The Green Children of Woolpit, England


One day at harvest time, according to William of Newburgh during the reign of King Stephen (1135–1154), northeast of London, the villagers of Woolpit discovered two children, a brother and sister, beside one of the wolf pits that gave the village its name. Their skin was green, they spoke an unknown language, and their clothing was unfamiliar. Ralph reports that the children were taken to the home of Richard de Calne. Ralph and William agree that the pair refused all food for several days until they came across some green beans, which they consumed eagerly. The children gradually adapted to normal food and in time lost their green colour. The boy, who appeared to be the younger of the two, became sickly and died shortly after he and his sister were baptized.

Yea, that's creepy

Yea, that’s creepy

After learning to speak English the children – Ralph says just the surviving girl – explained that they came from a land where the sun never shone, and the light was like twilight. William says the children called their home St Martin’s Land; Ralph adds that everything there was green. According to William the children were unable to account for their arrival in Woolpit; they had been herding their father’s cattle when they heard a loud noise (according to William, the bells of Bury St Edmunds) and suddenly found themselves by the wolf pit where they were found. Ralph says that 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.

According to Ralph the girl was employed as a servant in Richard de Calne’s household for many years, where she was considered to be “very wanton and impudent”. She eventually married a man from King’s Lynn, about 40 miles (64 km) from Woolpit, where Ralph said she was still living shortly before he wrote. Based on his research into Richard de Calne’s family history, the astronomer and writer Duncan Lunan has concluded that the girl was given the name “Agnes”, and that she married a royal official named Richard Barre.

The Most Likely Scenario

Many Flemish immigrants arrived in eastern England during the 12th century, and they were persecuted after Henry II became king in 1154; a large number of them were killed near Bury St Edmunds in 1173 at the battle of Fornham fought between Henry II and Robert de Beaumont, 3rd Earl of Leicester. Paul Harris has suggested that the green children’s Flemish parents perished during a period of civil strife and that the children may have come from the village of Fornham St Martin, slightly to the north of Bury St Edmunds, where a settlement of Flemish fullers existed at that time. They may have fled and ultimately wandered to Woolpit. Disoriented, bewildered, and dressed in unfamiliar Flemish clothes, the children would have presented a very strange spectacle to the Woolpit villagers. The children’s colour could be explained by green sickness, the result of a dietary deficiency. Brian Haughton considers Harris’s explanation to be plausible, and the one most widely accepted, although not without its difficulties. For instance, he suggests it is unlikely that an educated local man like Richard de Calne would not have recognised the language spoken by the children as being Flemish.

Historian Derek Brewer’s explanation is even more prosaic:

The likely core of the matter is that these very small children, herding or following flocks, strayed from their forest village, spoke little, and (in modern terms) did not know their own home address. They were probably suffering from chlorosis, a deficiency disease which gives the skin a greenish tint, hence the term “green sickness”. With a better diet it disappears.
Further Reading:
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