During the very troubled reign of King Stephen of England (1135 – 1134), a strange event dubbed ‘The Green Children of Woolpit’ occurred in the village of Woolpit, Suffolk. On a random day during harvest time, while the reapers were working in the fields, two young children emerged from ditches that were excavated to trap wolves, known as wolf pits. The children, one boy, one girl, had skin tinted with a green hue, and wore clothes made of unknown materials, and wandered around aimlessly until the reapers took them to the village. They would come to be known as the Green children of Woolpit.
They were taken to the house of the local landowner Sir Richard de Calne at Wikes. Since no one could understand the language the children spoke, it was quite difficult to deal with them. They would randomly start weeping and refused to eat anything offered to them such as bread, and meat. It was several days that this petulant behavior went on until one evening some of the villagers brought them recently harvested beans, still with their stalks attached. It has been said that these children survived on this food for many months until they acquired a taste for bread.
Over time, the boy who was the younger of the two, grew depressed, sickened and inevitably succumbed to the illness and died. Fortunately, the girl seemed to adjust to her new life, and soon after being baptized, her skin gradually lost its original green color and she grew into a healthy young woman becoming ‘rather loose and wanton in her conduct.’ She went on to marry a man in a neighboring county of Norfolk, and after learning to speak English, the girl explained that she and her brother had come from the “Land of Saint Martin”, an underground world inhabited by green people, she relayed the story of how they had come to be at the entrance to the pits. She said they had come from a land where there is no sun like ours, but where it is twilight all the time. She and her brother were following their flocks when they chanced upon a cavern. They entered this cavern and heard the sound of bells and were so enchanted by the sweet music, that they stayed exploring until they came to the cavern’s entrance. They passed through and into the bright sunlight of our world. They were blinded for a while and rooted to the spot by the sudden change in atmosphere and temperature. Eventually, they were caught by the villagers and brought to the hall.
Many theories have been postulated over the centuries to explain this strange account. In regards to their green coloring, one suggestion is that the children were suffering from Hypochromic Anemia, originally known as Chlorosis (coming from the Greek word ‘Chloris’, meaning greenish-yellow), which is a condition known to affect the color of red blood cells and results in a noticeably green shade of skin caused by poor diet and nutrition. Backing up this theory is the fact that the girl is described as returning to normal after adopting a healthy diet.
In reference to the description of the strange land, it has been suggested that the children were Flemish orphans. During the 12th century, a lot of Flemish immigrants had arrived and were persecuted during the reign of King Henry II. Many had been killed, and if they had fled into the Thetford Forest, it could have seemed like a permanent twilight to the petrified children. They also might have entered one of the many underground mine passages in the area, which inevitably led them to Woolpit. Children dressed in strange Flemish clothes and speaking another language, the children would have been presented a strange sight to the villagers of Woolpit.
The story of the green children of Woolpit has endured over eight centuries since the first recorded accounts. The two original sources are both from the 12th century, one being William of Newburgh, who was an English monk, and historian from Yorkshire and the other being Ralph of Coggeshall who was the sixth abbot of Coggeshall Abbey in Essex. William’s main work Historia Rerum Anglicarum (History of English Affairs), is a history book of England from 1066 to 1198, in which he includes the story of the Green Children. Ralph’s account of the Green Children is included in the Chronicon Anglicanum (English Chronicle). As can be observed from the dates, both accounts were recorded many years after it was supposed to have taken place, and while the real facts behind the story may never be known, it has provided insight and inspiration for numerous poems, novels, operas, and plays across the world.