The village of St. Mary’s of the Wolf Pits, or Woolpit for short, was a quiet little place in Suffolk, East Anglia. In the Middle Ages, the village belonged to the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, which had great wealth and power in the area. It was in a very densely populated agricultural area of England. So imagine the villager’s surprise when they came out to work their land and found two green children. A strange story, one that was told by two 12th century chroniclers- Ralph of Coggestall and William of Newburgh. The place the story of the green children within the reign of either King Stephen or King Henry II.
The story tells that a boy and a girl appeared on the edge of a field seemingly from nowhere. The children had strange clothing and did not speak the language. Most strangely, their skin was green. They were found by reapers who had gone out to harvest near some ditches, which had been dug to trap wolves. Perplexed by the children, the reapers took them to the home of the local landowner, Sir Richard de Caine. The children were starving, but would not eat anything until the villagers brought them raw broad beans. They were given a home out of Christian charity. Gradually, they expanded their diet to more than beans and their skin lost its viridian color.
Eventually, the girl learned English and told the villagers a strange tale. She told them that she and the boy were siblings and came from a land underground called St. Martin’s Land. She said everything in St. Martin’s Land was green and it was always twilight. She said all the people who lived there were green, and described it as a “luminous” land across a river. They had been herding cattle for their father and heard a bells. They followed the sound of the bells, the two children found themselves at the bottom of the wolf pit. They climbed out and that is where the reapers found them.
Sadly, the boy was quite ill and died not long after he and his sister were baptized. According to some accounts of the story, the sister took the name “Agnes Barre” and married a man at King’s Lynn in Norfolk. Accounts also report she was “rather loose and wanton in her conduct”.
So who were these children? Several theories abound. Near by was the village of Fornham St. Martin, where a battle was fought in 1173. Flemish immigrants were persecuted and killed, and it is theorized these children were perhaps Flemish orphans. It is possible they followed the sound of the bells from the abbey and fell into the wolf pit. Their strange skin color could be attributed to malnutrition due to poor diet and limited food while they were lost. There is a condition called Hypochromic Anemia caused by poor diet that changes skin color to greenish. Another theory is the children were green because they were suffering from arsenic poisoning. The legend says they were wards of an earl from Norfolk, who tried to poison them then left them to die at the edge of the forest.
The actual origin of the green children will never be known. However, their story has inspired stories as well as the novel The Green Child written by Herbert Read in 1934.