When Stephen was King of the English, a quiet East Anglian village was visited by a little green man and his sister but were they aliens, feral children or merely a slice of medieval whimsy?
The village of Woolpit in Suffolk takes its name from the traps for wolves that once lay on its outskirts. One of these wolfpits was the site of a strange event, first recorded in the late-twelfth century by William of Newburgh, who professed himself to be sceptical of it but had heard it reported from so many trustworthy sources that he felt compelled to mention it. He reported that, during the reign of King Stephen, at harvest time, two children emerged from one of the wolfpits, a boy and a girl, dressed in unfamiliar fabric and, more curiously, coloured green all over. Dazed and confused they wandered through the field until they were found by reapers, who, unable to understand a word they said, escorted them to the village.
They declined all food for many days, until by chance some runner beans were brought through the hall of the house where they were staying. They seized them but could not find the beans inside and wept bitterly. Detecting what it was the children wanted, someone removed the beans from their cases and these the children ate voraciously. They lived off beans for many months, until they learnt to eat bread. Once weaned onto a normal diet, they gradually lost their green tint and were taught to speak English, enabling them to explain who they were and whence they had come.
The children had been born in the land of Saint Martin, a saint particularly popular in their country. They confirmed that their country was Christian but that it had no sunrise and was never brighter than twilight. A certain bright country had once been spied a short distance from their own land, divided from it by a wide river.
The children’s adventure began when they were in a field grazing their father’s sheep. Suddenly they heard a sound, like nothing that they had ever heard before, though they subsequently identified it as the tolling of bells. Investigating, they became lost and ended up in the field where the reapers of Woolpit found them.
Notwithstanding the children’s assurance that they were already Christians, the villagers baptized them. Sadly, the boy died shortly afterwards but his elder sister survived and thrived, eventually marrying a man of King’s Lynn, where she was still living a few years before William of Newburgh wrote his History of English Affairs in 1198.
Newburgh is in Yorkshire. Rather closer to the action of the story is Coggeshall, in Essex. Around 1226, Ralph, former Abbot of Coggeshall, wrote his own English Chronicle, which provides extra detail on the story. According to Ralph, the children were adopted by Sir Richard de Calne, lord of the manor of Wykes, six miles north of Woolpit. The girl was eventually employed as a servant in de Calne’s household and very lascivious and petulant her conduct was alleged to be. Ralph should know – de Calne was his source.
Ralph also contradicted William in a couple of respects. Most notably, he recorded that the children’s journey began when they chased their father’s wandering sheep into a cave. They became lost and were lured above ground again by the sound of bells, walking through an unexplored tunnel and emerging in Woolpit.
William of Newburgh was sceptical about the story’s veracity and his attitude is shared by many modern commentators, yet for a long time the story of the Green Children has inspired fanciful speculation as to who they might have been and where their home was. Robert Burton, who speculated on the existence of life on other planets in The Anatomy of Melancholy (published in 1621), cited the Green Children as a possible example of such extraterrestrial visitors.
Even more substantial use of the Green Children was made by Francis Godwin, Bishop of Hereford and the first English science-fiction author, whose lunar inhabitants in The Man in the Moone (published posthumously in 1638), are modelled very closely on the Green Children, as was demonstrated by sci-fi historian John Clark. Most notably, “Martin” is explained as the Lunars’ word for God and any Lunar child who shows signs of misbehaviour was banished to earth, with a well-behaved human child being abducted as a replacement. To make the connection explicit, the author has his narrator claim that the Lunars remind of a story by William of Newburgh though he professes to forget the details.
In more recent times, attempts have been made to explain the story, like so many other folktales, as the garbled account of a historic event. Were they feral children, a not uncommon problem in an age when the state took no interest in child welfare? This lack of concern would have been exacerbated by the political circumstances of the period: The reign of King Stephen was an almost constant civil war, when government collapsed, every landlord behaved like a king and, as one contemporary chronicler put it, “Christ and His saints slept.”
Most attempts to explain the legend historically have been variations of this theme. The children simply spoke a different dialect, according to one hypothesis and had turned green from arsenic poisoning, vitamin deficiency or illness. They were Flemish immigrants, says another, brought to England by the weaving industry, hence their strange clothes and green skin, the result of careless dyeing. Is it only a coincidence, historians ask, that eight miles from Woolpit is the village of Fornham Saint Martin?
The difficulty with these explanations is that they attribute to Suffolk villages an exaggerated state of isolation, in which some parishes were so remote that they might as well have been foreign countries. Even making allowances for the slowness of medieval communications and the chaos of the civil war, this is still an unconvincing and, indeed, patronizing argument, giving undue credit to regional jokes about the sun never shining on Suffolk.
No explanation has gained acceptance, or quite managed to explain every detail of the story. Perhaps historians do not need to explain every detail but should make allowance for imaginative interpolation in transmission. The problem with this concession, however, is that, once one has allowed for partial invention, why not allow for complete invention? Perhaps William of Newburgh was right to be suspicious and the story is sheer fantasy.
In this vein, comparisons have been made with the sixteenth-century Norfolk story of the Babes in the Wood. One is also reminded of the folksong Green Grow the Rushes, O, with its two “lily-white boys [or “babes”, in some versions], clothéd all in green”. The analogy is not perfect but the existence of an ancient English legend, from which all three pairs of feral children evolved, deserves to be entertained.
The author suspects that he may have bitten off more than he can masticate in one blog and, like William of Newburgh, he does not really know what to do with this story. We shall probably never know who the children really were and what the land of Saint Martin was but there is an argument that the value of the story is in the questions that it raises and that knowing the prosaic truth would diminish it, so perhaps the real questions are: Do we need to know? Do we want to know?