Green Children of Woolpit (A Medieval Mystery)

What’s in the article?

  • About the Green Children of Woolpit
  • The historic sources mentioning the event
  • Who really are these green children?
  • Why did they have green skin?

About the Green Children of Woolpit

In 12th-century England, a bizarre phenomenon occurred in a rural medieval settlement in the region of East Anglia. On a summer harvest day, during the reign of King Stephen or King Henry II, serfs in the village of Woolpit stumbled upon 2 siblings, a boy and a girl. The children spoke in an unfamiliar language, their clothes were made of an unknown material and most strikingly, they had green skin.

Green Children of Woolpit
An old oil painting depicting the harvest in Woolpit in 12th century

Baffled by the look of these 2 feral kids, the serfs took them to the nearby estate of Sir Richard de Calne who was a squire and local landlord.

For a few days, the peculiar children didn’t eat any of the food they were given, although they appeared to be starving. This was due to their belief that the food they were offered was simply “inedible”. They didn’t touch anything, that is, until they came across broad beans which they ate with much excitement. Once they started consuming dishes other than beans, they eventually lost their green color. They were also baptized and converted to Christianity, but soon after, the boy became sick and died.

The girl survived and she even learned English. Subsequently, she worked at Richard de Calne’s estate for a few years as a servant, and there she was given the name Agnes. Later on she married a noble man named Richard Barre, who was an ambassador of King Henry II.

When Agnes grew up, she married Richard Barre, who was an ambassador of King Henry II

Once Agnes became fluent in English, she reported quite interesting and baffling things about her and her deceased brother. She said they came from a strange underground land where everything was green and the sun never shone. She called this place “St. Martin’s Land”. When it comes to how they arrived at Woolpit, she said that they had followed their father’s cattle into a cave and gotten lost. Then they heard a loud noise and followed it until they found themselves above the ground, at Woolpit.

A Thomas Cole painting, used here to depict the mysterious green underground land which Agnes referred to as “St. Martin’s Land”

The historic sources mentioning the event

This second hand information is based on the records of two medieval English chroniclers, William of Newburgh and Ralph of Coggeshall. Although both accounts were written independently of each other around the time this event occurred, there are some differences in each one’s story. But overall both of the accounts match to a large extent, which indicates that this event did occur for sure. But while it is very appealing and mysterious to believe that these kids came from a mysterious green underground land, who really are these kids?

Of course in medieval times, it was common to explain such an occurrence by attributing it to a work of God or a miracle. But there are some rational explanations about the green children of Woolpit.  

The signboard of Woolpit today (photo credits: Sonya Duncan, Archant 2018)

Who really are these green children?

The most plausible theory is that they were the children of Flemish immigrants who settled on the eastern shores of England in the 12th century. The Flemish are a people of Germanic origin, who make up about 60% of present-day Belgium’s population.

The mysterious green underground world that Agnes referred to as St. Martin’s land is thought to be the village of Fornham St Martin, which is located only a few kilometers east of Woolpit. Back then, the village had been partially inhabited by the Flemish people.

A map with the places mentioned in this article (London is added for reference)

It is said that during a 12th-century armed conflict between the English crown and Flemish mercenaries, the village of Fornham St Martin, was also attacked and the children survived by running away to nearby dense woods. The children might have then found themselves in one of the dark mine tunnels that stretched around the region and eventually ended up at Woolpit.

Their possible Flemish background is likely the reason why the language the kids spoke was unfamiliar to the English villagers.

An old painting depicting the armed conflict between the English army and Flemish mercenaries

Why did they have green skin?

The green color of their skin is thought to be caused by hypochromic anemia, which was historically known as the green sickness. It is a condition caused by poor diet and malnutrition, which results in, you guessed it, green skin. This is supported by reports that when the children started consuming food other than beans, their skin color returned back to normal.

It is assumed that the children had hypochromic anemia, which was historically known as the green sickness

Sadly, what we know about Agnes Barre ends here. We don’t know when and how she departed this life, but she certainly managed to leave a mysterious legacy behind.

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