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Woolpit Sigh Image by Rod Bacon via Wikimedia

The story of the Woolpit children is one which many people know. Countless articles have been written and numerous theories put forward by various people to explain what happened. There are so many ideas and interpretations that I am only going to look at a few of them briefly but in the bibliography below I have listed a number of sources that explore the topic in much more detail.

The Chroniclers

There exists two near contemporary sources which chronicle the events at Woolpit and the appearance of the green children, one of whom is Ralph of Coggeshall and the other is William of Newburgh.

Medieval Scribe c1490_1500. Harley MS4425

Ralph was appointed as the sixth abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Coggeshall in Essex and served from until he retired in 1218 due to bad health. After he stepped down from his duties he took up and continued his house’s Chronicon Anglicanum. His account contains few original documents but he seems to have taken pains to check his facts and collect anecdotal accounts from visitors to the abbey. It is possible that it was from one of these visitors that Ralph discovered the story of the green children of Woolpit[1].

The second chronicler was William of Newburgh. William was a well-respected 12th century English historian and an Augustinian Canon of Newburgh Priory. His work contains important historical accounts as well as being “a major source for stories of medieval revenants, those souls who return from the dead, including early vampire stories and the only source for the bishop-pirate Wimund[2]. The likelihood is that he took many of his facts about the Woolpit green children directly from Ralph, although many of the details differ slightly from the earlier account[3].

The Tale of the Green Children of Woolpit

Sometime in the 12th century  during the reign of either Stephen or Henry II, two young children, a boy and a girl were discovered by reapers. They were found either in a wolf pit by the village of Woolpit or at the edge of a field (according to which account you read). The children were frightened and thin, wore odd clothes and spoke a language incomprehensible to the villagers. The strangest thing about the children was that their skin was green in colour. The children were taken to the house of Richard de Calne[4]. For a few days the children refused to eat any food until they were given broad beans. They eagerly accepted the beans but instead of opening the pods they opened the stalks. On seeing them empty they wept. When shown how to eat the beans correctly they stopped crying. For a long time beans were all they would eat. The boy became depressed and eventually weakened and died but the girl was healthy and thrived. She was baptised Agnes, learnt English, started to eat other food and completely lost her green colouring.

According to Ralph’s account she told the villagers that they had come from a twilight underground world where the sun never shone and everyone and everything was green. One day they followed their cattle into a cave and heard the sound of bells. They walked through the cave towards the sound until they reached the wolf pits where they laid down in a daze, blinded by the sunlight. They became frightened after being woken by the reapers and tried to escape back through the cave but couldn’t find its entrance.

However, William wrote that the girl revealed that her home was called “St Martin’s Land” and that Christianity was practiced there. She said that she was unsure how they had arrived at Woolpit as they had been herding their father’s cattle when they suddenly heard a loud noise and the next minute found themselves at the village.

As Agnes got older she worked as a servant. From Ralph we learn that she was employed in the household of Richard de Colne but was “rather lose and wanton in her conduct[5] and from William that she married a man from King’s Lynne.

What is interesting is that neither William nor Ralph made any attempt to question or explain the story of the green children of Woolpit.

Medieval Ploughing. Public Domain via Wikimedia.

Investigating the tale

A number of theories have been put forward to explain the story of Woolpit’s green children. These can be separated into two main categories, historical or folkloric. There is also an extra-terrestrial hypothesis which is held by a small number of people who believe that the children arrived through a space portal and that their green colour was due to the vegetation on their home planet.

Medieval Aliens? Alleged sighting from Nuremburg 1561. Wickiana Collection Zurich.

The historical angle

Many support the theory that the story does contain a kernel of truth in it. For instance through his research on children escaping their masters, Charles Oman sees something more sinister such as drugging and kidnapping behind the tale. There is a story retold in the area which must have been rooted in a distant memory of two children whose uncle, the children’s guardian, tried to poison them with arsenic. He was said to have left them in Thetford Forest to die so that he could claim their lands and money. The tragic folk tale “Babes in the Wood” was probably based on this story. Arsenic would have turned their skins a green colour. On the other hand Jeffrey Jerome Cohen believes the story is an allegory recalling the differences between the English and the indigenous Britons.

Effects of arsenic. Image Wellcome Institute.

Another interpretation given is that the children were part of the Flemish immigrant community which arrived in the 12th century. The Battle of Fornham, sited in Suffolk not far from Bury St Edmunds, took place in October 1173. It was fought between Henry II and Robert de Beaumont, the 3rd Earl of Leicester. The rebel forces contained a large contingent of about 3000 Flemish soldiers. The rebels were eventually defeated and the Flemish soldiers forced into the swamps near the battle site where most were killed by the local peasants[6]. The children after their parents’ deaths fled into Thetford Forest and lost their way. Suddenly they heard the ringing of Bury St Edmunds’ bells and making their way towards them, they entered the flint mines known as Grimes Graves emerging at the village of Woolpit. The green colour came from a diet deficiency disease such as chlorosis which would have been cured once the children ate nutritious food.

On the surface this last explanation seems plausible enough but in Brian Haughton’s excellent article he presents some problems with this particular theory[7]. Firstly he states that it was Flemish mercenaries who were killed. They were unlikely to have brought their families with them and there is no historical evidence of Flemish merchants or weavers being targeted. A second problem relates to the location of the forest and mines. The forest is 20km from Bury St Edmunds so the children could not have heard the bells and the mines themselves do not end near Woolpit. Also the distances from Fornham St Martins to Woolpit and in particular from the forest to Woolpit are considerable and a long way for the children to walk especially in their weakened state. A last point that he raises is that it is unlikely that a wealthy, educated and noble lord such as Richard de Colne would not have recognised the Flemish language even if he could not understand it himself.


Folkloric elements

Haughton also makes an interesting statement and one which I think cuts to the heart of the matter. He states that the story of the green children has “elements of truth mixed in with mythology and folk beliefs of fairies and the afterlife[8]. Three themes which run through the story; the caves, the beans and the colour green all have links with the supernatural.

The caves

In the past caves were perceived as mysterious and sometimes threatening. Unknown supernatural entities were thought to inhabit them and many believed that they were portals to another world either the land of the fae or to the underworld. As far back as the Greeks, caves were seen as openings to the underworld. For instance Charonium cave in Greece which emited poisonous fumes was believed to be the entrance to Hades.

Owenagcat the Cave of Cruachan. Image via Wikimedia. Davska 2005.

Closer to home there are folktales from all over the British Isles that tell of spirits or the fae dwelling in caves. It was a common belief that if a human entered these caves then they might be rewarded with new talents or skills but should be aware that time worked differently there and a moment with the fae could mean years had passed in the world of mortals.

A famous Irish myth concerns Oweynagat Cave in Roscommon. The cave also known as the ‘Cave of Cats’ was located near the ancient Connaught capital of ‘Cruachan’ and believed to have been the birthplace of Medh, the powerful queen of Connach. The cave was also used by Morrigan, the goddess of fate (in particularly doom and death in battle) who would at sunset drive her otherworldly cattle through the caves to her world[9].

It is not surprising then that if the children were believed to be supernatural and that the land the girl described was otherworldly that they would have reached what became their new home by journeying through a cave.

‘You are what you eat’

In British folklore it is often said that a human should never eat fairy food because by doing so you will bind yourself to their world and you will never leave. In fact it was common if relatives went missing for families to leave food in a basket outside their homes so that their missing kin would not have to eat the food of the faeries. Since it was strongly believed that “you are what you eat” it makes sense that faery food can change a mortal into a faery. Even in Greek mythology Persephone was bound to Hades when she ate some pomegranate seeds.

This idea was thought to work the other way round as well. There is a Scandinavian tale of an elf-maiden who ate mortal food to stay with her lover and there are various Celtic stories of sidhe eating mortal food to become human[10]. In terms of the green children, maybe the loss of their green colouring was seen as the natural result of their eating the food given to them by the villagers so changing their essential physical nature.This is definitely what Willim of Newburgh believed as he wrote in his history “by degrees, they changed their original colour, through the natural effect of our food, and became like ourselves…“. If this idea is accepted then the boy’s death could be seen as his body simply being unable to adapt.

The Sinister broad bean

Broad beans. Image via Wikimedia.

Then there are the beans. It is hard to imagine but fava beans, more commonly known as broad beans have in the past been looked on with some suspicion. To the Greeks and Romans this type of bean symbolised death. Aristotle was convinced that the beans looked like testicles, were evil and that eating them was a one way ticket to Hades! Both cultures thought the shape of the bean resembled the doorway to hell. The Romans also believed that they contained the souls of their ancestors and used to offer them to newly-married couples on their wedding day to attract the souls of male ancestors in order to ask for their help in carrying on the bloodline[11]. Even today on All Soul’s Day, Italian will make cookies in the shape of a bean and eat bean soup.

With the beans being associated with death, spirits and the supernatural it is again not surprising that they turned up in the story of the green children.

The Colour Green

Green is the colour of the forest, nature and the cycle of life. It is also associated with youth, hope and springtime as well as some negative ideas such as wildness, envy, death, sickness and the devil. Faeries and elves are often described as green-hued and wearing green coloured clothing. So when green skinned children appeared it would have been only natural for the villagers to assume they were forest sprites or some other supernatural being.


The old and the new

Green man at Rochester Cathedral. Image by Akoliasnikoff 2008. Via Wikimedia.

Why was it so easy for the villagers and others to so accept that the children were from another world? In my opinion a major reason would have been that although they considered themselves to be strong Christians, beliefs which emanated from the old pagan religion were still firmly entrenched, colouring their perceptions of their world. The merging of pagan and Christian symbols and practices was common. An obvious example is the green man carvings which adorn many early churches. These symbols of fertility, nature and rebirth are visible expressions of the old religion which although supressed was never eradicated. Even the two chroniclers, men who represented the new religion did not seem to question the authenticity of the tale too closely. If Ralph’s version is accepted then you can see the story as a parable i.e. the children are attracted away from their home (pre-Christian) which is without the warmth of the sun to a bright new world by the sound of bells, representing Christianity. Additionally when Ralph describes Agnes as wanton, he could be referring to a wildness which he believed derived from her pagan or otherworldly origins (the fae were considered seducers of men).

Remembering the green children

The green children are still remembered in Woolpit. They appear on a village sign and on the church’s altar cloth. As mentioned before the fable “The Babes in the Wood” has distinct links to the story of the green children. In this morality tale written in the 16th century, two young children are looked after by their aunt and uncle after their parents die. Eager to get his hands on their fortune he pays two men to take them into the forest and kill them. During an argument between the two men, the kinder of the two kills his accomplice. He then promises to return with provisions for the children. He never does and the children left to wander in the forest eventually die. The birds cover their bodies with leaves.

My final thought!

Whatever the truth, I love the way a story probably rooted in fact was embellished with supernatural elements to create a unique, mysterious and fascinating tale which has captured the imagination of so many.

Kylie Minouge as the Green Fairy in Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Moulin Rouge’.

Bibliography

Ralph of Coggeshall, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ralph_of_Coggeshall
William of Newburgh, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_of_Newburgh
Battle of Fornham, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Fornham
A dictionary of English folklore, Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, 2000
Green Children of Woolpit, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_children_of_Woolpit
The Green Children of Woolpit: the 12th century legend of visitors from another world, http://www.ancient-origins.net/unexplained-phenomena/green-children-woolpit-12th-century-legend-visitors-another-world-002347
The Green Children of Woolpit, http://brian-haughton.com/ancient-mysteries-articles/green-children-of-woolpit/
Green children of Woolpit, http://myths.e2bn.org/mythsandlegends/origins24-the-green-children-of-woolpit.html
Welcome to Woolpit village, http://www.woolpit.org/
Creepy History: Who Were The Green Children of Woolpit? https://thoughtcatalog.com/steven-casale/2015/05/creepy-history-who-were-the-green-children-of-woolpit/
The Green Children of Woolpit – Investigating a Medieval mystery, http://eclectariumshuker.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/the-green-children-of-woolpit.html
Folklore, History and the Study of Myth, http://garyrvarner.webs.com/
Oweynagat Cave, Roscommon, Ireland, https://visionsofthepastblog.com/?s=cave+of+cats
Faerie Feast – Writing in margins, http://writinginmargins.weebly.com/faerie-feast.html
Archetypes and motifs in folklore and literature: A handbook, Carole G. Silver, (eds) Jane Garry and Hasan El-Shamy, 2016
The evils of beans, http://writinginmargins.weebly.com/faerie-feast.html
1135~1154: The Green Children of Woolpit, http://anomalyinfo.com/Stories/11351154-green-children-woolpit
William of Newburgh: Book one http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/williamofnewburgh-one.asp#epistle

Notes

[1] Green Children of Woolpit, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_children_of_Woolpit
[2] William of Newburgh, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_of_Newburgh
[3] ibid
[4] ibid
[5] ibid
[6] Battle of Fornham, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Fornham
[7] The Green Children of Woolpit, http://brian-haughton.com/ancient-mysteries-articles/green-children-of-woolpit/
[8] ibid
[9] Oweynagat Cave, Roscommon, Ireland, https://visionsofthepastblog.com/?s=cave+of+cats
[10] Archetypes and motifs in folklore and literature: A handbook, Carole G. Silver, (eds) Jane Garry and Hasan El-Shamy, 2016
[11] The evils of beans, http://writinginmargins.weebly.com/faerie-feast.html

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