Halfway between the towns of Bury St. Edmunds and Stowmarket lies Woolpit, a modest village that’s been around since before the Norman Conquest. Littered with half-timbered houses, greenery, and winding walkways, its main claim to fame revolves around a tale of two children who stumbled into town during the 12th century. These lost little ones spoke nervously, in gibberish, with green-tinged skin that made them seem otherworldly.
Welcome to Woolpit
First recorded in the 10th century as Wlpit and later in 1068 as Wlfpeta, Woolpit takes its name from the Old English ‘wulf-pytt‘, which means exactly what you think — a pit for trapping wolves. One legend claims that the last wolf in England was trapped here in the 1100s.
Before William the Conqueror came to England, Woolpit was an unassuming little village under the charge of Ulfcytel Snillingr, an Anglo-Saxon nobleman who has been referred to as both an ealdorman and thegn of East Anglia. His name is Scandinavian but little is known about his family or origins, other than his byname, which means bold. Bold he might have been, but Ulfcytel died in battle in 1016. After changing hands a few more times, the town came under the command of the wealthy and powerful monks of Bury St. Edmunds Abbey.
It was during this era that the hapless green orphans wandered into Woolpit. Fresh off the Norman Conquest and into the reign of King Stephen, this period was marked by a civil war known as The Anarchy. Two different men recorded their story with differing details, neither of whom had direct experience with the children. These chroniclers were Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newburgh. Ralph was the abbot of a monastery about 26 miles away, while William was a canon in Yorkshire who swore his writings in Historia rerum Anglicarum were based on reports from ‘trustworthy sources.’ Historians have patched together what they could from these surviving accounts.
Oddities and Orphans
At harvest time, the villagers of Woolpit were enjoying another typical medieval day. While working, a group of reapers found two children wandering the forest near one of the town’s eponymous wolf pits. The language they spoke was unintelligible; the clothes they wore foreign. Most striking of all, though, was their green-tinged skin. Were these children of the forest or extraterrestrial beings?
Thankfully, rather than panic and stone them to death, the reapers tried to feed them. When they wouldn’t eat, they escorted the brother and sister to local landowner and knight Sir Richard de Calne at Wikes Hall near Bardwell. Just as baffled as the reapers, de Calne tried to ply the kids with food without success for a few days. Eventually they came across raw broad beans and ate them voraciously. In time, they diversified their diets and lost their green pallor.
As the girl bounced back, the boy grew sick and depressed, eventually dying. When the girl learned English, she explained that she and her brother hailed from a sunless place of eternal twilight. They were tending to their father’s livestock when they heard a bell and followed the sound into an underground cavern. When they emerged, they were no longer in their home, called the Land of Saint Martin. The only other detail she had about the geography of Saint Martin was that there was a bright, luminous land she could see just across a river.
According to some accounts, she eventually took the name Agnes and went on to marry the archdeacon of Ely, Richard Barre.
When it comes to the question of green skin, many have put forth the theory that the children suffered from chlorosis, an iron deficiency that gives sufferers a greenish tint. It’s a condition that’s not unheard of when it comes to people who are malnourished and have poor diets. As the color eventually faded away, this seems probable. Less so is the theory that the children suffered from arsenic poisoning. Arsenic was used in the production of green dyes and can give the skin a green-dotted rash. This would explain the boy’s poor health. However, the odds that medieval people would willingly take in children who appeared diseased are pretty low.
As for their clothes and language, the consensus among many is that the children were Flemish immigrants who hadn’t yet learned English and wore clothes from their homeland. As many Flemish people had emigrated to England and were persecuted under the reign of King Henry II, the thought is that the kids were living undercover with other immigrants in a forested village a few miles away. Henry succeeded Stephen, though, so that would contradict one of the main sources’ description of the era. It’s also not entirely plausible that no one in Sir Richard de Calne’s household had never heard Flemish, as they had been in the area for some time by that point.
Some argue the children were European immigrants who came to England on a merchant ship. Sick and vitamin deficient from the journey, their skin had taken on a green hue. Young, lost, and disoriented in a foreign country, they got separated from their home and had no way of knowing where it was.
In the early Middle Ages Woolpit was amid the most agriculturally and densely populated part of rural England. It wasn’t impossible that strangers might pass through, and in those days many self-contained villages had their own customs, clothes, and dialects. You could arrive at a place a few miles away and have trouble understanding the locals. One of the most sensible explanations is that these little ones wandered off and simply didn’t know where they lived.
That logic didn’t stop people from dreaming up fantastical origins for the green children of Woolpit. The simple idea that they arrived via a cave has given many cause to believe they came from another world. Scholar Robert Burton suggested in the 1600s that the pair fell from heaven, while others take their green hue and liken them to fairies by connecting them with Celtic mythology. Popular among the more creative is the theory that the children were aliens. Some posit they hailed from an underworld hidden deep in the Earth; others think it must be another planet.
One of the most fanciful stories came about in 1996 by science fiction author Duncan Lunan. Lunan hypothesized that the siblings hailed from a planet trapped in synchronous orbit around its sun, which would explain the twilight and luminous land the girl described. Their green color came from the genetically modified alien plants they ate, and though they didn’t arrive in a flying saucer, he thinks the conditions were ripe for instantaneous transport.
We come in peas.