The Green Children of Woolpit
by Ben Johnson
The title of this story may sound immediately implausible to the cynics amongst you, but surprisingly this is one tale of folklore which is probably founded on some basis of truth!
The legend of the green children of Woolpit starts during the reign of King Stephen, in a rather tumultuous time in England’s history called ‘The Anarchy‘ in the mid 12th century.
Woolpit (or in Old English, wulf-pytt) is an ancient village in Suffolk named after – as one might gather from it’s name – an old pit for catching wolves! Next to this wolf pit in around 1150, a group of villagers came across two young children with green skin, apparently speaking gibberish and acting nervously.
According to writings at the time by Ralph of Coggeshall, the children were subsequently taken to the nearby home of Sir Richard de Calne where he offered them food but they repeatedly refused to eat. This continued for some days until the children came across some green beans in Richard de Calne’s garden which they ate straight out of the ground.
The children also slowly learnt to speak English, and once fluent were asked where they had come from and why their skin was once green. They replied with:
“We are inhabitants of the land of St. Martin, who is regarded with peculiar veneration in the country which gave us birth.”
“We are ignorant [of how we arrived here]; we only remember this, that on a certain day, when we were feeding our father’s flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St. Edmund’s, when the bells are chiming; and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, as it were, entranced, and found ourselves among you in the fields where you were reaping.”
“The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sun-rise, or follows the sunset. Moreover, a certain luminous country is seen, not far distant from ours, and divided from it by a very considerable river.”
Shortly after this revelation Richard de Calne took the children to be baptised in a local church, however the boy died soon afterwards through an unknown illness.
The girl, later known as Agnes, continued to work for Richard de Calne for many years before marrying the archdeacon of Ely, Richard Barre. According to one report, the pair had at least one child.
So who were the green children of Woolpit?
The most likely explanation for the green children of Woolpit is that they were the descendants of Flemish immigrants who had been persecuted and possibly killed by King Stephen or – perhaps – King Henry II. Lost, confused and without their parents, the children could have ended up at Woolpit speaking only their native tongue of Flemish, perhaps explaining how the villagers thought that they were speaking gibberish.
Furthermore, the green tint to the children’s skin could be explained by malnourishment, or more specifically ‘green sickness’. This theory is supported by the fact that their skin reverted to a normal colour once Richard de Calne had converted them over to eating real food.
Personally, we like to side with the more romantic theory that these children arrived from an underground world where the native inhabitants are all green!