The Green Children of Woolpit

Two writers – Ralph of Coggeshall (died c.1226) and William of Newburgh (c. 1136–1198) – recorded a story of the arrival of two green children in the village of Woolpit in Suffolk during the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154). The two children, a brother and sister, were found beside one of the wolf pits that the village is named after. They had green skin, spoke an unknown language and wore clothes in an unfamiliar style. The two were taken into care but refused all food until they found some raw beans. However, the children gradually learnt to eat more foods and their green colour faded as their diet changed. The two children were baptised but the boy became ill and died soon after.

The recorded account of their explanations differs between the two writers. However, the tradition since has been to add the two accounts together, so their origin is usually described as St Martin’s Land, a place with no sun, in constant twilight and where everything is green. They were apparently herding their father’s cattle and got lost, possibly in some caves. After a loud noise was heard – which may have been the bells of Bury St Edmunds – they found themselves by the wolf pit.

There is a tendency for lay-people to ascribe the flavour of the Otherworld to this tale but Unnatural Resources historians dismiss this. The descriptions of the children do not match any known spirit form and there are no known populations of humans living there. However, the tale may have accreted Otherworld or similar connotations, such as the journey through a cave and the descriptions of “St Martin’s Land”. There are also similarities with the Babes In The Wood stories and it has been suggested that the green children may be one and the same – or another luckless pair as child abandonment was often resorted to during the period. Similarly, there were nearby Flemish communities that were heavily persecuted when Henry II took the throne in 1154 and it is possible that the children were wandering due to the resulting civil strife. It has also been suggested that the tale is simply a folk memory of the English persecution of the native Britons, which may have continued until the 11th and 12th Centuries.

The green colour was likely down to an issue with their diet while lost or while hiding with their families, if the later possibilities are taken into account.

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