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The Mysterious Green Children Of Woolpit Have Baffled Historians And Folklorists

Updated December 11, 2019 303.9k views13 items

One of many strange and unexplained mysteries of the world surrounds the sudden appearance of two children (a girl and a boy) who climbed out of a wolf pit or cave just outside the English village of Woolpit sometime in the 12th century. Not only were the children literally bright green, but they also wore strange clothes and spoke a language no one in Woolpit understood.

This real-life mystery, which has long been part of English folklore, has baffled and intrigued historians, folklorists, science fiction devotees, and others for nearly 1,000 years. There are two near-contemporary accounts of the children of Woolpit; one comes from William of Newburgh's Historia rerum Anglicarum, which was written sometime around the year 1189, and the other is Ralph of Coggeshall's Chronicum Anglicanum, which was written circa 1220. William of Newburgh, in particular, was skeptical of the tale but had heard about it from so many reputable sources that he decided he had to transcribe it. Ralph of Coggeshall, meanwhile, claimed he was told the story by the man who took the children in after they mysteriously appeared from the Woolpit cave. The two accounts have some details in common but differ in others.

Whether the Green Children of Woolpit ever existed is a matter of opinion. Some believe the tale is just folklore, a made-up incident that was handed down from generation to generation. Others believe the story is based on an actual event, but that the accounts of what happened are not accurate. Then there are those who believe the Woolpit children existed, but that they weren't human.

Here are some reports taken from the two near-contemporary accounts, along with various theories that have been posited in the hundreds of years since the mysterious appearance of the Green Children. 

  • The Children's Mysterious Appearance Is Said To Have Occurred Either During The Reign Of King Stephen Or The Reign Of King Henry II

    According to William of Newburgh's account, the children's mysterious appearance occurred sometime during the reign of King Stephen, which was from 1135-1154. The children climbed out of what was known as a wolf pit or wolf ditch, which were built as animal traps. Newburgh wrote:

    At harvest-time, when the harvesters were busy in the fields gathering the crops, two children, a boy and a girl, emerged from these ditches. Their entire bodies were green, and they were wearing clothes of unusual color and unknown material. As they wandered bemused over the countryside, they were seized by the reapers and led to the village.

    There is no mention of the Green Children of Woolpit in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, however, which deals with English history up until the time of King Stephen's demise in 1154. Because this manuscript does describe other strange events in English history up to that point, the absence of any mention of the Green Children of Woolpit suggests their appearance may have occurred during the reign of King Henry II (1154-1189) instead. 

    Ralph of Coggeshall did not say when this mysterious appearance was supposed to have happened. He claimed he was told the story by a man named Richard de Calne. Little is known about Calne; he reportedly was a wealthy landowner "at Wikes" and he may have been some sort of knight. He is said to have perished in or prior to 1188. Ralph of Coggeshall claimed Calne took in the Green Children after they were found.

  • According To The Girl, The Children Came From A World Called St. Martin's Land

    The girl eventually learned to speak English; once she did, she explained that she and her brother came from a place she called St. Martin's (or Saint Martin's) Land. According to William of Newburgh's account, the land was named for a saint venerated by the people who lived there. In St. Martin's Land, everything and everyone was a bright green color, despite the fact that the sun never shone, the light instead being more like a misty twilight. The girl claimed that across a considerable river from St. Martin's Land the inhabitants could see a bright land (both Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newburgh assumed this would have been the land around Woolpit). St. Martin's Land was also said to be a Christian world, with churches.

    The girl's description has sparked many suggestions about where St. Martin's Land might be located. These have ranged from it being on another planet, to an underground world in the middle of the Earth, to another village in England or Western Europe.

    In 1998, a researcher named Paul Harris published his theory about St. Martin's Land in Fortean Studies. His believed the children lived in or near the English village of Fornham St. Martin (hence the name St. Martin's Land). This village was only a few miles from Woolpit and was separated from it by the River Lark. The problem with this theory is that the River Lark is too narrow to really fit the girl's description of a "considerable" river. 

  • The Girl Claimed They Wandered Off While Tending Their Family's Flock

    Although the girl knew the name of her homeland, she did not know where it was relative to Woolpit, nor did she know how she and her brother arrived in the East Suffolk village. In William of Newburgh's account, the girl claimed she and her brother were tending to their father's flock when they suddenly heard a mighty din "such as we often hear at St Edmund’s when they say the bells are ringing out." They recalled that when they focused on the noise, "it was as though we were out of our minds, for we suddenly found ourselves among you in the fields where you were harvesting."

    Ralph of Coggeshall's account differs slightly, although he agrees that the children were tending to their family's flock when they wandered off:

    As they were following their flocks, they came to a certain cavern, on entering which they heard a delightful sound of bells; ravished by whose sweetness, they went for a long time wandering on through the cavern, until they came to its mouth. 

    He goes on to claim that the children were overwhelmed by Woolpit's excessive sunlight and tried to find the cavern they had emerged from but were unable to do so.

    Paul Harris's theory, which was published in Fortean Studies (1998) and sets the children's mysterious appearance in 1173 (during the reign of Henry II) is that the children fled to Thetford Forest after seeing their family ended by the king's troops (in 1173, many Flemish immigrants were taken out by the king's troops). They later followed the sound of bells from Bury St. Edmunds and wandered into one of the underground mine passages that were part of the centuries-old Grimes Graves flint mines. Harris believed that the children followed this underground pathway until they emerged in Woolpit, which is in Suffolk.

    There are a few geographical problems with Harris's theory. Bury St. Edmunds is about 25 miles from Thetford Forest, which is too far away for the children to have been able to hear the bells. And the underground flint mines are confined to Thetford Forest; there are no passages that go to Woolpit (which is approximately 32 miles from the forest).

  • At First, The Children Would Eat Nothing But Raw Beans

    When the children were discovered, they were taken to the home of a local wealthy landowner, who was identified in Ralph of Coggeshall's account as (Sir) Richard de Calne. There, they were offered many different types of food, all of which they refused as if repulsed by the offerings, despite the fact that they were said to be near starvation. Finally, they were offered some raw beanstalks, which the children recognized as edible (perhaps because the beanstalks were the same green color as the children) even though they weren't familiar with them. 

    They looked for the beans by ripping open the stalks rather than the pods. These beans were the only thing the children would eat for months after they were found.