The Green Children of Woolpit mythology tells the story of two children with odd skin tones who allegedly emerged at Woolpit, Suffolk, England, sometime in the 12th century, possibly during King Stephen’s (r. 1135–1154) reign. The children, later identified as brother and sister, had a relatively typical look aside from their green skin.
They would only eat uncooked broad beans and speak an unidentified language. They eventually acquired the ability to consume other foods and lost their green color, but the boy got ill and passed away shortly after his sister was christened.
Although described as “extremely wanton and impudent,” the girl adapted to her new existence. The girl stated that she and her brother had come from a place where the sun never shone, and the light was like twilight when she learned to speak English.
She said everything was green in one version of the story while claiming it was called Saint Martin’s Land in another.
Who are the Green Children of Woolpit?
William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum and Ralph of Coggeshall’s Chronicon Anglicarum, published around 1189 and 1220, respectively, provide the only narratives close to contemporaneous.
The green children don’t appear again until William Camden’s Britannia from 1586 and two books from the early 17th century, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy and Bishop Francis Godwin’s fantastical The Man in the Moone.
Between then and their rediscovery in the middle of the 19th century, the green children only seem to have a passing mention. The two most common hypotheses for the tale of the green children are that it is a folktale portraying an imagined encounter with people from a different world—possibly underground or extraterrestrial—or that it is a distorted account of an actual incident.
The English anarchist poet and critic Herbert Read lauded the tale as the perfect fantasy in his 1928 book English Prose Style, and it served as the basis for his only book, The Green Child, which was published in 1935.
Recorded Sources about The Green Children of Woolpit
Woolpit, a village in Suffolk County, East Anglia, is located around seven miles (11 km) east of Bury St Edmunds. It belonged to the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds in the Medieval Ages and was a part of one of the densely populated regions of rural England.
In one summer in the 12th century, two authors, Ralph of Coggeshall (died around 1226) and William of Newburgh (c. 1136-1198), described the sudden and mysterious presence in the community of two green youngsters.
Located around 26 miles (42 km) south of Woolpit in Coggeshall, Ralph served as the abbot of the Cistercian Coggeshall Abbey. William served as a canon in Yorkshire, in the extreme north, at the Augustinian Newburgh Priory.
William claims that the information provided in his Historian rerum Anglicarum (circa 1189) is based on “reports from several reliable sources”; Ralph, who wrote his Chronicum Anglicarum in the 1220s, drew on the story of Sir Richard de Calne of Wykes, who is said to have protected the kids in his manor house, six miles (10 km) north of Woolpit.
The stories provided by the two authors differ in certain specifics, even though it was standard practice for medieval chroniclers to transcribe portions from others verbatim—often with little or no acknowledgment. When William and Ralph narrated the tale of the Green Children, Micha Madej of Jagiellonian University did not think they knew each other’s manuscripts.
Additionally, he contends that William “recorded it essentially from the other side of England.” In contrast, Ralph has located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Woolpit, making it even less likely that the former would have had any incentive to duplicate the latter.
After all, William claims he received the story from “unnamed folks,” whereas Ralph cites his sources. While William was the more distant writer, John Clark has claimed that it is plausible that Richard de Calne served as the source for both authors and that he was likely to have connections with the Augustinian Thetford Monastery.
Although Ralph was physically closer to William, he wrote decades after William. Sum obrutus ut cogerer credere, which can be translated as “I am compelled to believe” but means “I am crushed sufficiently that I am forced to believe it,” is one of William’s statements that Campbell has criticized for being “hemmed around with doubts” about what he is expressing.
The Story of The Green Children of Woolpit
According to William of Newburgh, the residents of Woolpit discovered a brother and sister by one of the wolf pits that earned the community its name during harvest time one day during King Stephen’s (1135–1154) reign.
They had green skin, spoke a foreign language, and wore strange attire. According to Ralph of Coggeshall, Richard de Calne’s residence is where the kids were taken. Ralph and William concur that the two avoided all food for several days before discovering some broad raw beans, which they happily ate.
The kids eventually lost their green color as they became accustomed to eating regular food. The youngster, who appeared to be the younger of the two, was ill and passed away before or shortly after the baptism, after the decision to baptize the kids.
The children claimed that they were from a place where the sun never shone, and the light was like twilight after they learned to speak English—Ralph claims that only the surviving girl spoke this. Ralph and William both agree that the girl referred to their place as St Martin’s Land and that it was entirely green.
William claims the kids couldn’t explain how they ended up at Woolpit. They were herding their father’s cattle when they heard a loud noise that sounded like the abbey bells of Bury St. Edmunds, according to William, and then they found themselves beside the wolf pit where they were discovered.
According to Ralph, they got lost after following the cattle into a cave and were eventually led by the sound of bells into our farm.
Ralph claims that the girl worked as a servant for Richard de Calne for several years, where she was regarded as “extremely wanton and impudent.” She subsequently wed a man from King’s Lynn, roughly 40 miles (64 km) away from Woolpit, where she was still residing at the time William wrote about her.
The astronomer and author Duncan Lunan have concluded that the girl was named “Agnes” and that she wed a royal official named Richard Barre based on his investigation into Richard de Calne’s family history.
Explanations about the Incident
William of Newburgh describes the incident as “odd and tremendous,” and neither he nor Ralph of Coggeshall explains it.
Other contemporary historians share this hesitation: According to Nancy Partner, author of a study on 12th-century historiography, “I consider the process of worrying over the suggestive details of these wonderfully pointless miracles to find natural or psychological explanations of what really,’ if anything, happened to be useless to the study of William of Newburgh or, for that matter, of the Middle Ages.
Yet, these solutions are still sought, and two theories have predominated in attempts to solve the riddle of the green children.”
The first is that the story, which imagines a meeting with people from a “fairy Otherworld,” is based on mythology. According to specific early and contemporary readings, this other realm is extraterrestrial, and the green children are alien creatures.
The second is that it is a “garbled narrative” of an actual event, albeit it is impossible to know for sure whether the story as it is written is “adult fiction” or an actual report given by the youngsters.
Charles Oman concluded that “there is certainly some mystery underlying it all, some story of drugging and kidnapping” after studying the case. Medievalist Jeffrey Jerome Cohen provides a contrasting historical interpretation, claiming that the tale indirectly portrays the racial disparity between the English and the native Brits.
Folklore Folklorists of the 20th century, like Charles Oman, observed that one aspect of the children’s story, the entrance into a separate reality via a cave, appears rather ordinary. A similar tale is told by medieval historian Gerald of Wales about a kid who was truant from school and “met two pigmies who brought him through an underground passage into a magnificent place with fields and rivers, but not lit by the full light of the sun.”
W. Baughman identifies the motif that alludes to the green children as the lone instance of his F103.1 category of English and North American folktale motifs, which is defined as “Inhabitants of lower planet visit mortals, and continue to live with them,” but it is a poorly reported pattern.
Similarly, Madej asserted that the story of the Green Children was a component of an imaginative strand that originated in England and Wales and was about entering another planet through a cave.
According to Martin Walsh, a muddled portrayal of an atavistic harvest ceremony is the description of the tale of the green children. He views the story as proof that the feast of Martinmas has its roots in an English primitive past, of which the children’s story forms “the lowest stratum,” and finds the references to St. Martin noteworthy.
John Clark challenges Walsh’s assertions, claiming that there is no proof that St. Martin is “a figure with connections to the Otherworld” or that the kids are associated with “some atavistic harvest ritual.” John Clark also disputes Walsh’s claims.
Madej, echoing Anne Witte, who had already argued for a connection between St. Martin and the underworld, links the fictitious St. Martin’s realm with the saint himself. In medieval mythology, he was widely associated with death symbolism due to his riding a horse—a typical psychopomp of the time—and holding a stick, representing resurrection.
Additionally, he makes the case that the two kids could simultaneously stand in for life and death, much like the Green Knight stories, which are set almost contemporaneously. The children’s coloring change “would reflect the transition from death to rebirth, the rejuvenation occurring overground.”
Folklorists have taken notice of the consumption of beans. K. M. Briggs notes that youngsters frequently ate beans, considered to be the meal of the dead.
She had made the same observation regarding the food of the dead in her 1967 book “The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature”; however, John Clark casts doubt on the supposed tradition that Briggs is referring to, stating that “an attribution of beans as the diet of the dead is unfounded.”
However, he acknowledges that “beans are in many cultures connected with the dead,” and Madej argues that not only had broad beans “been the emblem of death and corruption since the ancient times… they were also associated with opposite phenomena, such as rebirth and fertility”.
The green kids and the Babes in the Wood are related in a contemporary retelling of the story. They are left or taken to die in the woods—often referred to as Wayland Wood or Thetford Forest—after being poisoned with arsenic by their uncle, even though the versions vary.
They were colored due to arsenical poisoning. After escaping the woods but becoming lost in the pits before being found, they were even more closely associated with the Woolpit kids.
Local author and folk singer Bob Roberts claims in his 1978 book A Piece of Suffolk that he was aware of this particular version of the narrative. “I was told that Woolpit still has residents who are ‘descended from the green children,’ but no one would identify them for me.”
Several critics have speculated that the kids might have been extraterrestrials or people from a world below the Earth. Astronomer Duncan Lunan proposed a theory that the kids were unintentionally transported to Woolpit from their home planet due to a “matter transmitter” malfunction in an article that appeared in the magazine “Analog” in 1996.
According to Lunan, the planet from which the children were expelled might be stuck in synchronous orbit around its sun, offering the only place for life to exist in a small twilight zone between a brutally hot surface and a frozen dark side. He describes the kids’ green coloring as a side effect of eating the genetically altered alien flora that the people on the planet eat.
Lunan was not the first to hypothesize that the green kids might have been aliens. The historian and Bishop of Hereford Francis Godwin seem to have used Robert Burton’s 1621 claim that the green children “dropped from Heaven” in his posthumously released 1638 work of science fiction, The Man in the Moone, which is based on William of Newburgh’s story.
Historical background to the Green Children of Woolpit
Paul Harris suggested in 1998 that the history of the 12th century provides a “down to earth” explanation of the green children. He claims that they are descended from immigrants from Flemish countries who migrated to eastern England in the first half of the 12th century and were later punished after Henry II became king in 1154.
He suggests that the settlement of Fornham St Martin, located just north of Bury St Edmunds, was the children’s “St Martin’s Land” and that their parents were Flemish clothworkers who had moved there.
Moreover, the Battle of Fornham took place in 1173 during the civil war between King Henry II and his son, “the Young King Henry,” took place in Fornham. Royal soldiers routed the rebels, led by Robert de Beaumont, 3rd Earl of Leicester, and a sizable contingent of Flemish mercenaries, on the River Lark’s banks after they landed in Suffolk.
Harris speculates that there may have been violence against peaceful Flemish residents in the area after the slaughter of the Flemish mercenaries. The kids might have run away and eventually ended up at Woolpit. The children would have made for a weird sight for the Woolpit locals, disoriented, perplexed, speaking no English, and clothed in strange Flemish clothing.
Harris thought that green sickness caused by a dietary shortage could account for the children’s coloring.
John Clark pointed out several issues with Harris’s application of historical data in a subsequent piece. He expressed his continued skepticism regarding the children’s identification as Flemings and the claim that their color was caused by green illness.
Brian Haughton sees Harris’s concept as “the most frequently accepted explanation now” and says it “certainly gives viable answers to many of the riddles of the Woolpit mystery.” He concludes that “the hypothesis of displaced Flemish orphans… does not stand up in many ways,” though.
For instance, he contends that it is implausible that an intelligent man like Richard de Calne would have failed to recognize the children’s language as being Flemish.
Madej argues that many others in the modern day should have had the same illness and seemed green in comparison, saying that “the tone of green of the children’s skin must have been something unexpected and unusual.”
Far more straightforward is Derek Brewer’s interpretation, a historian:
Most likely, these extremely young youngsters, who were herding or trailing flocks, got lost from their woodland community, talked very little, and (in modern parlance) didn’t even know their address. “Green illness” refers to a deficiency disease called chlorosis, which causes the skin to have a greenish tint. A healthy diet makes it go away.
According to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, the story “allows William to write obliquely about the Welsh” and is about ethnic diversity. He contends that the green infants are a reminder of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the native Britons, followed by the Norman invasion, in the history of England.
Cohen claims that William of Newburgh hesitantly includes the tale of the green children in his description of an England that is mainly homogenous and united. Cohen compares Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, which William of Newburgh claims is full of “gushing and untrammeled lying,” to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s tale of the green children.
While William’s England is one in which all peoples are either assimilation or driven to the edges, Geoffrey’s history provides records of former monarchs and kingdoms of varied ethnic identities. In Cohen’s opinion, the green children signify a parallel intrusion into William’s unified picture of England.
Given that the children claim to be from St. Martin’s Land, which was named after Martin of Tours, they remind them of the racial and cultural distinctions between Normans and Anglo-Saxons. William only refers to Martin of Tours once else, in Hastings, which honors the Norman victory in 1066. Yet the kids also represent the ancestors of the British Isles, the “Forced anglicization of Welsh (and Irish and Scots).”
In another scenario, William could not tell, in which English peninsular supremacy becomes a problematic assumption rather than a certain outcome, The Green Children reappear. The boy, in particular, represents “an adjacent universe that cannot be annexed… an otherness that will perish to endure” since he dies rather than assimilating.”
Historians have theorized the two monastic authors’ motivations. The Green Children episode, according to Ruch and Gordon, is a commentary on the main historical narrative. These tales, according to medievalist Catherine Clarke, “have frequently been dismissed as bizarre folklore diversions or frivolity,” but they play a crucial part in his broader narrative.
According to Clarke, Newburgh’s meditations on the fantastic all share the common subject of “normal experience disturbed by something which cannot be entirely reached or grasped via reason,” which is frequently a reaction to the trauma of Anarchy.
When commenting on Ralph’s report, Elizabeth Freeman makes a similar observation: “Commonly considered as light entertainment, are in reality unified by their treatment of a common issue,” albeit one that is “the threat posed by outsiders to the unity of the Christian community.”
While James Plumtree saw the stories as twelfth-century historiographic digressions “that allowed a didactic theological exegesis,” Carl Watkins commented on the literal and figurative demonization of the girl in William’s tale.
The Green Kids of Woolpit in Fiction and Non-fiction
With the publication of William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum in print for the first time in the late 16th century, the tale returned in the early modern era. William Camden briefly commented on the tale in 1586 and believed it was a fraud.
The story’s texts by Coggeshall and Newburgh were put side by side in a second version of the Historia rerum Anglicarum published in 1610 for comparison. Contrary to Camden, Robert Burton claimed in a 1621 letter that the story was authentic and that the kids had fallen from the moon.
Francis Godwin, Bishop of Hereford, expressed a similar viewpoint in his science fiction tale about a trip to the moon, The Man in the Moone, published after his death in 1638. Madej said Godwin “did not treat the Woolpit narrative earnestly, unlike R. Burton” when creating fiction.
Godwin mentions William of Newburgh only once. However, Poole states, “the level of detail gleaned from William of Newburgh’s chapter on this prodigy is more than Godwin’s only citation suggests.”
Clark elaborates on this, pointing out that the lunar residents revere Saint Martin similarly to how the youngsters revere their own country.
The story was initially published in English during the mid-Victorian era when folklorist Thomas Keightley included it in The Fairy Mythology.
The English anarchist poet and critic Herbert Read refers to the tale of the green children as “the norm to which all varieties of fantasy should adhere” in his 1928 book English Prose Style. It served as the basis for his book, The Green Child, published in 1935.
Two green youngsters who landed in the Spanish village of Banjos in 1887 are mentioned in John Macklin’s 1965 novel Odd Destinies. The story shares many features startlingly similar to the accounts provided by the Woolpit children, such as the name of Ricardo de Calno, the mayor of Banjos who befriends the two kids.
Since there is no information about any Spanish community called Banjos, it seems inevitable that Macklin’s tale was invented due to inspiration by the Woolpit green kids.
The poem “The Land of Saint Martin,” written by J. H. Prynne in 1976, was inspired by the story of the green children. However, Prynne never expresses this explicitly, only hinting at it in his epigraph, which N. H. Reeve, a critic, calls a “pretty free rendition” of William of Newburgh’s Latin text:
“We are satisfied with the twilight that, among you, comes before or after the sun sets because the sun does not rise over our countrymen, and its rays do not accomplish anything to cheer up our region. In addition, a bright country that is only a short distance from ours and separated from it by a sizable river can be seen.”
In his 1980 book The Girl Green As Elderflower, Australian novelist and poet Randolph Stow draws inspiration from the story of the green children. The green girl is the model for the title character, a blonde girl with green eyes.
The green children become a source of interest to the main character, Crispin Clare, along with some other characters from the Latin accounts of William of Newburgh, Gervase of Tilbury, and others. Stow includes translations from those texts. These characters “have histories of loss and dispossession that echo [Clare’s] own.”
Wolfpit (the original name for Woolpit), a poetic drama by English poet Glyn Maxwell based on the tale of the green children, was presented by the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 1996.
It was recently performed in New York City. In Maxwell’s version, the girl is forced into becoming the lord of the manor’s indentured servant; nevertheless, a stranger named Juxon buys her freedom and transports her to an unidentified location.
The story inspired other children’s novels and stories in the 20th and 21st centuries, including Judith Stinton’s 1983 novel Tom’s Story, Mark Bartholomew’s trilogy in 2006 and 2007, and J. Anderson Coats’ 2019 book The Green Children of Woolpit.
Kevin Crossley-Holland is a children’s author and poet who has repeatedly addressed the subject. His 1966 book The Green Children essentially follows the early chroniclers’ accounts. The green girl is the main character in his 1994 rendition.
Both John Crowley and Terri Windling, fantasy and science fiction writers, published short novels for adults in 1981 and 1995, respectively, based on the green children.
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