Inside the legend of the green children of Woolpit

In at least two historical accounts, green-skinned children appeared in the English village of Woolpit in the 12th century. But to this day, this strange story continues to confuse historians.

Public domainThe story of the Green Children of Woolpit is bizarre, but possibly plausible.

On an otherwise normal day in 1150, residents of the English village of Woolpit made a surprising discovery on the outskirts of town: two small children with green skin. Not only did the children look strange, but they also spoke a foreign language and seemed completely averse to most foods.

Taken in by the villagers, the odd couple eventually lost the green tone in their skin and learned to speak English. They claimed to have come from a distant land called St. Martin, where people rarely encountered sunlight.

In the years since, the Green Children of Woolpit have become a confusing historical mystery. If they really existed, what made their skin green? What was the country of St. Martin? And could the explanation be alien?

The green children of Woolpit make their first appearance

The story of the Green Children of Woolpit was told by two different chroniclers: the 13th century historian William of Newburgh and the 12th century abbot Ralph of Coggeshall. But Newburgh and Coggeshall both tell a similar story of how two green children appeared in the village of Woolpit.

As the story goes, the two children were discovered by villagers around AD 1150. Historical UK reports that they crawled out of one of the pits intended to trap wolves that gave the village its name. (Woolpit is in Old English wulf-pytt.) Most startling of all, they were green.

“During the harvest, while the reapers were gathering the produce of the fields, two children appeared, a boy and a girl, all green in their bodies, dressed in garments of strange colors and unknown materials. [wolf pits]Newburgh said in his Historia rerum Anglicarum (History of English Affairs) from 1220.

Wolf's Pit

Georg Wasmuth/Wikimedia CommonsAn example of a wolf pit, this one from Bavaria, Germany.

Not only were the children green and dressed in odd clothes, but they also seemed to speak gibberish. Coggeshall reports that they were taken to the home of Sir Richard de Calne, who lived nearby. But although the Calne offered food to the green children, they refused to eat anything.

After a few days, the Green Children of Woolpit discovered some green beans growing in the garden of the Calne and eagerly ate them. It was not long before they also reportedly started eating the food the villagers offered them, and began to lose the green hue of their skin.

Although the little boy fell ill and died, the girl seemed to thrive under the care of the villagers. Before long she was mastering the English language – and telling the people of Woolpit a strange story about their homeland.

The Story of the Land of St. Martin

The girl, who she says took the name Agnes Barre Ancient origin, the villagers eventually told that she and her brother are from a place called “St. Martin.” But she wasn’t sure how they had gotten to Woolpit.

“One day, as we were pasturing our father’s flocks, we heard a mighty noise, such as we are now accustomed to hear in St. Edmund’s, when the bells ring,” she said, “and as we listened at the sound of admiration we were suddenly entranced, as it were, and found ourselves among you in the fields where you were reaping.

Ruins of St Edmunds

Tuli/Wikimedia CommonsRuins of an abbey in Bury St Edmunds, a small town near Woolpit, which the Green Children of Woolpit remember hearing the bells.

When questioned further, she said her country was Christian and had churches, but was otherwise very different from England.

“The sun does not rise for our compatriots; our country is little cheered by its beams; we are content with that twilight, which among you precedes the rising of the sun or follows the setting of the sun,” she explained, according to Newburgh. “Moreover, a certain luminous land is seen, not far from ours, and separated from it by a very considerable river.”

But no one has ever found out exactly where the Green Children of Woolpit came from. If Mental Floss reports that the girl – Agnes – apparently lived a fairly normal life, although some sources state that in her later years she became “rather dissolute and rowdy in her behaviour”.

So who were the Green Children of Woolpit? What was the country of St. Martin? And could the explanation be alien?

Where do the green children of Woolpit come from?

While it’s unclear if the Green Children of Woolpit ever really existed, their story has fascinated people for centuries. Today, there are a few possible explanations for the children’s skin, clothing, and language.

If Mental Floss explains, they may have been poisoned with arsenic and left to die, which could explain their green-tinged skin. Another explanation for their green skin could be chlorosis, which is a result of malnutrition and may explain why their green skin faded as they adapted to a better diet.

Green Children Of Woolpit Sign

Rod Bacon/Wikimedia CommonsA sign erected in honor of the Green Children of Woolpit in the village itself.

As for their foreign language and dress? Historic UK notes that they may have been children of Flemish immigrants who were murdered by King Stephen or King Henry II. So what the villagers in Woolpit considered “gibberish” could actually be Dutch. And the ‘twilight’ described by the children could be the verdant darkness of nearby Thetford Forest.

On the other hand, others have given some very different explanations.

If Ancient origin explains, some argue that the children’s green skin, strange clothing, and unintelligible language is a sure sign that they came from outer space. This theory seems to have been first put forward in the 17th century, when Robert Burton wrote The anatomy of melancholy (1621) that the Green Children of Woolpit ‘fell from heaven’.

While there is little evidence to support this theory, it is certainly true that there is some overlap between the story of the Green Children of Woolpit and modern descriptions of aliens as ‘little green men’.

Of course, there are also those who say that the Green Children of Woolpit never existed. For Willem van Newburgh, who recorded their story, this is irrelevant. In his account of the children, he wrote: “Let each one say what he will, and reason on such matters according to his abilities; I have no regrets for capturing an event so wondrous and wonderful.”

After reading the strange story of the Green Children of Woolpit, move on to the equally bizarre story of the Moon-Eyed people of Cherokee lore. Or check out these 11 creepy urban legends.

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