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Weird Suffolk: The legend of the Green Children of Woolpit

PUBLISHED: 16:00 28 September 2018

The green children of Woolpit
Byline: Sonya Duncan
Copyright: Archant 2018

The green children of Woolpit Byline: Sonya Duncan Copyright: Archant 2018

Archant 2017

During the reign of King Stephen, a curious incident occurred in the village of Woolpit where two green children from a twilight world appeared as if by magic.

A few miles east of Bury St Edmunds, Woolpit is a village whose very name harks back to a time when wolves were running and when pits were dug to trap the creatures and stop them terrorising villagers and their livestock.

But it wasn’t a big, bad wolf that led to Woolpit’s infamy in the 12th century, it was the sudden and unexplained arrival of two children who were decidedly off-colour.

The story of the Green Children of Woolpit - who can still be seen on the village’s sign, alongside a wolf, and on the church’s alter cloth - was recorded by two ecclesiastical writers, Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newburgh, both of whom reported the arrival of the youngsters at harvest-time.

Reapers, it is said, were working near the old wolf pits when they discovered two children wandering in the forest: a boy and a girl, apparently siblings, they wore strange clothes, spoke an unusual language and, most remarkably, had green-tinged skin.

The pair refused to eat and, unsure of what to do, the workers took the pair to local landowner Sir Richard de Caine at Wikes Hall near Bardwell, six miles away.

Although clearly starving, the children would take no food until they saw a servant carrying green beans through the hall, at which point they devoured the beans in a trice.

Sadly, the younger child never recovered from his ordeal: forever tired, depressed and lethargic, he died, leaving his sister, who gradually thrived and adjusted to her new life, her unusual colouring fading as she grew accustomed to a new diet.

She learned English and, when she was fluent, was able to shed a little green-tinged light on her earlier life in another, distant land.

“We are inhabitants of the land of St. Martin, who is regarded with peculiar veneration in the country which gave us birth,” the young lady said.

“We are ignorant [of how we arrived here]; we only remember this, that on a certain day, when we were feeding our father’s flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St. Edmund’s, when the bells are chiming; and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, as it were, entranced, and found ourselves among you in the fields where you were reaping.

“The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sun-rise, or follows the sunset. Moreover, a certain luminous country is seen, not far distant from ours, and divided from it by a very considerable river.”

Another source claims the girl said that the pair had become lost when they followed cattle into a cave and, guided by the sound of bells, eventually emerged into the land of humans.

Employed for many years as a servant in de Caine’s household (where she was considered by many to be “very wanton and impudent”) some say the girl became known as Agnes Barre and eventually married a man from King’s Lynn in Norfolk, who was a senior ambassador of Henry II, who came to the throne in 1154.

It is said that England’s blue blood, even today, has a green tinge through Agnes’ bloodline.

Possibly the strangest element of the story of the Green Children of Woolpit is that it actually might be true: in parts.

There have been many theories about the green children, some more fantastical than others: some believe they were poisoned with arsenic by their guardian and left to die in Thetford Forest in an echo of the Babes in the Wood tale, others that they were orphans whose Flemish parents had been persecuted and killed.

Many Flemish immigrants had arrived in the east of England during the 12th century and were persecuted after Henry II became king in 1154, with a large number executed near Bury St Edmunds at the Battle of Fornham, fought between Henry II and Robert de Beaumont, 3rd Earl of Leicester.

In 1998, author Paul Harris suggested the children’s Flemish parents had perished during a period of civil strife an that the children had fled, wandered to Woolpit and – disorientated, bewildered and dressed in unusual Flemish clothes – villagers had assumed their visitors had come from not only another land, but another realm.

Their green tinge could have been due to malnutrition, chlorosis can lead to a greenish tint to the skin, their talk of caves due to the fact they had wandered into one of the underground flint mines that formed subterranean Suffolk from Neolithic times.

Other explanations are far more fanciful: commentators have suggested the children were aliens (astronomer Duncan Lunan in 1996 suggested they had been accidently teleported to Woolpit as the result of a ‘matter transmitter’ malfunction) or that they were related to fairies or the Green Man of English folklore.

In 1978, local author and folk singer Bob Roberts wrote in A Slice of Suffolk that: “I was told there are still people in Woolpit who are ‘descended from the green children’, but nobody would tell me who they are!”

Regardless of the truth behind the intriguing story, one thing is for sure: it remains an evergreen tale which proves that sometimes people really are as green as they are cabbage looking.

For more Weird Suffolk stories click here.

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