The Mystery of the Green Children of Woolpit

Photo Author: Rod Bacon

Versions of the Green Children of Woolpit

Woolpit is a village in Suffolk that has a history that goes back 2,000 years or more. It has seen many events in its long history, but perhaps one of the strangest must be the appearance of two mysterious green children.  Their story was recorded by two chroniclers; Ralph of Coggershall and William of Newburgh.  There are also a number of other versions, some set in the neighbouring county of Norfolk, but it is the Suffolk version that is dealt with here.

Harvest Time

The story begins on a clear, bright, day during harvest time when the villagers were out reaping their crops. As they worked they became aware of the sound of someone weeping and crying.  The cries, although sad, were strange and seemed to be in words that they could not understand.

With growing concern that someone might be in trouble the villagers began searching the area.  Following the weeping sounds they found two small children; a young boy and a young girl.  Nearby, was the opening to a wolf-pit which they appeared to have come out of.  They were very frightened and cried bitterly.

Even though the villagers meant them no harm the children were frightened and tried to escape.  Although the villagers were very poor, they were kind and caring people and wanted to help the children.  They caught the children and looked to see how they could assist them. There was no sign of any adults accompanying them so they tried to calm them down and tried to ask them where they were from.

The villagers were astonished to find that although the children were very much the same physically as any other children; they had some very strange differences.  For a start the two children were wearing clothes of a style the villagers had never seen before and they spoke in a language that they could not understand. It was certainly not any form of English that the villagers knew. Stranger still, the villagers saw the children’s skin was a shade of green on all parts of their body.

Sir Richard de Caine Offers Them Food

The children were fearful of the villagers and held on to each other crying bitterly. The villagers felt terribly sorry for the children and refused to let them go, wanting to help them and keep them safe.  They took the children to Sir Richard de Caine, a knight, who they thought might know who they were and how to help them.

The children were still terrified and continued their crying and weeping. Despite being starved with hunger the children would not eat anything Sir Richard and his servants offered them.  No matter how gently Sir Richard coaxed or what his servants put before them they still refused to eat.

Fresh Green Beans

Having offered all the contents of his pantry and the children still refusing to eat Sir Richard had his servants go and look in the garden to see if there was anything there he could tempt them with.  The servants came back with fresh green beans and out of desperation Sir Richard offered them to the children.  On seeing the beans the children immediately showed interest.  Using gestures they indicated they wanted to try them.

However, when Sir Richard offered the bean pods and stalks on a plate to the children they picked up the stalks and opened them expecting to find beans inside.  Finding nothing in the hollow stalks the children were so upset they began crying again. Sir Richard and his servants on seeing this then showed them how to open the pods and get the beans out. On seeing the children cheered up and heartily began eating the beans straight from the pod.  For many months after the children would only eat green beans and nothing else.

The Green Children stay with Sir Richard

Sir Richard allowed the children to stay in his household as they had no where else to go.  Sadly, the boy, who was often low of spirit and of a despondent manner fell sick and passed away within a short while.  His sister, however, grew strong and full of vitality and began to eat other types of food other than green beans.  As she grew stronger and older her skin slowly lost its green tinge.

A Far, Far Country

The girl thrived and gradually learnt how to speak English.  Sir Richard was still curious as to where she and her brother had come from and asked her about her past.  She told him she and her brother had come from another country far, far away and that everyone who lived there had green skin.  The girl said that in that country there was no sun.  She told him that the light there was similar to twilight in England just after sunset but the light was green and so was everything else.

How the Green Children Came to England

Sir Richard asked how she and her brother had got to England. She told him that she and her brother had been tending their family’s flock of sheep which had strayed into a large cavern.  As they were tasked to guard the sheep they had followed them into the cave with the intention of driving them back out.

When they entered the cavern they heard the sound of bells ringing. They both thought this was the most wonderful and delight sound they had ever heard and they were enchanted by their ringing.

As if in a spell, the two children forgot all about their sheep and followed the sound of the bells down along a passage until at last they stumbled out of the cave into the bright sunlight.  The children’s eyes were not accustomed to such light. Temporarily blinded and disorientated they began crying.  That is when the villagers first heard them by the wolf-pit.  They had tried to find the cave entrance hoping to escape the villagers and return home.  However, in the bright light they became lost and could not find their way back.

Even though Sir Richard may have found her tale strange and far fetched he let her stay in his household for many years and had her baptized into the Christian church.  There were times he noted her behaviour to be immoderate and free now and then, but he was a kindly and tolerant man and let it be.

The Account of Sir William of Newbridge

In the account of Sir William of Newbridge this all happened during the reign of King Stephen between the years 1135-54 He claimed the children had been discovered during harvest time.  They had been found near the entrance to the Wolf-pits around 5 miles from Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. He said that they had both eventually lost the green tinge to their skin, been baptized and named Agnes and learned how to speak English.  Sadly, the boy had always been weak and sickly and had died.

St. Martin’s Land

According to Sir William the girl had flourished and eventually she married and had children.  She always claimed she came from a country called St Martin’s Land where everyone revered St Martin and everyone was a Christian and there were many churches.  The girl insisted that in that country there was no sun and everything was lit by a green light. There was a very wide river and on the opposite bank they could see a very bright country.

Fairies and Fullers

To some people the legend is the meeting of the fairy world with the human world. They argue that green is the traditional colour associated with fairies and the often immoderate and free behaviour of the girl were typical traits of the fairies.

Other people take the view that there may be parts of the legend that were based on fact but became exaggerated or distorted over time.  For example, it is known that about the time when it is thought to have happened there were immigrants from Belgium living and working in the area.  These were Flemish fullers and merchants.  The fullers made their living by processing and possibly dying wool different colours.  They also spoke their own language of Flemish.

Tensions arose between the Flemish and local people and the Flemish were massacred.  Some people think it possible the children escaped into the forest. Their green skin may have been dyed deliberately by their parents or themselves as camouflage.  Being of Flemish origin would also explain their language and their different clothes.

Although this is plausible it does not take into account what the girl is alleged to have told Sir Richard.  Another problem with this idea is that Sir Richard was almost certainly one of the most eminent people in the area.  As such he would probably have had some knowledge or direct involvement in such an attack.  It is also quite possible he may have had business dealings with the Flemish and would probably have realised that the language the children were speaking was Flemish.  Some accounts also say that it was not the Flemish fullers, but Flemish merchants who were massacred.

Chlorosis – The Green Sickness

Another theory is that the children were suffering from a type of anaemia known as chlorosis, sometimes called “green sickness”.  They may have acquired this through wandering starving and undernourished through the woods.  However, even though there are many accounts of girls, especially around the age of puberty being afflicted with green sickness, it is very much rarer in boys.

Continuing Intrigue

It is an interesting story and one that arouses the curiosity in people for many centuries. We will probably never know the truth now but no doubt it will continue to intrigue future generations just as much as today.

References and Attributions
Image - File:WoolpitSign.jpg From Wikipedia -   Author: Rod Bacon - 
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
History mysteries: The Green children of Woolpit 
Green children of Woolpit - From Wikipedia 
BBC Radio 4 The Green Children of Woolpit
chlorosis, 
Mysterious Britain & Ireland 
Mysterious People
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