Written and presented by Beth Abdallah, Fellow of Odd Salon. Beth is a nationally-certified American Sign Language interpreter, voice actor, and multi disciplinary nerd and artist with a special interest in all things creepy and mysterious. You can hear her in the Twelve Chimes It’s Midnight and Knifepoint Horror podcasts.
“They wore clothing made of an unrecognizable material, and the style was very strange, but the strangest part of all was everything was in shades of green: their clothing, their hair, even their skin, all green as spring leaves. ”
In this episode, Odd Salon Fellow Beth Abdallah sorts fact from fiction in the mysterious tale of two green skinned children who appeared one day on the outskirts of a small village in England.
This remarkable story of two mysterious children has captivated people across the world for a thousand years. With roots in history and a tradition in folklore and fairy tale, it’s the tale of two unusual children who were discovered in the English countryside near the village of Woolpit. They wore strange clothes and spoke in a strange tongue, but oddest of all: they were green.
On a warm autumn day, sometime between the late 12th and the early part of the 13th century, a young girl and her little brother were discovered in a field. They spoke a language no one understood. They wore clothing of material and style that no one had ever seen. And strangest of all: they were green.
Hi, I’m Beth Abdallah, and I’m going to share with you an absolute gem of a story. If we had a Venn diagram of history, religion, folklore, fairytale, mythology, and alien conspiracy theory, this story would be smack dab in the middle, connecting them all. And it all begins in the idyllic English countryside.
It was some time between the reign of King Stephen and the reign of King Henry II in the county of Suffolk in the village of Woolpit on England’s Eastern coast. Once upon a time wolves roamed these rolling hills and dense forests, but it said that the very last wolf was trapped right here almost 200 years prior in one of the wolf pits for which the town of Woolpit was named. These were deep holes dug all around the perimeter to protect villagers from ravenous beasts, but on a late summer afternoon, one of the pits caught something very different: a pair of children… and not just any children, these children were green.
From inside the pit, the little girl and her even smaller brother could hear nearby voices, but couldn’t understand what the people were saying. Cautiously, they climbed out of the ditch, and as they stood there trying to get their bearings, they were spotted by harvesters working in the nearby fields, and as soon as they knew they’d been spotted the children ran. But they were quickly overtaken and surrounded by people who towered over them and gaped in wonder.
Now let me pause for a moment to give you just a little bit of background information on the people of Woolpit. Despite being a small medieval village, the people were quite familiar with travelers from other parts of England and beyond its shores. Not only was Woolpit a thriving hub of agriculture, it was very close to a large market in the nearby town of Bury St. Edmunds, and being coastal it was on a major international trade route. There had been a large influx of Flemish immigrants to the area over the course of the 12th century. So the villagers were fairly accustomed to seeing many people from many places, but they’d never seen children like these before.
They wore clothing made of an unrecognizable material, and the style was very strange, but the strangest part of all was everything was in shades of green: their clothing, their hair, even their skin, all green as spring leaves. So the good people of Woolpit did what any 12th century folks who found a pair of green waifs in their field might do: they tied them up and paraded them around the village square for curious people to gawk at. And after several days of this, someone suggested the children be taken to the most highly respected man in the area, a knight and landowner by the name of Sir Richard de Calne. So they walked these two exhausted, terrified children eight miles to de Calne’s manor in the town of Wykes where, fortunately, Sir Richard and his wife were very kind and welcomed the children with open arms. But the children continued to cry and refused all food for several more days. They were offered everything Sir Richard’s wife could think of from bread and milk to mutton, but they refused everything. And then one day someone came in with an arm of freshly harvested beans and the kids went bonkers. They clamored and tore at the stalks, but were absolutely despondent when they found nothing inside. It wasn’t until someone showed them how to find the beans in the pods, that they were happily able to gorge themselves on the raw broad beans, and would eat nothing else for quite some time. But eventually they did start to eat other foods and as they did so, the green hue of their skin faded. Sir Richard and his wife decided to have the pair baptized, and sadly, soon thereafter, the little boy who was younger and always seemed sickly and frail died.
Despite the loss of her brother, the girl continued to thrive in the de Calne home. She learned to speak English and was at last able to tell her benefactors how she and her brother found themselves in the wolf pit that day. They said they were from a place called St. Martin’s Land, a Christian country, where that particular saint was held in the highest esteem. Their fields were lush and green as were all of their people. It was a place where the sun never fully rose nor set, but hung in cool perpetual twilight, and across a wide shimmering river they could see another more brightly lit land. Their father was a shepherd, and one day as they were tending his flocks, they heard what sounded like music coming from a nearby cave. She likened the sound to the church bells of nearby Bury St. Edmunds that she’d become accustomed to hearing since arriving at Sir Richards. They followed the chimes into the cave, and once inside they became completely disoriented. They stumbled in the darkness with the sounds booming and echoing off the walls. Everything seemed to spin, and when they finally made their way back out, they were no longer in their father’s misty green field. They were in the pit with the unusually hot sun blinding them. She said they wanted to escape, but they couldn’t find the entrance to the cave again before they were captured by the villagers.
She also told Sir Richard that upon arriving at his manor, she and her brother were absolutely starving. They hadn’t eaten in days because they were terrified that everything offered to them was poison beans were the only food they recognized.
The green girl remained at Sir Richards as a servant for many years. However, as a teenager, she proved herself to be quite the little rebel and was described as “wanton and impudent.” Still Sir Richard arranged a suitable match for her, and she was married to a man from the nearby town of King’s Lynn. And that’s where this story seems to fade into the obscurity of history.
But wait, is this history? Or is it folklore? Is it a fairytale? Or is it an allegory? And if it is historical, what are the implications? Who were they? Where did they come from? Why were they green? And why are we still talking about them almost 900 years later?
It’s a mystery that has captivated millions and transcended time, countries, cultures, and, as some people insist, even dimensions. But this much we know for sure: the green children of Woolpit entered the ranks of pop culture when their story first appeared in a 19th century English book of fairy tales. But they’d been written about a number of times prior to that.
I’m going to focus first on the known primary sources of this story: two monastic historians, Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newburgh, both of whom documented the tale in Latin in two of the most valuable compendiums of medieval English history ever written, stating it happened during their living memory sometime between the mid 12th and the early part of the 13th century during the reign of King Stephen or the early days of Henry II. There are some differences in their telling, but they’re certainly the same story. Ralph was the sixth and most eminent abbot of the Cistercian abbey in Coggeshall, which is less than 30 miles from Woolpit. His books are Chronicle of the Holy Land, which tells of his time with the crusades, and Chronicle of English Affairs, or in Latin, Chronicon Anglicanum, which documents medieval English historical events.
These works make him not only a highly respected primary source, but he stated that he received the story of the green children directly from Sir Richard himself, who he claimed to know personally, along with other members of the de Calne household.
William was canon of the Augustinian priory of Newbourg, approximately 200 miles north of Woolpit. His version of the tale appears in his book, Historia rerum Anglicarum, another highly respected compendium of medieval English history. William was also an historical documentarian who entered the priory as a young boy and never left. From within its walls he collected stories from travelers who passed through. He remarked the story seemed highly improbable, but he’d heard it so many times from so many reputable people that he felt compelled to believe and document it.
William’s Historia was written before Ralph’s Chronicon. However, the dates indicate that Ralph knew of the story long before he took the time to document it. Or perhaps his book was actually a second edition of a previous work.
It’s of course intriguing that this story was documented by two such learned and esteemed men, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention their wonder tales. Both Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newburgh in their historical manuscripts share stories of kings and queens, and with equal veracity, stories of monsters, ghosts, revenants, sea creatures, witches… you get the idea. This was a time when superstition and the belief in ancient folklore was still very much a part of the local zeitgeist.
Back in the 12th and 13th centuries, they didn’t laugh at the idea of a shaggy wild man being dragged against his will out of the sea or encounters with the walking dead. It was newsworthy and interesting. It was not considered ridiculous. So both Ralph and William included such tales in their tomes.
And although the story first appears in written form in Latin, in the 12th century, some believe it was actually passed down through oral storytelling tradition for hundreds of years before that, which adds another delicious layer to this mystery. Over the centuries there’s been much speculation regarding why the children were green and where they actually came from. In 1850, Thomas Keightley included an English translation of Ralph Coggeshall’s account of the green children in his book entitled Fairy Mythology. It’s offered without notation or analysis. It’s simply Ralph’s Latin translated into English. So because the children made their first popular appearance in a book of fairy stories, many people believe it’s just that: a fanciful tale of little inhuman beings lost in the human realm and unable to find their way.
The children certainly check many of the necessary boxes to be considered fairy kind, including the girl’s mischievous personality and the children’s fear of human food. It’s a common trope in many stories of other worldly creatures, not only fairies, but also mermaids. It said that if they consume the food of humankind, they must relinquish their magic and never return home.
In fact, many point to the boy’s death as proof that he just wasn’t strong enough to make the transition from fairy to human. Other authors have described the children as “satyrs”, meaning little non-human mischievous creatures or “visitors from the antipodes”, which is the literal opposite side of the earth. And my personal favorite “naughty moon children” swapped out for better behaved human kids. However, there are of course, much more mundane possible explanations. The most common being, they were simply Flemish orphans green from malnutrition or possible poisoning. In his 1998 publication in Fortean Studies, researcher Paul Harris offered his own theory: that the children came from the village of Fornham St Martin, which was home to many Flemish immigrants, and only 11 or 12 miles from Woolpit.
It was also the location of a decades long, deadly English civil war that is rarely discussed. Historian and author Theresa Cole in her book, The Anarchy, the Darkest Days of Medieval England goes into great historical detail of how the arc of events unfolded that the English commonly referred to as “The Anarchy” or “The Cousins War”. The essence of it being that King Stephen and his cousin, Empress Matilda, AKA Queen Maude, were locked in a series of battles for the throne that included Stephen’s kidnapping and ultimate release upon Maude’s defeat. Many of Maude’s soldiers were Flemish mercenaries. Fornham St Martin and the surrounding area were the battleground.
Mercenaries aren’t typically known to travel with wives and children in tow, but some men out of desperation may have answered Maude’s call to arms in order to support their families. The Anarchy lasted 19 long years. Then, when Henry II took the throne because of their support of Maude, he banished the Flemings from the area and he ordered many of them killed. Perhaps the children’s parents were among the dead. It would explain the girl’s claim that they were from St. Martin’s Land. And it’s plausible that she had just been too young when discovered to have accurate memories or knowledge of where she actually came from. If this was the case, as a result of wandering the forest and foraging for food, the kids may have had chlorosis, which today we know is a form of anemia due to malnutrition that could lead to jaundice, which may have appeared green in hue.
Others have suggested that the children were suffering from favism, a medical condition triggered by an allergic reaction to the consumption of beans. Broad beans or fava beans as we call them were one of the most widely available food staples throughout Europe at the time, this could explain not only their strange coloring, but the boys premature death.
Now, this all sounds very well and good and logical, but there are several holes in these theories. First as previously mentioned, there is no reason to believe the people of Woolpit wouldn’t have recognized Flemish children, their language, or their clothing. And even if they didn’t, Sir Richard certainly would have. It has been suggested that despite having fought against Flemish mercenaries, perhaps Sir Richard took pity on these helpless orphans and kept their Flemish identity secret for their own safety, considering the animosity toward Flemings at the time. Also, if the children had been foraging and surviving on beans, why did they not know to look in the pods instead of the stalk? Surely if they’d been eating nothing but beans they’d know how to find them. The plot thickens.
The story of the green children has inspired countless other works of academic and amateur investigative writing, fiction, poetry, music, theater, art… the list goes on and on.
And then there was a story that came out in the 1970s. It was said to have taken place in the 19th century, in an imaginary town called Banjo, Spain. There, two mysterious green children were discovered and taken in by a wealthy man by the name of – wait for it: Ricardo de Calno. Sound familiar? Well, despite this blatant rebranding of the original, that story inspired a song by American alternative rock band 10,000 Maniacs, simply entitled “Green Children”, as well as a children’s opera.
And it continues to inspire to this day. I emailed John Clark and asked what his personal opinion of the green children is. Mr. Clark has done extensive research and produced a great deal of academic writing in regard to the green children. Who is John Clark? You may ask? Oh, he’s just the curator emeritus in archeological collections at the Museum of London. So yeah, he’s kind of a big deal. He said he believes the children existed. But he finds the Flemish orphan explanation unsatisfactory for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. He left the question of who they really were hanging tantalizingly in the air for me to decide. And when I’ve been asked my opinion about who they were, my response is always the same: I don’t want to know. I think the mystery is what makes the story magical and has kept it alive for almost a millennium. Exceptionally quotable physicist Richard Feynman famously said, “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing, than to have answers, which might be wrong.”
Today, the village of Woolpit is the quaint home of approximately 2000 people, and the metal sign welcoming you to the village depicts a wolf and a pair of small children, honoring their remarkable visitors from long ago.
If you go to Woolpit, you can visit their charming museum housed on the upper floor of a small Tudor style building. It’s curated by a local woman by the name of Elizabeth with whom I had the great pleasure to correspond when I first did research on this story about five years ago. She was delightfully eager to discuss the children and sent me a treasure trove of memorabilia, including a beautiful catalog of local artwork that shows the children in paintings and a gorgeous quilt along with other ephemera that I absolutely cherish.
Whoever they were, the green children of Woolpit remain one of history’s most baffling and endearing mysteries. And now you have become part of that mystery. By listening to this podcast, you’ve tapped into the universal tradition of oral storytelling. I hope it inspires you to read further and to share this tale with others.
Keep the children and the sacred tradition of storytelling alive. And with that, I’d like you to raise a glass. If you have one handy for a closing toast to the historians and to the dreamers, to the readers of fairy stories and the tellers of folk tales and to those who dare to listen, may we never lose our sense of wonder.
CREDITS: This episode was written and performed by Beth Abdallah, and recorded by Mig Miner in Oakland, California. The Odd Salon Podcast is produced by Annetta Black and Tre Balchowsky.
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