12th Century Legend of the Green Children of Woolpit , Suffolk, UK
The legend of the green children of Woolpit concerns two children of unusual skin colour who reportedly appeared in the village of Wool Pit in Suffolk, England, some time in the 12th century, perhaps during the reign of King Stephen. The children, brother and sister, were of generally normal appearance except for the green colour of their skin. They spoke in an unknown language, and the only food they would eat was beans. Eventually they learned to eat other food and lost their green pallor, but the boy was sickly and died soon after he and his sister were baptised. The girl adjusted to her new life, but she was considered to be "rather loose and wanton in her conduct". After she learned to speak English, the girl explained that she and her brother had come from St Martin's Land, an underground world whose inhabitants are green.
One day at harvest time, according to William of Newburgh during the reign of King Stephen (1135–1154), 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 raw 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 baptised.
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 for many years as a servant in Richard de Calne's household, where she was considered to be "very wanton and impudent". William says that she eventually married a man from King's Lynn, about 40 miles (64 km) from Woolpit, where 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 only near-contemporary accounts are contained in William of Newburgh's Historia rerum Anglicarum and Ralph of Coggeshall's Chronicum Anglicanum, written in about 1189 and 1220 respectively. Between then and their rediscovery in the mid-19th century, the green children seem to surface only in a passing mention in William Camden's Britannia in 1586, and in Bishop Francis Godwin's fantastical The Man in the Moone, in both of which William of Newburgh's account is cited.
Two approaches have dominated explanations of the story of the green children: that it is a folk tale describing an imaginary encounter with the inhabitants of another world, perhaps one beneath our feet or even extraterrestrial, or it is a garbled account of a historical event. The story was praised as an ideal fantasy by the English anarchist poet and critic Herbert Read in his English Prose Style, published in 1931. It provided the inspiration for his only novel, The Green Child written in 1934.
Illustration by Hilary Porter