The Green Children of Woolpit: Anemic Medieval Migrants or Otherworld Abductees?
Who were the Green Children of Woolpit and where did they come from? Speculation has ranged from the story being merely fanciful folklore to extra-terrestrials and everything in between. Over 800 years later, the mystery remains.
During one summer harvest in the middle of the 12th century, during the reign of King Stephen (reigned 1135-1154), villagers from Woolpit in Suffolk, England, discovered a boy and a girl wandering the fields looking lost and bewildered. And they were far from ordinary. Their skin was entirely green, they spoke a language no one had ever heard before, and they wore strangely colored clothing of an unknown material.
The villagers took them to the house Sir Richard de Calne, a local knight who lived at Wykes, 6 miles north of Woolpit. For days the children refused to eat, believing bread and other food they were offered to be “inedible”. At length, someone brought in beans, freshly picked and still in their pods. The children, near starvation, grew excited and examined the stalks, thinking the beans would be inside them. When they didn’t find any, they began to weep. Bystanders then opened the pods and offered them the beans inside. These, the children gladly ate and would eat nothing else for some time after.
It is said that over time they grew accustomed to “normal” food and their skin color gradually faded to a normal hue. The boy ended up dying, but the girl carried on and learned to speak English. She ended up serving in Richard de Calne’s household and later married a man at Lynn; one of the sources even speaks to her character, stating that “she remained wanton and impudent”.
When she was able to communicate how she and the boy had come to Woolpit, her answers only raised more questions.
She said that she and the boy, her brother, came from a land of perpetual twilight, where everything and everyone, were green. She called it St. Martin’s Land since, according to her, the saint was revered there and Christianity was practiced. She also said that they could see a luminous land not far from their own, but separated from them by a broad river.
One day, as they were tending their father’s flocks, they heard a noise, like a bell. They followed it, entranced, into a cavern. They wandered through the caves for some time, eventually emerging close to where the villagers found them – near the “Wolf-Pits”; old ditches from which the town derived its name.
The two were struck by the brightness of the sun and the warmth of the air. They grew afraid when they heard the villagers coming but could no longer find the entrance to the cave from whence they’d come.
The story itself comes from what are generally considered two reliable primary sources. The first is from the Historia Rerum Anglicarum (“The History of English Affairs”), a history of England from 1066 to 1198 and written by William of Newburgh (c.1136 – 1198), an Augustinian Canon at Newburgh Priory in Yorkshire. William makes it clear that despite the story being widely circulated, he was skeptical at first. It was only after he was overcome by the testimony of so many reliable witnesses that he was compelled to believe it.
The second source comes from a manuscript known as the Chronicon Anglicanum, another history of England from 1066, but written by several 12th Century authors. The section dealing with the Green Children was written by Ralph of Coggeshall (died c. 1226), the abbot of a small Cistercian abbey at Coggeshall in North Essex, 26 miles south of Woolpit.
While each account contains minor variations, the whole of the story is the same. What’s more, both mention the testimony of witnesses. Ralph even tells us that his information regarding the girl serving in Sir Richard de Calne’s household and that she remained “wanton and impudent” into adulthood, came directly from Sir Richard and members of his household. This tells us that the story was not one that was merely invented as a fable or folktale, but that something, at least resembling it, actually occurred.
Pages from the Chronicon Anglicanum (The English Chronicle), a history of England from 1066 to 1226 by several authors. The section dealing with the Green Children was written by Ralph of Coggeshall (died c. 1226). Ralph claimed to have gotten information straight from Sir Richard de Calne and his household.
ANEMIC CHILDREN OF FLEMISH MIGRANTS?
The most commonly accepted explanation is that they were children of Flemish migrants who had settled in or around the nearby town of Fornham St. Martin, a center of the local cloth making industry. According to the theory, this would explain their strange language (Flemish) and unrecognizable clothing, as well as their reference to St. Martin’s Land. The broad river the girl mentioned would be the River Lark and their parents victims of persecution either after Henry II ordered Flemings expelled from England in 1154 or after Flemish mercenaries participated in a rebellion against Henry in 1173. And their strange coloration? A form of anemia called chlorosis caused by malnutrition, which is said to sometimes give the sufferer’s skin a green tint.
While attractive, however, this hypothesis does not hold up well under scrutiny.
While there was a significant Flemish settlement in Pembrokeshire, in south Wales, there is no evidence of any Flemish settlement(s) in the Woolpit region at this time. Even if there were a Flemish family or two, the English wouldn’t have seen them as something so drastically different to warrant their reaction to the Green Children.
Likewise, Fornham St. Martin did not become a hub for the cloth making industry until the 14th century. It’s true there was growing trade between Flanders and England. Flemings were renowned for their superior weaving and dying skills and the English for wool. There would have most certainly been some Flemish merchants at the annual trading fairs in the area. But with that being the case, the people of Woolpit and Sir Richard de Calne, at the very least, would have surely recognized the children’s language for what it was. Likewise, the River Lark would have been far too narrow to match the description given by the girl. The date of the 1173 rebellion also places the timeframe outside of the reign of King Stephen; thus contradicting William’s chronology.
It is also highly unlikely they were the children of mercenaries either. Mercenaries do not typically bring their children with them on campaign. In this case, the few who managed to survive the battle either tried to flee but were taken prisoner, were beaten to death by local peasants, or died in some other way. Whatever the case, if they were Flemish, their language would have been identifiable.
Chlorosis was also most likely not the culprit for the children’s green skin color. The green tint that it produces in the skin is both very slight and not the defining characteristic of the malady. It is more pale than green. Ralph of Coggeshall goes so far as to describe the hue of their skin as prassinum colorem (“leek-green”) at one point. The deep green of leeks is a far cry from the slight greenish pallor that sometimes accompanies chlorosis. It is also noteworthy that as a type of anemia (Hypochromatic anemia), the condition would have been caused by an iron deficiency. Since the children were only willing to eat beans for some time, it is hard to see how they would have been anemic since beans are packed with iron.
This explanation also doesn’t adequately explain the twilight conditions and green quality of their “homeland” or why they saw the food they were offered as “inedible”.
BACK FROM THE OTHERWORLD?
Could they have come from the Faerie realm or Otherworld? The description of their homeland certainly implies another “world”. The presence of a river with a bright land on the farther shore recalls the Celtic idea of the Otherworld separated from our own by a great river. The bright land itself bears a hint of the notion that the Faerie world is somewhere in between earth, heaven, and hell. The subterranean passage allegedly taken by the children finds strong parallels in Celtic routes to the Otherworld as well.
Similarly, in myth, legend, and folklore, green is considered the color most favored by the Fae. While faeries are more often described as wearing green, there are references to some being green.
That the children would only eat raw beans may also be an inversion of the idea that visitors to the Otherworld mustn’t eat its food, lest they be trapped there forever. The children’s inability to even recognize normal human food as edible or to think beans were to be found in beanstalks (and not the pods), certainly suggests their point of reference was far removed from ours.
Yet there is no doubt that they were physically human since their “normal” color returned after regularly consuming a regular human diet. This isn’t incompatible with an Otherworldly explanation, however, since Fae stealing human children and leaving a changeling in their place is common in Faerie lore. Ralph of Coggeshall’s description of the girl in adulthood as being “wanton and impudent”, only further hints she possessed a (Faery?) wildness that never left. Could the children have therefore been Fae abductees who found their way back to human society?
Toward the end of William’s account (in his version, the boy dies only after he and the girl tell the story) he tells us, “These, and many other matters, too numerous to particularize, they [the children] are said to have recounted to curious inquirers.” It’s a shame he didn’t record more of these “other matters”. Would they give us the answers to this solve this centuries-old enigma? Or would they only make the tale of the Green Children of Woolpit even more mysterious?
Woolpit Today from www.britainexpress.com/counties/suffolk/woolpit.htm
Clark, John. “Martin and the Green Children.” Folklore, vol. 117, no. 2, 2006, pp. 207–214.
Clarl, John. “"Small, Vulnerable ETs": The Green Children of Woolpit.” Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 33, no. 2, 2006), pp. 209-229.
Clark, John. The Green Children of Woolpit. 2018, www.academia.edu/10089626/The_Green_Children_of_Woolpit.
Keightley, Thomas. FAIRY MYTHOLOGY: Illustrative of the Romance and Superstition of Various Countries ... (Classic Reprint). FORGOTTEN Books, 2016.
Patch, Howard Rollin. “Some Elements in Mediaeval Descriptions of the Otherworld.” Pmla, vol. 33, no. 4, 1918, pp. 601-643.
“William of Newburgh: Book One.” Internet History Sourcebooks, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/williamofnewburgh-one.asp#27.
How the Reverend Robert Kirk revealed the secrets of the Fairies and how he was kidnapped by them.
This is a true story.
It is a rare occasion, indeed, when a minister of the Faith goes in search of Faeries. Rarer still, is when his purpose is to use their existence to counter the claims of atheists and prove the existence of God and the spiritual realm. Even more exceptional is when that minister is kidnapped by the Fae for his troubles! But that is exactly what happened in 1692 to the Reverend Robert Kirk, Master of Arts, Gaelic scholar, and Minister of Aberfoyle.
A year earlier, in 1691, Reverend Kirk completed his manuscript, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, & Fairies. In it, he reveals the “nature and actions of the Subterranean, Invisible People heretofore going under the name of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies.” His sources were Low-Country Scottish Seers of the Second Sight who for generations were familiar with the comings and goings of this mysterious race of beings. To be sure, the Scottish lowlands were a hotbed of fairy activity throughout history. But until Kirk, no one had sought to systematically assemble fairy lore in a comprehensive and scholarly way. What’s more, the famous folklorist, Andrew Lang, who composed the Introduction to the 1893 publication of the manuscript, notes that if Kirk had conducted his investigations in any other part of Christendom, the charge of witchcraft would be close behind him. Instead, as Lang tells us, “Yet Mr. Kirk of Aberfoyle, living among the Celtic people, treats the land of faery as a mere fact of nature, a world with its own laws, which he investigates without fear of the Accuser of the Brethren.”
Unencumbered of the need for religious subterfuge, Kirk’s work is a glimmering gem of authentic folklore. It represents the only honest investigation into the Fae before the smoke stacks of industrialization would distort our view of them forever. As such, Stewart Sanderson says in his 1964 article for Folklore, “A Prospect of Fairyland”, The Secret Commonwealth is “one of the most important texts in Europe dealing with fairy belief and the second sight.”
The following is what he discovered.
In ages past the Fae were said to live above ground, but with the coming of man, they were driven below. This explains why Kirk identifies them most frequently as, “The Subterranean Inhabitants” since their residences are located underground; most commonly in the fairy hills of the Scottish countryside.
They are a type of being that exists between Man and Angels. He also echoes older traditions that see Fairyland as a third, alternative option to Heaven and Hell. It is not Purgatory, however. To Kirk, the idea of Purgatory was really just the “Secret Republik [sic]” of Fairyland by another name (and given a religious white-washing).
Fairy bodies are “astral” in nature: light and changeable, like “condensed cloud” or “congealed air”. They are able to appear and disappear at will and slip into any “Cranie or Clift [sic]” in the earth where only air might otherwise enter and descend to their underground hill dwellings. Their abodes are “large and fair, and (unless at some odd occasions) unperceivable by vulgar eyes.” They are lit by lights, lamps, and fires that have no apparent source of power.
A fairy’s lifespan is much longer than ours, but they are not immortal. To try and harm them with a human weapon is useless; like trying to split the air with an axe. They are, however, fearful of iron and do their best to avoid it. Mortals who do find themselves in combat with them often find themselves rendered temporarily invisible and transported some distance away.
They are wiser than us since their “brains, being long clarified by the high and subtle air will observe a very small change in a trice [sic]” (instant). Such subtle perception allows them to be able to predict the future much easier than us.
The image of a fairy procession is one that also confirmation in The Secret Commonwealth. This is because they are nomads who change their lodgings four times a year. At these times, the Seers of the Second Sight are sure to attend Church so they may avoid getting assaulted by elf-shot (now thought to be Neolithic flints).
From this, we may conclude that Fairies are not the miniature ballerinas with dainty wings they transformed into during the Victorian period, but rather ethereal beings deserving of caution and respect.
THEIR SOCIETY, SOCIAL CUSTOMS AND BELIEFS
Socially they are organized into tribes and orders and ruled by an aristocracy. Like us, they have “children, nurses, marriages, deaths, and burials”. They also experience “controversies, doubts, disputes, and feuds.” Though they don’t indulge in swearing or reckless behavior, their chief vices are “envy, spite, hypocrisy, lying, and dissimulation [guile].”
For food, some consume “spirituous liquors that pierce like pure air and oyl [sic]”, while others have a fondness for corn. One can only imagine the great celebrations in Fairyland when Moonshine (corn whiskey) was invented! Like witches, they have the ability to steal milk and food at a distance. Some may even attach themselves to individuals and consume the essence of that person’s food. This is why some people can eat as much as they like and never gain a pound.
Surprisingly, they dress a lot like us; taking on the dominant fashions in whichever locale they inhabit. They are “seen to wear plaids and variegated garments in the Highlands of Scotland, and Suanochs [skins] therefore in Ireland.” The quality of their attire, however, is more refined than ours. Kirk is not sure if they use materials and tools as we do or it they make use of “curious cobwebs, impalpable rainbows, [or] a fantastic imitation of the actions of more terrestrial mortals.” Similarly, when they speak, it is in the language of the local country. Their voices have a clear, smooth, whistling quality.
Fairies have no discernible religious beliefs but are said to disappear at the mention of Jesus’ name. They do believe that “nothing perishes, but (as the Sun and Year) everything goes in a circle.” Thus a cosmic view of the Circle of Life seems to lay at the core of their belief systems. Likewise, their books are mostly of an esoteric, mystical nature and often contain charms and counter charms to affect other beings.
INTERACTIONS WITH HUMANS
It could be that the majority of fairies prefer just as much to pay us no mind at all. But Kirk focuses more on those who do. Of these, they are likely than not to be mischievous. What we mistake for poltergeists, for example, are more often fairies having their fun at our expense; though they do so with harmless intentions. It is also said that they are “ever readiest to go on hurtful errands, but seldom will be the messengers of great good to men.” On the other hand, some apparently like humans so much they sometimes become someone’s fairy lover; coming to them at night like succubi.
Their most common crime is the kidnapping of human children (and leaving a changeling in its place). They also kidnap human nurse-maids to feed their children (or those they have stolen), leaving a double of them in human society. Once the faerie children no longer need their milk, the maids are either taken back to the human world or given the option of staying in fairyland. If any of them pry too much into the affairs and mysteries of the fairies, however, the fairies may take offence and strike them blind and dumb. We may speculate that in revealing the Fairy secrets to the world, Robert Kirk met a similar fate as nursemaids who knew too much.
WHAT HAPPENED TO ROBERT KIRK?
On May 14th, 1692, a year after completing The Secret Commonwealth, Kirk took his usual twilight stroll to the fairy hill (Doon Hill) beside his house and suddenly died. Or so everyone thought.
Soon after the funeral, Kirk appeared to a relative and declared that he was not dead. Rather, the body in his tomb was a changeling and that he was in reality, a captive in Fairyland. One hope remained for him to be returned to human society: the relative was to find his cousin, Grahame of Duchray, and deliver a message. According to Sir Walter Scott in Letters on Daemonology and Witchcraft, it was this:
“When the posthumous child, of which my wife has been delivered since my disappearance, shall be brought to baptism, I will appear in the room, when, if Duchray shall throw over my head the knife or dirk which he holds in his hand, I may be restored to society; but if this opportunity is neglected, I am lost forever.”
Kirk’s relatives confirmed that he did indeed appear at the christening, but that Duchray was so astonished, that he forgot to throw the knife over Kirk’s head. Thus Kirk presumably returned to Fairyland to become, as Andrew Lang writes, “Chaplain to the Fairy Queen”.
Lang goes on to say, “Neither history nor tradition has more to tell about Mr. Robert Kirk, who seems to have been a man of good family, a student, and, as his book shows, an innocent and learned person.” For gifting the mortal world a look at what Fairies were believed to be like in their most pristine state, he was taken to Fairyland, never to return.
For the more curious minded Kirk left instructions on how one might see the Invisible People for oneself. But his story comes with a warning: don’t peer too closely or speak too much about what you see or you may find meeting a similar fate, spirited away to Fairyland. Of course, some of us would be okay with that.
Kirk, Robert. The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies: A Study in Folklore and Psychical Research. London: David Nutt, in the Strand, 1893.
Lang, Andrew. Comment. The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies: A Study in Folklore and Psychical Research. By Robert Kirk. London: David Nutt, in the Strand, 1893. 2-23.
Sanderson, Stewart. “A Prospect of Fairyland.” Folklore, Vol. 75, No. 1, Taylor and Francis, Spring, 1964. 1-18.