The tumultuous reign of England’s King Stephen (1135 – 1154) is best known for the period called ‘The Anarchy‘, the extremely contentious civil war between the king and Henry I’s daughter Matilda, or Maud.
During this reign another event, far more strange and mysterious, occurred in the county of Suffolk in England’s East Anglia region. It was a story which might have come directly from the mind of a modern science fiction writer. The tale has come down to us through the English chroniclers William of Newburgh (1136 — 1198), and Ralph of Coggleshall (died post 1227), a Cistercian monk and abbot, who claimed to have spoken to surviving eyewitnesses.
This bizarre story reappears later in William Camden‘s Britannia in 1586, and again in Bishop Francis Godwin‘s story The Man in the Moone in the early part of the 17th century. Interestingly, the latter tale is generally considered to be the first work of science fiction in the English language.
The story takes place during the busy harvest period of late summer. As if from nowhere, two children appeared, notable for their unusual green skin colour, strange clothes and unknown language. This occurred in the village of Woolpit, a few miles east of Bury St. Edmunds. The village name reputedly comes from wolf pits, specifically constructed to entrap wolves and other creatures – and it was adjacent to one of these that the children were found.
A Diet of Green Beans
After being discovered, the two children, apparently brother and sister, were taken to the home of one Richard de Caine (or Calne), where they at first refused to eat anything provided for them. After a few days they were tempted by some green beans, and thereafter gradually assumed what would be considered a normal diet of the day. Gradually their green skin colour began to disappear. Sadly however, soon after they were christened, the boy, the younger of the two children, died.
Oddly, they had described their place of origin, which they called ‘Saint Martin’s Land’, as a land of perpetual twilight, where there was no sun.
A Green Homeland
Ralph of Coggeshall understood that everything in their homeland was green; perhaps that was why they were first tempted by green beans, such food perhaps resembling what they were accustomed to eating back home.
However, they could not explain how they had ended up in Woolpit. Apparently they had been helping out on their father’s farm when a loud noise disturbed them, which somehow transported the youngsters close to the wolf pit where they were first discovered. A variant of the story describes them following cattle into cave where they heard bells, presumably church bells, which led them into 12th century Suffolk.
The surviving girl remained as a servant of the man who had taken her in, Richard de Caine, reputedly later marrying a man from King’s Lynn in Norfolk, and presumably having children.
Naturally, relating such a strange tale is one thing; trying to explain it leads to virtually endless speculation, depending upon one’s own opinions and interests.
The more down-to-earth explanations range from the children being the issue of persecuted Flemish immigrants from a local village, who had somehow ‘lost their way’, to them suffering from chlorosis, a condition caused by chronic iron deficiency which tinges the skin green, a result of a poor diet. There were Flemish immigrants in this part of England at the time, which may account for their them not being understood.
Simply Straying Children?
Perhaps also significantly, there is the village of Fornham St. Martin just north of Bury, roughly twelve miles from Woolpit. If the children had somehow strayed from Fornham, is this why they called their ‘country’ ‘Saint Martin’s Land’, a child’s way of describing where they were from?
However, twelve miles is a long way for children to walk in a day, or less. And nothing truly explains the loud explosion they allegedly heard, the cave and suddenly finding themselves in a world they did not recognise. Equally, one would not imagine that nearby Fornham could be described as a place with no sunlight, even in England’s often overcast weather conditions.
Another suggestion is that the story coming down to us is a kind of allegory of racial differences between the Anglo-Saxons, or English, and the Ancient British, two peoples living side by side.
Fairies, Aliens or Folktale
Other ideas reference variants of folklore traditions, such as that of fairies, whilst others suggest that the children were aliens, maybe from a parallel universe, another dimension, a subterranean abode, or somehow transported from another world. Strange indeed.
In the final analysis, maybe this is a folktale which has simply grown in the retelling, carrying certain elements of truth. Nevertheless, in the back of many minds, including my own, there remains the distinct possibility that this tale could represent an account of a real mystery which we are never likely to solve.
Copyright Francis Barker 2020