The Mysterious Green Children of Woolpit

In the 12th century, during the reign of King Stephen of England (1135-1154), there was a legend in the village of Woolpit, in Suffolk. At harvest time, two young children emerged from deep ditches excavated to trap wolves (wolf pit) while the reapers were working in the fields. The children, a boy and a girl, had skin tinged with a green hue, and wore clothes of a strange color, made from unfamiliar materials. They wandered around bewildered for a few minutes, before being taken by the reapers to the village, where the locals gathered round to stare at them. No one could understand the language the children spoke, so they were taken to the house of local landowner Sir Richard de Calne, at Wikes. Here they broke into tears and for some days refused to eat the bread and other food that was brought to them. But when recently harvested beans, with their stalks still attached, were brought in, the starving children made signs that they desperately wanted to eat them. However, when the children took the beans they opened the stalks rather than the pods, and finding nothing inside, began weeping again.

Village sign in Woolpit depicting the two green children

After they had been shown how to obtain the beans, the children survived on this food for many months until they acquired a taste for bread. As time passed, the boy, who appeared to be the younger of the two, became depressed; he sickened and died. But the girl adjusted to her new life, and was baptized. Her skin gradually lost its original green color and she became a healthy young woman. She learned the English language and afterward married a man at King's Lynn, in the neighboring county of Norfolk, apparently becoming "rather loose and wanton in her conduct." Some sources claim that she took the name Agnes Barre, and the man she married was a senior ambassador of Henry II. It is also said that the current Earl Ferrers is descended from her through intermarriage. What evidence this is based on is unclear, as the only traceable senior ambassador with this name at the time is Richard Barre, chancellor to Henry II, archdeacon of Ely and a royal justice in the late 12th century.

After 1202, Richard retired to become an Austin canon at Leicester, so it is seems unlikely that he was the husband of Agnes. When questioned about her past, the girl was only able to relate vague details about where the children had come from and how they arrived at Woolpit. She stated that she and the boy were brother and sister, and had come from "the land of Saint Martin" where it was perpetual twilight, and all the inhabitants were green in color, as they had been. She was not sure exactly where her homeland was located, but another "luminous" land could be seen across a "considerable river" separating it from theirs. She remembered that one day they were looking after their father's herds in the fields and had followed them into a cavern, where they heard the loud sound of bells. Entranced, they wandered through the darkness for a long time until they arrived at the mouth of the cave (presumably the wolfpits), where they were immediately blinded by the glaring sunlight. They lay down in a daze for a long time, before the noise of the reapers terrified them and they rose and tried to escape, but were unable to locate the entrance of the cavern before being caught.

The two original sources of the story are both from the 12th century. The first is William of Newburgh (1136-1198), an English historian and monk, from Yorkshire. His main work, Historia rerum Anglicarum (History of English Affairs), is a history of England from 1066 to 1198, in which he includes the story of the Green Children. The other source is Ralph of Coggeshall (died c. 1228), who was the sixth abbot of Coggeshall Abbey in Essex from 1207 to 1218. His account of the Green Children is included in the Chronicon Anglicanum (English Chronicle) to which he contributed between 1187 and 1224. As can be seen from the dates, both authors recorded the incident many years after it was supposed to have taken place.

The story of the Green Children remained in the popular imagination throughout subsequent history, as testified by references to it in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, written in 1621, and a description based on the 12th century sources in Thomas Keightley's The Fairy Mythology (1828). 

Interestingly, there was even a supposed second sighting of Green Children in a place called Banjos in Spain, in August 1887. However, the details of this event are almost exactly the same as in the Woolpit case and the story seems to originate with John Macklin in his book Strange Destinies (1965). The most glaring similarity between the two stories, however, is in the name of the man whose home the children were taken to. In Keightley’s account, the Woolpit children are taken in by a knight named Sir Richard de Calne; in Macklin’s account, the Banjos children are helped by “the village’s chief landowner,” a man named Ricardo da Calno. In the end, the only major difference between the two accounts is that the green girl dies after a mere five years. Besides, there is nowhere called Banjos in Spain, and later this account is considered a retelling of the 12th century English story. 

Various explanations have been put forward for the enigma of the Green Children of Woolpit. The most extreme include that the children originated from a hidden world inside the earth, that they had somehow stepped through a door from a parallel dimension, or they were aliens accidentally arrived on Earth. One supporter of the latter theory is the Scottish astronomer Duncan Lunan, who suggests that the children were aliens transported to Earth from another planet in error by a malfunctioning matter transmitter.

The most widely accepted explanation at present was put forward by Paul Harris in Fortean Studies (1998). His theory is: First of all, the date for the incident is moved forward to 1173, into the reign of King Stephen's successor Henry II. There had been a continued immigration of Flemish (north Belgian) weavers and merchants into England from the 11th century onwards, and Harris states that after Henry II became king these immigrants were persecuted, culminating in a battle at Fornham in Suffolk in 1173, where thousands were slaughtered. He theorizes that the children were Flemish, and had probably lived in or near to the village of Fornham St. Martin, hence the St. Martin references in their story. This village, a few miles from Woolpit, is separated from it by the River Lark, probably the "very considerable river" mentioned by the girl in account. After their parents had been killed in the conflict, the two children escaped into the dense, dark woodland of ThetfordForest.

Harris proposes that if the children remained there in hiding for a period of time without enough food, they could have developed chlorosis due to malnutrition-hence the greenish tinge to the skin. He believes that they later followed the sound of the church bells of Bury St. Edmunds, and wandered into one of the many underground mine passages which were part of Grimes Graves, flint mines dating back more than 4,000 years to the Neolithic period.

By following mine passageways they eventually emerged at Woolpit, and here the bewildered children in their undernourished state, with their strange clothes, and speaking the Flemish language, would have seemed alien to villagers who hadn't had any contact with Flemish people.

Harris's ingenious hypothesis certainly suggests plausible answers to many of the riddles of the Woolpit mystery. But the theory of displaced Flemish orphans accounting for the Green Children does not stand up in many respects. When Henry II came to power and decided to expel the Flemish mercenaries previously employed by King Stephen from the country, Flemish weavers and merchants who had lived in the country for generations would have been largely unaffected. In the civil war battle of Fornham in 1173, it was Flemish mercenaries, employed to fight against the armies of King Henry II, who were slaughtered, along with the rebel knights they had been fighting alongside. These mercenaries would hardly have brought their families with them. After their defeat, the remaining Flemish soldiers scattered throughout the countryside, and many were attacked and killed by the local people. Surely a landowner such as Richard de Calne, or one of his household or visitors, would have been educated enough to recognize that the language the children spoke was Flemish. After all, it must have been fairly widespread in eastern England at that time.

Harris's theory of the children hiding out in Thetford forest, hearing the bells of Bury St. Edmunds, and thus being led through underground passages to Woolpit also has problems of geography. First of all, Bury St. Edmunds is 25 miles from Thetford forest; the children could not have heard church bells over such a distance. In addition, the flint mines are confined to the area of Thetford forest; there are no underground passages leading to Woolpit, and if there were, it is almost 32 miles from the forest to Woolpit, surely too far to walk for two starving children. Even if the Green Children originated from Fornham St. Martin, it is still a 10 mile walk to Woolpit, and as to the "considerable river" mentioned by the girl-the River Lark is far too narrow to qualify for this.

Hidden History: "Lost Civilizations, Secret Knowledge, and Ancient Mysteries" by Brian Haughton;

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