The Head-Scratching Mystery Behind The Green Children of Woolpit

In at least two historical accounts, children with green skin appeared in the English village of Woolpit in the 12th century. But to this day, this strange tale continues to leave historians baffled.

By: John KuroskiAll That Interesting

On an otherwise normal day around 1150, residents of the English village of Woolpit made a startling discovery on the edge of town — two small children with green skin. Not only did the children look strange, but they also spoke a strange language and seemed perfectly repulsed by most food.

Taken in by the villagers, the odd pair eventually lost the green tone in their skin and learned to speak English. They claimed that they’d come from a distant land called St. Martin where people rarely encountered sunlight.

In the years since, the Green Children of Woolpit have become a baffling historical mystery. If they truly existed, what turned their skin green? What was the land of St. Martin? And could the explanation be extraterrestrial?

The Green Children of Woolpit Make Their First Appearance

The story of the Green Children of Woolpit was recounted by two different chroniclers: the 13th century historian William of Newburgh and the 12th century abbot Ralph of Coggeshall. But Newburgh and Coggeshall both tell a similar story of how two green children appeared in the village of Woolpit.

As the tale goes, the two children were discovered by villagers around the year 1150. Historic UK reports that they were spotted crawling out of one of the pits meant for catching wolves that gave the village its name. (Woolpit in Old English is wulf-pytt.) Most startling of all, they were green.

“During harvest, while the reapers were employed in gathering in the produce of the fields, two children, a boy and a girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in garments of a strange colour, and unknown materials, emerged from these [wolf pits],” Newburgh recounted in his Historia rerum Anglicarum (History of English Affairs) from 1220.

An example of a wolf pit, this one from Bavaria, Germany.
An example of a wolf pit, this one from Bavaria, Germany. © Georg Waßmuth

Not only were the children green and clad in strange clothing, but they also seemed to speak gibberish. Coggeshall reports that they were taken to the home of Sir Richard de Calne, who lived nearby. But though de Calne offered the green children food, they refused to eat anything.

After a few days of this, the Green Children of Woolpit discovered some green beans growing in de Calne’s garden and eagerly gobbled them up. Before long, they reportedly took to eating the food the villagers offered them as well, and began to lose the green tinge of their skin.

Though the little boy grew sick and died, the girl seemed to flourish under the villagers’ care. Before long, she mastered the English language — and told the people of Woolpit a strange story about their homeland.

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The Legend Behind The Land of St. Martin

The girl, who took on the name Agnes Barre according to Ancient Origins, eventually told the villagers that she and her brother had come from a place called “St. Martin.” But she wasn’t sure how they’d ended up in Woolpit.

“On a certain day, when we were feeding our father’s flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St. Edmund’s, when the bells are chiming,” she said, “and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, as it were, entranced, and found ourselves among you in the fields where you were reaping.”

Ruins of an abbey in Bury St. Edmunds, a small town near Woolpit, whose bells the Green Children of Woolpit recall hearing.
Ruins of an abbey in Bury St. Edmunds, a small town near Woolpit, whose bells the Green Children of Woolpit recall hearing. © Tuli

Upon further questioning, she said that her country was Christian and had churches — but otherwise was quite different from England.

“The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sun-rise, or follows the sunset,” she explained, according to Newburgh. “Moreover, a certain luminous country is seen, not far distant from ours, and divided from it by a very considerable river.”

But no one ever found out where exactly the Green Children of Woolpit came from. As Mental Floss reports, the girl — Agnes — apparently lived a fairly normal life, although some sources state that she became “rather loose and wanton in her conduct” in her later years.

So who were the Green Children of Woolpit? What was the land of St. Martin? And could the explanation be extraterrestrial?

Where Did The Green Children of Woolpit Come From?

Though it’s unclear whether or the Green Children of Woolpit ever truly existed, their story has fascinated people for centuries. Today, there are a few possible explanations for the children’s skin, clothing, and language.

As Mental Floss explains, they may have been poisoned with arsenic and left to die, which could explain their green-toned skin. Another explanation for their green skin could be chlorosis, which results from malnutrition and may explain why their green skin faded away as they adjusted to a better diet.

A sign erected in homage of the Green Children of Woolpit in the village itself.
A sign erected in homage of the Green Children of Woolpit in the village itself. © Rod Bacon

As for their strange language and clothing? Historic UK notes that they may have been children of Flemish immigrants who were killed by King Stephen or King Henry II. Thus, what the villagers in Woolpit took as “gibberish” might actually have been Dutch. And the “twilight” described by the children could have been the leafy darkness of nearby Thetford Forest.

Then again, others have offered some very different explanations.

As Ancient Origins explains, some claim that the children’s green skin, strange clothes, and unintelligible language are a sure sign that they came from outer space. This theory appears to have first been put forward in the 17th century, when Robert Burton wrote in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) that the Green Children of Woolpit “fell from Heaven.”

Though there’s little evidence to back this theory up, it’s certainly true that there’s some overlap between the story of the Green Children of Woolpit and modern descriptions of aliens as “little green men.”

Of course, there are also some who say that the Green Children of Woolpit never existed at all.

To William of Newburgh, who chronicled their story, this is of no matter. In his account of the children, he wrote: “Let everyone say as he pleases, and reason on such matters according to his abilities; I feel no regret at having recorded an event so prodigious and miraculous.”

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