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Green Children of Woolpit: Mysterious visitors from an unknown land

Updated on September 10, 2016
A Woolpit sign remembering the Green Children
A Woolpit sign remembering the Green Children

What were the Green Children of Woolpit?

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They were green children-not green meaning rookie or naïve, or green meaning not quite ripe yet… but literally of the color green. Before the Renaissance, before the Age of Enlightenment, the 12th Century witnessed the sudden appearance of two unknown strangers whose green hue, identity, and mysterious origin continue to baffle researchers and historians to this day.

The strange historical event occurred in the Village of Woolpit in Suffolk, England, during the reign of King Stephen. The exact date of the instantaneous materialization of the Green Children is undetermined, as the writings from the period do not specifically mention it. However, the first mention of the unusual youths is made in William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum, which was authored in 1189. Subsequently, in 1220, Ralph of Coggeshall’s Chronicum Anglicanum also recounts the Green Children’s remarkable tale. Intriguingly, the incident of the Green Children seems to have been forgotten until it was rediscovered in the mid-19th Century. Only two passing mentions of the seemingly compelling event appear during this lengthy hiatus: one brief reference to the children in William Camden’s Britannia from 1586; and a nod to the pair within the text of Bishop Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone dated 1638. However, both allusions to the children cite Newburgh’s piece as the source material. Regardless, despite a dearth of contemporary accounts on the subject, the spontaneous appearance of the Green Children is captivating still today.

As “a number of trustworthy sources” recalled for William of Newburgh as he researched his Historia. The pair, later determined to be brother and sister, not only possessed a strange green tint to their skin; they spoke in a language said to be unrecognizable to any culture in the known world. However, other than the unusual pigment of their skin, the two youths appeared to be physically conventional in every other way.

The dietary habits and clothing preferences of the two visitors were another matter. Initially eschewing any food offered to them, the two ate voraciously when they finally discovered some raw beans. It was the pitch in bean pods which became their sole source of nourishment. Additionally, when initially discovered in one of the wolf pits from which the village acquired its name, the children were wearing apparel described as “unfamiliar.” As is often the case with habits and visitors that are out of the norm, the people of Woolpit determined to assimilate their guests into “acceptable” society.

The children were taken in by Richard de Calne of Wykes, who lived in a manor 6 miles north of Woolpit. Much of the information gathered in Newburgh’s text about the newfound orphans reportedly came from de Calne himself. Upon taking residence at the estate, the children gradually began to try other culinary fare. When they were finally weaned from the bean pitch entirely, the pair’s unusual pigment faded away. Additionally, their new caretakers determined that the children needed to be introduced to the Christian faith. As such, the two were baptized within a few years of being taken in by de Calne.

Not long after this life-changing event, the male child (who had the appearance of being the younger of the two) developed a sickly constitution and passed away from an undisclosed cause. Undaunted, the residents of Woolpit continued to Anglicize the surviving girl (even naming her “Agnes”; and, eventually, instilled in her a comprehensive understanding of the English language. Finally able to communicate with her benefactors, the girl was able to relate the tale of her and her brother’s origin and arrival in the strange land.

According to Newburgh’s account, the young visitor described a homeland named St. Martin’s Land. It was a place where “the sun never shone,” and the only light always resembled our equivalent of “twilight.” Additionally, the child recalled “everything” in this strange land being verdantly green… including its inhabitants. Upon further questioning, Agnes revealed that St. Martin’s Land was located entirely underground!

As for how she and her brother came to arrive in that wolf pit outside the village, Agnes was without a clue. She remembered that the two were tending their father’s cattle, when they heard “a loud noise”—presumed by Newburgh to be the bells of Bury St. Edmunds. Following the noise, the children strayed from their father’s herd and, suddenly, found themselves in the wolf pit. As Coggeshall’s Chronicum relays the passage: “they had become lost when they followed the cattle into a cave and, after being guided by the sound of bells, eventually emerged into our land”

Neither Newburgh or Coggeshall attempt to explain the odd event that they give testament to. Both authors preferred to simply consider the entire episode as an inscrutable miracle. Some modern historians display similar indifference to solving the mystery of the Green Children. Nancy Partner, author of a 12th Century historiography states that it is pointless to worry over the “suggestive details” of these “wonderfully pointless miracles” in an attempt to find a natural or plausible explanation as it does not benefit Newburgh’s treatise, or the Middle Ages. However, other factions are not so quick to dismiss the provocative mystery behind the Green children.

The majority opinion is that the Green Children are folklore which took on a life of its own. While most think the tale is allegory (representing the violent conquest of indigenous Britons by the Anglo-Saxons), a small segment of the Suffolk area population believes that the children were genuine “Hollow Earth” children. This theory posits that a beautiful land of underground fields and rivers exists—despite a lack of sunlight. This mystical land is inhabited by Celtic pigmies who continue to emerge and dwell among surface dwellers.

Another, more cynical, explanation of the fable credits a darker scenario of reality. As an exaggerated perception of a true historical event, some critics believe that Coggeshall and Newburgh were candy-coating an unpleasant event. This school of thought suggests that the legend of the Green Children is a euphemized tale of servants attempting escape from a cruel master. In a period study of such flights to freedom, author Charles Oman remarked: “there is clearly some mystery behind it all (the story of the Green Children), some story of drugging and kidnapping.” Conversely, other people take the author’s at their word, and offer explanations which take the appearance of the Green Children as literal fact.

Two prominent theories are premised on the belief that the children were of extraterrestrial origin. In 1621, in his Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton proposed that the Green Children had fallen from Heaven…presumably to show mankind the idyllic existence it had lost. This theory was further propagated by Bishop Godwin in his Man in the Moone work.

The second theory citing an otherworldly genesis for the children points toward a neighboring planet. In 1996, summing up this hypothesis, astronomer Duncan Lunan suggested that the two were accidentally transported to Woolpit from their home planet due to a malfunction in a “matter transmitter.” Ostensibly, encouraged by the introduction of this element of science fiction to the proceedings, another unusual hypothesis has surfaced.

The foundation of this theory is based on the belief that the children came from another dimension. Proponents of this reasoning believe that the pair inadvertently discovered a cave opening which was a portal between their dimension, and our own. Evidently, the portal was not a two-way access point; or once the children were through, it vanished: as no one was ever able to pinpoint such an opening near the wolf pit where the two were discovered.

As for Agnes, accounts state that she lived as a servant in de Calne’s household for many years. While there, she was described as impudent and wanton. Eventually, she married a royal official from King’s Lynn named Richard Barre. Nothing more is known about Agnes, other than it was believed that she was still alive (living about 40 miles from Woolpit) when Newburgh began accumulating information for his text. There is no mention as to why the author did not seek out the woman, herself, for a first-hand account.

It is a given that if this mysterious event occurred today, the woman known as Agnes would have been hounded for additional information and asked to locate her homeland until her dying day. The fact that she was not during the 12th Century, might speak to the authenticity of the event…or, at least, a surprising lack of curiosity. As it is, whatever knowledge she had, and secrets she held, regarding the Green Children, went with “Agnes” to her grave.

Is the pitch from beans like these the reason for the children's strange pigment?
Is the pitch from beans like these the reason for the children's strange pigment?
An artist's rendering of the Green Children
An artist's rendering of the Green Children | Source

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