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William of Newburgh (1136-1198) is considered to be one of the more reliable early English historians. certainly not a man given to flights of fancy but one who worked from reliable sources.  He even once went as far as to criticise Geoffrey of Monmouth for his fanciful Hisotria Regnum Britanniae.  Therefore, when William wrote of one of the most perplexing stories in English history, we really have little reason not to believe him.

In a chronicle William of Newburgh wrote about the reign of King Stephen (King of England 1135-1154) of a fantastical tale of two children with green skin being discovered in the village of Woolpit in Surrey.  William wrote;

Nor does it seem right to pass over an unheard of prodigy, which, as is well known, took place in England during the reign of King Stephen.  Though it is asserted by many.  Yet I have long been in doubt concerning the matter, and deemed it ridiculous to give credit to a circumstance reported on no rational foundation, or at least one of a very mysterious character; yet at length I was so overwhlemed by the weight of so many and such competent witnesses, that I have been compelled to believe, and wonder over a matter which I was unable to comprehend, or unravel by any powers of intellect.

In East Anglia there is a village, distant, as it is said, four or five miles from the noble monastery of the blessed king and martyr, Edmund; near this place are seen some very ancient cavities called “Wolfpittes”, that is in English, “Pits for wolves”, and which gave their name to the adjacent village (Wulpet).  During harvest, while the reapers were employed in gathering 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 their excavations.

These two poor children were apparently terrified and crying.  They attempted to run away but were caught by the villagers.  They apparently did not understand the villagers nor could make themselves understood.  The villagers took them to the home of their feudal lord, Sir Richard de Calne, who took them under his protection.  It is here that another chronicler, Abbot Ralph of Coggeshall takes up the narrative;

No-one could understand their speech.  When they were brought as curiosities to the house of a certain knight, Sir Richard de Calne, at Wikes, they wept bitterly.  Bread and victuals were set before them but they would touch none of them, though they were tormented by great hunger, as the girl afterwards acknowledged.  At length, when some beans just cut, with their stalks, were brought into the house, they made signs, with great avidity, that they should be given to them.  When they were brought, they opened the stalks instead of the pods, thinking the beans were in the hollow of them; but not finding them there, they began to weep anew.  When those who were present saw this, they opened the pods and showed them the naked beans.  They fed on these with delight, and for a long time tasted no other food.

Sir Richard de Calne, who seems to have been a kindly chap for his time, kept the children in his home.  But sadly, the little boy sickened and died.  The girl however thrived, grew stronger and eventually lost her green hue, apparently as she ate a diet more normal to the times.  She also learned to speak English, was baptised into the Christian faith and as she grew older, worked as a servant for Sir Richard for some years before she married a man from King’s Lynn, Norfolk.

Of course, once the girl could speak, there were those demanding answers to questions, such as where did she and the boy come from and how did they come to be in Woolpit?  Unfortunately this is where stories begin to differ as the girl apparently recounted her experience to many people.  However, the basis of the story was that the boy was her brother and that they had come from an entirely green world, inhabited by green-skinned people and lit by a dim, watery green sun.  She went on that one day she and her brother entered a cave they had not seen before and were lured by the sound of bells, which brought them out into the fields near Woolpit.  Ralph of Coggeshall takes up the narrative

Being asked how she came into this country with the aforesaid boy, she replied that, as they were following their flocks, they came to a certain cavern, on entering which they heard a delightful sound of bells; ravished in whose sweetness, they were for a long time wandering on through the cavern, until they came to it’s mouth.  When they came out of it, they were struk senseless by the excessive light of the sun, and he unusual temperature fo the air; and they thus lay for a long time.  Being terrified at the noise of those who come on them, they wished to fly but they could not find the entrance to the cavern before they were caught.

William of Newburgh’s account is similar.  However for once he seems to have wandered into fantasy, which as a medieval man of God, I think we can forgive him for, when he claimed that the land the children came from was called St Martin’s Land, all the people there were Christians and there were a great many churches.

Needless to say, there have been a great many theories down the ages concerning the narratives of Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newburgh concerning the children.  Twelfth century rural England certainly would still have retained a lot of archaic pagan folklore belief and there can be no doubt some of the villagers saw the children as elves or other such fairy folk.  It is also worth remembering that the Green Man is the oldest known folklore figure in the history of mankind, so there would be others who would have seen them as the children of such forest creatures.

Some have suggested that a dietary condition, possibly anaemia, may have been the cause of their green hue, and this would certainly have accounted for the girl losing her hue as she ate a more wholesome diet, and may explain the boy dying as well.  Others point out that this does not account for the girl’s account of how she and her brother came to be in Woolpit.

Firstly, no matter how reliable, medieval writers still tended to be somewhat fanciful.  I am not immediately pouring scorn on the possibility of the children actually existing.  It is so well documented that I don’t think there can be any doubt they actually existed.  Yet look at the account of William of Newburgh claims about the Christian St Martin’s Land, which are clearly fictional.  Anything else apart, we are told the girl was baptised into the Christian church.  If she came from a land where all were Christians there would have been no need of this.  There are also several different versions of the girl’s account, which tells us alone that if real, it has become convoluted through time and each retelling.  Do not forget that in the 12th century writers such as William of Newburgh and Ralph of Coggeshall were rare indeed in a land where most people, from pauper to gentry, were illiterate, and the vast majority of tales were told in the oral tradition.

More fanciful stories have claimed that perhaps because the children were Elfin, or even aliens as some would have it, is why their language could not be understood.  Although, some other claim that they may have been Flemish and their parents killed in one of many Skirmishes between English and Flemish settlers at the time.  However, if this were so, then why did the girl make no mention of her parents, or of any such skirmish for that matter.

My own view is that the children did indeed exist, and I believe were possibly orphaned.  Left to fend for themselves, they soon took to eating what they could find and this poor diet accounted for their green hue and the subsequent death of the boy.  The matter of them not being understood is quite easily explained without even looking in the direction Belgium, the woods or Zeta Reticuli for that matter.  English as we know it has only been with us since the 16th-17th century when the works of Shakespeare and the Wycliffe English Bible (and later the King James Version) brought the first standardisation of the language.  Before then local areas spoke local dialects, so much so that even the inhabitant from one village may not understand someone from another village.  And let us not forget, this was only around 100 years after the Norman Conquest, when the Anglo-Norman tongue was still evolving, assimilating and overtaking the old Anglo-Saxon tongue.  Think that fanciful?  Even today if you were to put someone speaking Buchan Doric in the same room as someone from Devon or Cornwall, they would have a hard time understanding each other.

Theories abound, with many people claiming they have the definitive answer.  I claim no such thing.  I merely expound my hypothesis of what I believe the most likely explanation for an enigma which is not going away any time soon.


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