the boy died. His sister, however, adjusted to her new life and learned to speak English. That’s when she told people her story. She and her brother had come from a place called ‘St. Martin’s Land’, where the sun never shone, the light was like twilight and all the inhabitants were green. Just before arriving in Woolpit, they’d been herding their father’s cattle and had followed them into a cavern. They heard the sound of bells, saw a bright light and suddenly found themselves in the wolf pit.
It’s said that for many years the girl worked as a servant in Richard de Calne’s household. Later she married a man from King’s Lynn. Nobody knows for sure, but after researching Richard de Calne’s family history, writer Duncan Lunan concluded that the girl was given the name “Agnes” and married Richard Barre, chancellor to King Henry II. It’s also said that the green girl spawned descendants with Richard Barre—or whoever it was she married. Author and folk singer Bob Roberts said in his 1978 book, A Slice of Suffolk:
“I was told there are still people in Woolpit who are ‘descended from the green children’, but nobody would tell me who they were!”
The only near-contemporary evidence we have for the green children comes from medieval writers William of Newburgh, writing in 1189, and Ralph of Coggeshall, writing in 1220. Modern scholars suspect that their reports are nothing but fictional folktales about an encounter with beings or fairies from another world, or distorted accounts of a historical event.
This historical event might be as banal as two small, uneducated children straying from their forest village, getting lost, not knowing the real name of their village, and wandering into Woolpit. They were probably suffering from chlorosis or the “green sickness”, a type of anaemia that causes the skin to turn green, and disappears with a better diet. None of this explains ‘St. Martin’s Land’ that the girl said they came from, or her description of the place, or the unfamiliar clothes they were wearing when they arrived in Woolpit. Is it possible that all these details were just folkloric embellishments added later? Nothing but Chinese whispers?
Another more detailed explanation is that the children were Flemish immigrants from the nearby village of Fornham St. Martin. These immigrants were persecuted and a large number of them were killed at the Battle of Fornham in 1173. It could be that the children’s parents were killed and they fled, ultimately wandering into Woolpit, speaking Flemish and wearing unfamiliar Flemish clothes, again suffering from chlorosis.
Still, questions remain. If the children were speaking Flemish, some say that an educated man like Richard de Calne would have recognised it.
The more outlandish theories say that the children were extraterrestrials accidentally teleported to Woolpit. Duncan Lunan suggested that they were transported from their home planet to Earth as a result of a “matter transmitter” malfunction—whatever that is. He explained that the planet might’ve been stuck in a synchronous orbit around its sun, creating the twilight conditions the girl described. And that the plants everyone ate there were probably responsible for their green colour.
There is another possibility that nobody seems to have mentioned. Time travel. What if the green children originated from a future Earth dystopia and experienced a time slip? What if their “unfamiliar language” was actually modern English, which would have been incomprehensible to anyone in 12th century England, who were all speaking Early Middle English? In fact, depending how far in the future we’re talking, they could’ve been speaking a version of the language unfamiliar even to us now.
One to ponder. I feel a Million Eyes short story coming on. 😉
Next week: As I mentioned in my last blog, I just went to Budapest and learned tons of fascinating stuff about Hungary and its history. So next week I’m doing a special blog about a Hungarian government conspiracy theory…
2 thoughts on “Strange but true? The green children of Woolpit”
Interesting if true. Never heard this one before or that green skin disorder either. Maybe stories from way back get distorted over a long enough time?
That’s what I think may have happened, yes. I think they may have been Flemish children suffering from chlorosis… or time travellers from a post-apocalyptic world 😉
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