Unlike the very real, very blue, family of Troublesome Creek, Kentucky, the story of the green children of Woolpit is riddled with speculation and hearsay; but, if true, the children’s lives could be a harrowing example of child neglect and the devastation caused by war.
The story of the green children of Woolpit is described in just two chronicles, neither of which actually give firsthand accounts. The details of both accounts also differ, and as a whole, the children’s story is widely questioned as to its legitimacy.
Accounts state the story took place sometime within the reign of King Stephen (1135 to 1154) or King Henry II (1154 to 1189), with the first being written by English historian William of Newburgh in his work Historia rerum Anglicarum (1196-98). The second account was detailed by English chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall in the Chronicon Anglicanum (1200-99).
Story of the green children of Woolpit
The legend begins sometime in the mid-12th century, around the year 1150, during a time in England’s history called “The Anarchy” – a 19-year-long civil war sparked by a female heir to England’s throne being subverted by a male relative.
Set in the ancient English village of Woolpit, Suffolk, it gets its rather on-the-nose name from the Old English wilf-pytt meaning “pit for catching wolves”, referring to the village’s big pit for catching wolves.
While reaping the fields near the wolf pit, villagers came across two young children. The young girl and boy appeared to be dressed in unusual fabrics, they were speaking an unrecognizable language, and their skin was tinted bright green.
The two were taken to the home of 12th-century squire Sir Richard de Calne where they were offered food, which they promptly refused. Despite the villagers offering the children a variety of foods, the pair refused to eat anything for days. That is until they came across some green beans growing in Calne’s garden, which the children picked and ate raw.
Surviving on just green beans for many months, the two eventually acquired a taste for bread. After living with Calne for some time they were eventually converted to a more balanced diet and their green skin began to disappear.
While accounts differ, some claim the boy died shortly after the pair were baptized, hinting at a link between the two events, but, like much else in this story, the claims are unsubstantiated. Other claims state the boy passed away before being baptized, while some claim he died shortly after being found.
As the girl grew, she eventually learnt to speak English and was then able to tell the story of where she and her brother came from.
“We are inhabitants of the land of St. Martin, who is regarded with peculiar veneration in the country which gave us birth.”
She described the land, stating that England was quite different from her home, although her country was Christian and had churches.
“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.”
Some accounts describe the children venturing into a cave until they heard the sound of bells, which they followed until they ended up in Woolpit. Another states they followed their flock into the caves and became disorientated, while a third claims the children heard a loud noise and suddenly found themselves at the bottom of the wolf pit.
“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.”
The girl claimed this land was underground and all the inhabitants had the same green skin she and her brother did.
Continuing to work for Calne for many years, the girl reportedly took on the name Agnes Barre and married the archdeacon of Ely, Richard Barre, from the nearby town of King’s Lynn. According to reports she had at least one child, but all claims of Agnes’ later life, including her name, are unsubstantiated.
Theories surrounding the children
Despite it still not being clear if any of this story is true, there are a number of popular and likely theories surrounding both the origin of the children and their green skin.
It’s speculated that the children could have been the descendants of Flemish immigrants. A number of Flemish immigrants arrived in the nearby town of Fornham St. Martin during the 12th century. Fornham was separated from Woolpit by the River Lark, which could be the river mentioned by the girl, but under the reign of King Henry II, the battle of Fornham saw many Flemish immigrants killed.
Under this theory, the children could have been orphaned by the war and become malnourished and sickly during their time alone in the woods. This would explain their unrecognisable language as being Dutch, and their unusual clothes as being Flemish. The nearby Thetford Forest may have been where the children were living, where the heavy tree cover could have made it seem like permanent twilight. Entering into one of the many underground mine passages in the area, it would have been possible for the children to end up in Woolpit.
But let’s not ignore the most unusual part of the story – their green skin.
While unusual, there is actually a couple of conditions that can cause green skin. Hypochromic anemia, also called chlorosis or “green sickness”, is caused by severe malnutrition that affects the color of red blood cells and causes the skin to turn a shade of green. This theory is supported by the account of their skin returning to skin-color after a while of eating a balanced diet.
A slightly more upsetting cause could be arsenic poisoning which is known to tint the skin green. The story speculates that while under the care of an earl from Norfolk, the children were poisoned with arsenic and left to die in a forest near the Norfolk-Suffolk border.
Now we’ve covered the likely explanations, let’s consider the incredibly unlikely.
Aliens. Some seem to have taken the phrase “little green men” far too literally, claiming that the girl’s account of their home sounds otherworldly. The 1621 book The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton claims the children “fell from Heaven”, while a 1996 article for Analog magazine by Duncan Lunan doubles down on this claim. Lunan describes their home planet as being trapped in a synchronous orbit around its sun, so that only a narrow twilight zone of inhabitation is possible, sandwiched between a boiling hot surface and a frozen one.
The children’s seeming emergence from inside a pit or cave, paired with interpretations of the girl’s own words, has also inspired speculation that they come from an underground world. The legend of Agartha describes an ancient realm that exists at the Earth’s core.
Despite the story’s legitimacy being purely speculatory, the green children of Woolpit have inspired countless novels, poems, and plays, standing the test of time and lasting for over eight centuries.