Beneath God’s green earth

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The Woolpit village sign depicts a church in the centre with a wolf on one side and the green children on the other

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William of Newburgh Priory wrote about the legend of the green children of St Mary’s of the Wolf Pits  in the 12th century

 

My dad was a fan of folklore, mysteries and tales passed down through the centuries, which often originated as word-of-mouth stories. By including them in his books and columns, he felt he was doing his bit to preserve them for generations to come.

In his column from 17th July 1982, he features one story that he feared might disappear for good if it wasn’t retold. The story had been the subject of debate for many hundreds of years as to whether it was true, rather than mere legend. There were a few written references to it, the earliest being from William of Newburgh, a scholar and historian born in Bridlington in 1136. As an adult, he joined the priory at Newburgh, near Coxwold, where he lived until his death in about 1198. It was there that he composed his most famous and most valuable work, ‘Historia Rerum Anglicarum’ or ‘History of English Affairs’. It is considered one of the most important works on 11th and 12th century England, and covers the period from 1066 through to 1198. William relies a lot on oral tradition and legend, and so much of what he writes cannot be relied upon as a true account. However, he also records recent historical and contemporary topical events, which is why his writings are so highly valued. He includes the story of the Green Children, and tells it as though it actually happened, calling it ‘a strange and prodigious event’.

The curious tale occurs during the reign of King Stephen, who ruled from 1135 until 1154, and centres around the Suffolk village of St Mary’s of the Wolf Pits (now known as Woolpit), a few miles from Bury-St-Edmunds.

During this time, it was common to build hidden trenches to capture wolves, and it was at the entrance to one of these that two disheveled young children were found, scared, lost and hungry. They spoke an unusual language that no-one could comprehend, but that wasn’t the strangest thing. Although in many ways they looked like any other child of the time, their skin was tinged with green.

As there was no sign of an adult with them, they were taken to the local Lord of the Manor, Richard de Caine (sometimes spelled ‘Calne’) and offered food. Although they were clearly starving, they refused it, until someone entered the kitchen with some green beans. The children became excited, and once the pods were opened, eagerly devoured the beans inside.

Unfortunately, the boy later became ill and passed away, but his sister thrived. Gradually, as she adapted to a new diet, her skin returned to a normal colour and she learned how to speak English. She told her rescuers that she came from a country known as St Martin’s Land, and that the saint was worshipped in the churches there. But the country existed in a perpetual twilight, the sun always lying very low in the sky.

Sir Richard employed the girl as a servant, and she later married a local man, living contentedly for many years. She never wavered from her story, explaining that she and her brother were tending to their flocks of sheep in St Martin’s Land, when they came across a deep cavern. Upon entering, they were drawn deeper by the sound of bells, and kept walking until they came to an opening. Venturing out, they were dazzled by the brightness of the daylight, and the air felt so different. They wandered a little further until they were startled by the sound of approaching voices. Terrified, they tried to find the entrance again, but could not, and that is when they were found by the party of people and rescued.

Some later scholars suggested that the children could be orphans of Flemish settlers, and the strange skin colour was down to malnourishment causing a type of anaemia linked to lack of protein and iron. Others suggest it is, like many legends, an allegory, for life overcoming death, or a victory for Christianity over paganism. Other suggestions from the past include that they fell from the sky, that they came from a mysterious fairy land, or that they found a secret tunnel to get to us from across the sea.

If you ever have occasion to visit Woolpit, then look out for the village sign. You’ll seen the silhouette of a wolf next and a couple of little green children.

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 15th July and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 13th July 2022