‘Another wonderful thing happened in Suffolk at St Mary’s of the Wolf-pits’ wrote the English chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall. Ralph’s contemporary, William of Newburgh, wrote a slightly earlier version of this tale. It’s not known whether Ralph was using William’s account or whether he had another source. Ralph wrote extensively in the 12/13th century recording stories and anecdotes heard from visitors to his abbey in Essex. Such stories could travel great distances between medieval abbeys, treasured by the clerics that recorded them.
The village of St Mary’s of the Wolf-pits is now known as Woolpit.
Here is the story…
On a bright summers day during harvest reapers in the fields near the village of St Mary’s of the Wolf-Pits suddenly came across two strange children. The boy and the girl were lying on the ground near the mouth of one of the pits used to trap wolves. They fled in terror but the reapers gave chase and caught them, discovering to their astonishment that the children had green skin. Both were crying and distressed and their speech unintelligible. The reapers didn’t know what to do so took them to the manor house of a local knight, Sir Richard de Calne. Sir Richard had no luck in understanding them either. He offered them food all of which they refused except for raw beans out of the pod which they consumed with relish.
The boy remained languid and sadly died. But the girl thrived, eating various foods and in time her skin lost its greenness. She learnt to speak English and told Sir Richard how she and her brother came from a very different land where there was perpetual twilight and no sun. One day they had been herding their flocks when 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’.
The children had stepped through the mouth of the cavern into a different world! Rendered helpless by the bright sunlight they lay for some time on the ground before being discovered by the reapers. Terrified they ran away to find the entrance to the cave and return home but to no avail. The girl went on to describe how their homeland was a Christian place called St Martinsland named after their saint, St Martin. There was a great river that divided the countryside and in the far distance could be seen a bright country.
We are also told that the girl was
‘regenerated by the laver of holy baptism … and was rather loose and wanton in her conduct’.
She was employed as a servant of Sir Richard and, according to William of Newburgh, she married a ‘man of Lynn’ and lived a long life. William added that this occurred during the reign of King Stephen (1135 -54).
Nothing is known about the origins of this strange and rather unsettling tale. Many attempts have been made to explain it: the children were lost offspring of Flemish immigrants; travellers from overseas; they were abandoned; suffering from a dietary disorder that discoloured their skin; maybe even aliens from space!
The description of St Martinsland has an uncanny feel. It is suggestive of faery or some other such otherworldly domain. But the children are human and they are Christian. There is no suggestion of their corruption by demons and no malice is implied in their conduct as sometimes is suggested in such tales. Although the girl is described as ‘loose and wanton’ this sentiment conforms with other contemporary accounts concerning women.
Over three hundred years later the 15/16th century antiquarian William Camden recorded version describing ‘two little boies (forsooth) of a green colour’ . These children made a long journey through underground passages ‘from the Antipodes and Saint Martinsland’. Camden calls the tale ”prety and formall’ . Its survival into modern times suggests that the story remained popular. Certainly it has been in circulation for almost one thousand years at least.
The folklorist Jennifer Westwood observed that the tale contains certain familiar elements representative of the Otherworld: an entrance via a cave; unearthly music (or in Newburgh’s account the children hear a loud noise ‘like the ringing of the bells of St Edmunds monastery’ ) and the children are green, a colour traditionally connected to ‘fairies’. Westwood goes further suggesting that the tale may relate to an older story, perhaps with roots in pre-Christian tradition.
This is a popular interpretation of the tale although one that is difficult to substantiate. The premise that it has pre-Christian origins may be challenged on the grounds that ‘wonder tales’ were a popular genre amongst medieval audiences and often the more fantastical the better. It is also possible that threads have been lost, as with other tales of the period such as the Mabinogi, which can render them somewhat incomprehensible to the modern reader.
What is possible to substantiate is that during the later Middle Ages Woolpit was a place of pilgrimage, visited by man,y including King Henry VI, until the reformation. A fine statue of the Virgin known as ‘Our Lady of Woolpit’ drew many visitors and benefactors, apparently housed in its own chapel near the church.
The 1885 edition of the Gazetteer and Directory of Suffolk has an entry identifying a meadow behind the church with a large moated area in the middle. Here there was a ‘fine spring at it’s centre’. Once known as ‘Our Lady’s Well’ the water had a reputation for curing sore eyes and today is now a scheduled monument. The Gazetteer also states that it ‘anciently had a chapel near it’. Such wells sometimes have an ancient pedigree involving veneration and sanctity that pre-dates the Christian church. Indeed the story may be a remnant of a long forgotten history or tradition now fixed by the pen of a medieval cleric, its origins long lost. Or simply a fabulously strange entertaining story.
Regardless of it’s origins the story of the ‘Green Children of Woolpit’ remains a rather unsettling tale.