; Phantoms and Monsters: Pulse of the Paranormal

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Green Children

During the troubled reign of King Stephen of England (1135-1154), there was a strange occurrence in the village of Woolpit, near Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk. At harvest time, while the reapers were working in the fields, two young children emerged from deep ditches excavated to trap wolves, known as wolf pits (hence the name of the village). The children, a boy and a girl, had skin tinged with a green hue, and wore clothes of a strange color, made from unfamiliar materials. They wandered around bewildered for a few minutes, before the reapers took them to the village.

Because no-one could understand the language the children spoke they were taken to the house of local landowner Sir Richard de Calne, at Wikes. They both wore oddly-colored clothing that appeared to be metallic. Here they broke into tears and refused to eat the bread and other food that was brought to them. For days the children ate nothing until the villagers brought them recently harvested beans, with their stalks still attached. It was said that the children survived on this food for many months until they acquired a taste for bread.

As time passed the boy, who appeared to be the younger of the two, became depressed, sickened and died, but the girl adjusted to her new life, and was baptized. Her skin gradually lost its original green color and she became a healthy young woman. She learned the English language and when asked about her origins she stated that her and the boy were brother and sister, and had come from ‘the land of Saint Martin’ where it was perpetual twilight, and all the inhabitants were green in colour like they had been. She remembered that one day they were looking after their father’s herds in the fields and had wandered into a cavern, where they heard the loud sound of bells. Entranced, they wandered through the darkness for a long time until they arrived at the mouth of the cave, were "struck senseless by the excessive light of the sun and the unusual temperature of the air." She was not sure exactly where her homeland was located, but another ‘luminous’ land could be seen across a ‘considerable river’ separating it from theirs. They lay down in a daze for a long time, before the noise of the reapers terrified them and they rose and tried to escape, but were unable to locate the entrance of the cavern before being caught.

She later married a man at King’s Lynn, in the neighbouring county of Norfolk, apparently becoming ‘rather loose and wanton in her conduct’. Some sources claim that she took the name ‘Agnes Barre’ and the man she married was a senior ambassador of Henry II.

As if this were not strange enough, the same thing happened again almost 700 years later in 1887 in Banjos, Spain. A boy and a girl with green skin were found abandoned near a cave. They did not speak Spanish and wore unfamiliar clothing. Their eyes were described as Oriental in appearance.

As with the first account from England, both children refused to eat at first. The boy grew weak and died, but the girl survived, learned Spanish, and explained that she and her companion came from a sunless land. The account differs from the first as the girl was reported to have claimed they had been caught up in a whirlwind and found themselves in the cave. The girl died in 1892.

The children's true origins were never discovered. Scottish astronomer Duncan Lunan has suggested that the children were transported to Earth from another planet in error by a malfunctioning matter transmitter. Others say that they are members of a subsurface human culture, while others say they they were lost children whos green coloring was the result of malnourishment. It's even been put forward that both stories are actually the retelling of one story.

Arsenic has been put forward by some as the reason for the children’s’ green skin, and the possibility that they were real-life 12th century ‘babes in the wood’ which inspired the folktale cannot entirely be discounted.


Paul Harris' Theory

The most widely accepted explanation at present was put forward by Paul Harris in Fortean Studies 4 (1998). First of all the date for the incident is moved forward to 1173, into the reign of King Stephen’s successor Henry II. There had been a continued immigration of Flemish (north Belgian) weavers and merchants into England from the 11th century onwards, and Harris states that after Henry II became king these immigrants were persecuted, culminating in a battle at Fornham in Suffolk in 1173, where thousands were slaughtered. He theorizes that the children had probably lived in or near to the village of Fornham St. Martin, hence the St. Martin references in their story. This village, a few miles from Woolpit, is separated from it by the River Lark, probably the ‘very considerable river’ mentioned by the girl in account.

After their parents had been killed in the conflict, the two Flemish children had escaped into the dense, dark woodland of Thetford Forest. Harris proposes that if the children remained there in hiding for a time without enough food, they could have developed chlorosis due to malnutrition – hence the greenish tinge to the skin. He believes that they later followed the sound of the church bells of Bury St. Edmunds, and wandered into one of the many underground mine passages which were part of Grimes Graves, flint mines dating back over 4000 years to the Neolithic period.

By following mine passageways the children eventually emerged at Woolpit, and here in their undernourished state, with their strange clothes, and speaking the Flemish language, they would have seemed alien to villagers who had not had any contact with Flemish people.

Harris’s ingenious hypothesis certainly suggests plausible answers to many of the riddles of the Woolpit mystery. But the theory of displaced Flemish orphans accounting for the Green Children does not stand up in many respects.

When Henry II came to power and decided to expel the Flemish mercenaries previously employed by King Stephen from the country, Flemish weavers and merchants who had lived in the country for generations would have been largely unaffected. In the civil war battle of Fornham in 1176, it was Flemish mercenaries, employed to fight against the armies of King Henry II, who were slaughtered, along with the rebel knights they had been fighting alongside.

These mercenaries would hardly have brought their families with them. After their defeat, the remaining Flemish soldiers scattered throughout the countryside, and many were attacked and killed by the local people. Surely a landowner like Richard de Calne, or one of his household or visitors, would have been educated enough to recognise that the language the children spoke was Flemish. After all it must have been fairly widespread in eastern England at that time.

Harris’s theory of the children hiding out in Thetford forest, hearing the bells of Bury St. Edmunds and thus being led through underground passages to Woolpit also has problems of geography. First of all, Bury St. Edmunds is 40km from Thetford forest; the children could not have heard church bells over such a distance. In addition, the flint mines are confined to the area of Thetford forest, there are no underground passages leading to Woolpit, and if there were, it is almost 50km from the forest to Woolpit, surely too far to walk for two starving children. Even if the Green Children originated from Fornham St. Martin, it is still a 16km walk to Woolpit, and as to the ‘considerable river’ mentioned by the girl – the River Lark is far too narrow to qualify for this.

The Green Children and Folklore

There are many aspects of the Woolpit tale which are found in English folk beliefs, and some see the Green Children as personifications of nature, related to the Green Man or Jack-in-the-Green of English folklore, and even the weird Green Knight of Arthurian myth. Perhaps the children are related to the elves and fairies which until a century or two ago, were believed in without question by many country folk. If the Green Children story is a fairytale, then it has the unusual twist of the girl never returning to her otherworldly home, but remaining married and living as a mortal.

Perhaps Ralph of Coggeshall’s slightly enigmatic comment that the girl was ‘rather loose and wanton in her conduct’ is a suggestion that she had retained some of her fairy wildness. The colour green has always been associated with the otherworld and the supernatural. The children’s fondness for green beans does suggest another link with the otherworld, as beans were said to be the food of the dead. In Roman religion, the Lemuria, was an annual festival in which people used offerings of beans to exorcise the evil ghosts of the dead (the Lemures) from their homes. In ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, as well as in Medieval England, beans were believed to contain the souls of the dead.

Though the Woolpit story is included in two 12th century sources, it must be born in mind that the chronicles of the time, though describing political and religious events, also listed many signs, wonders and miracles that would not be accepted today, but were widely believed at the time, even by educated men and women. Perhaps then, the strange apparition of the Green Children was a symbol of disturbed and changing times intermingled with local mythology and folk beliefs of fairies and the afterlife. Whatever the truth of the matter, unless descendents of ‘Agnes Barre’ can be traced, as some have suggested, or further contemporary documentary evidence unearthed, the story of the Green Children will remain one of England’s most puzzling mysteries. - Hidden History

-Brian Haughton - 2007 - Hidden History
-William of Newburgh (1136-1198) - Historia rerum Anglicarum (History of English Affairs)
-Ralph of Coggeshall (died c 1228) - Chronicon Anglicanum
-Robert Burton - 1621 - The Anatomy of Melancholy
-Thomas Keightley - 1828 - The Fairy Mythology
-John Macklin - 1965 - Strange Destinies
-Paul Harris - 1998 - Fortean Studies 4