The Green Children of Woolpit: Legendary Visitors from Another World
The 12th century tale of the Green Children of Woolpit, in Suffolk, is a bizarre medieval folk story which has been remembered for generations. It isn’t often we hear of children appearing at the edge of a field, with green-tinged skin and no knowledge of any locally-known language. Even today, historians debate as to whether there was any truth to the story, some going so far as to claim it describes an extraterrestrial encounter.
A village sign in Woolpit, England, depicting the two Green Children of Woolpit from the 12th century legend. (Rod Bacon / CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Story of the Green Children of Woolpit
The legend itself posits that the Green Children of Woolpit were a boy and his sister, found by reapers working their fields at harvest time near some ditches that had been excavated to trap wolves at St. Mary’s of the Wolf Pits (Woolpit). Surprisingly, their skin was tinged with a green hue, their clothes were made from unfamiliar materials, and their speech was unintelligible to the reapers.
The feral children were taken to the village, where they were eventually accepted into the home of local landowner, Sir Richard de Caine at Wilkes. The children would not eat any food presented to them, even though they appeared to be starving. Eventually, the villagers brought round recently harvested beans, which the children devoured. They survived only on beans for many months until they acquired a taste for bread.
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The boy became sick and soon succumbed to illness and died, while the girl remained in good health and eventually lost her green-tinged skin. Over the coming years she learned how to speak English and was later married to a man at King’s Lynn, in the neighboring county of Norfolk. According to some accounts, she took the name Agnes Barre and the man she married was an ambassador of Henry II, although these details have not been verified. After she learned how to speak English, she relayed the story of their origins.
The girl reported that she and her brother came from a strange underground land which she called the Land of Saint Martin. In it there was no sun, but a perpetual twilight. Like them, all the inhabitants of St. Martin’s Land lived underground were green like them. She described another luminous land that could be seen across a river.
The girl explained that she and her brother were looking after their father’s flock when they came upon a cave. On entering the cave, they wandered through the darkness for a long time until, following the sound of bells, they came out the other side, entering into bright sunlight, which they found startling. It was then that they were found by the reapers.
The ruins of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, which had once owned Woolpit. (Tuli / CC BY 3.0)
Medieval Chroniclers: Recording the Story of the Green Children of Woolpit
The story of the Green Children of Woolpit is set in the village of Woolpit located in Suffolk, East Anglia. In the Middle Ages, it lay within the most agriculturally productive and densely populated area of rural England. The village had belonged to the rich and powerful Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds.
The story itself was recorded in two contemporary chronicles. The English chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall, who died around 1228 AD, was an abbot of a Cistercian monastery at Coggeshall, which lay about 26 miles (42 km) south of Woolpit. His account of the green children of Woolpit was recorded in the Chronicon Anglicanum (English Chronicle), and in it he named Sir Richard de Calne, who took the children in, as his source.
Meanwhile, the English historian and canon at the Augustinian Newburgh Priory, far to the north in Yorkshire, William of Newburgh (1136 to 1198 AD) included the story of the green children in his main work Historia rerum Anglicarum (History of English Affairs). Both writers stated that the events took place within the reign of King Stephen (1135 to 54) or King Henry II (1154 to 1189), depending on which version of the story you read.
The Historia rerum Anglicarum (History of English Affairs) by William of Newburgh included the story of the Green Children of Woolpit. (USC Libraries)
Interpretations of the Green Children of Woolpit
Over the centuries, many theories have been put forward to explain the strange story of the Green Children of Woolpit. Regarding their green coloring, one proposal is that the children were suffering from a condition known as Hypochromic Anemia, originally known as Chlorosis (coming from the Greek word Chloris, meaning greenish-yellow).
Chlorosis is caused by a very poor diet that affects the color of the red blood cells and results in a noticeably green shade of the skin. In support of this theory is the fact that the girl is described as returning to a normal color after adopting a healthy diet.
With regards to the girl’s description of the strange land, Paul Harris 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. In 1173, many were killed near Bury St. Edmunds.
If the Green Children of Woolpit had indeed been Flemish immigrants on the run, and if they had fled into Thetford Forest, it may have seemed like permanent twilight to the frightened children. They 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.
Artists depiction of the Green Children of Woolpit. (Public domain)
Otherworldly Explanations: Were they Extraterrestrials?
Other commentators have proposed a more otherworldly origin for the children. Robert Burton suggested in his 1621 book The Anatomy of Melancholy that the green children of Woolpit "fell from Heaven," leading others to speculate that the children may have been extraterrestrials.
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In a 1996 article published in the magazine Analog, astronomer Duncan Lunan hypothesized that the children were accidentally transported to Woolpit from their extraterrestrial 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. He included these claims again in his 2012 book Children from the Sky.
Since it was first recorded, the story of the Green Children of Woolpit has endured for over eight centuries. While the real facts behind the story may never be 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.
Top image: The Green Children of Woolpit, created from Babes in the Wood illustration by Randolph Caldecott. Source: Project Gutenberg / Public Domain
By April Holloway
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