The green chil­dren of Wool­pit

Grocott's Mail - - MOTORING -

In the 12th cen­tury, the world was huge and un­known. No­body in me­dieval Eng­land knew that the Amer­i­cas ex­isted, Africa was a vague mass to the south while Aus­tralia, the Mid­dle East and Asia were myth­i­cal lands. Even Scot­land might as well have been an­other planet. From Wool­pit, a vil­lage in Suf­folk in east­ern Eng­land, even the near­est mar­ket town, Bury St Ed­munds, was more than half a day away on foot. Lon­don was three days away and there was no rea­son to go there. The world was small for the res­i­dents of Wool­pit.

So when two strange chil­dren, a boy and a girl, wan­dered into the vil­lage one day in the late 12th cen­tury, no­body had the slight­est idea who they were. They didn’t look like lo­cals: their skin was green and they wore strange clothes. They spoke no English. In fact, they barely spoke. Nei­ther of them thrived; the boy soon died. But the girl sur­vived, and the story she told has con­fused his­to­ri­ans ever since.

She said that she and her brother had come from St Martin’s Land, which was a lot like Wool­pit ex­cept that ev­ery­one was green. They had been out on their own one day when they were caught in a great com­mo­tion with mist and loud noise. When it cleared, they found them­selves out­side Wool­pit.

There were some im­me­di­ate prob­lems with this story. St Martin’s Land didn’t ring any bells with the vil­lagers of Wool­pit. And how had they ended up on their own? Why were they green-skinned? And why didn’t any­one come look­ing for them?

It’s gen­er­ally agreed that the chil­dren, if they re­ally ex­isted, ar­rived in Wool­pit some­time in the 1170s, dur­ing the reign of King Henry II, who came af­ter King Stephen. Stephen, who was French, ruled be­tween 1135 and 1154, and en­cour­aged Flem­ish French im­mi­gra­tion to Eng­land. In 1154, his ri­val Henry II, also French, suc­ceeded him. Henry II didn’t like the Flem­ings. He also had a com­plex per­sonal life: in 1173 and 1174 he faced Flem­ish mer­ce­nar­ies em­ployed by his es­tranged wife and three of his four sons (all French too). In Oc­to­ber, 1173 Henry II’S English troops sur­prised the rebel sons’ mer­ce­nar­ies just out­side the ham­let of Forn­ham St Martin in Suf­folk. The re­sult­ing clash was named the Bat­tle of Forn­ham.

At the time, Forn­ham St Martin was home to a com­mu­nity of Flem­ish weavers who were hated by the lo­cal English. The bat­tle there in­volved Flem­ish mer­ce­nar­ies, loy­al­ist troops and any­one else who could find a sharp ob­ject in time to join in. It left the vil­lage in ru­ins and most of the Flem­ish dead.

Forn­ham St Martin was half a day’s walk from Wool­pit. If you only have small legs, it’s a lot fur­ther away.

If the Green Chil­dren were Flem­ish, they wouldn’t have spo­ken much English. If they had been liv­ing in poor com­mu­nity or been on their own for a while, they may have de­vel­oped mal­nu­tri­tion, which can cause a con­di­tion called hypochromic anaemia, which turns the skin green.

If they had been caught up in the bat­tle, no won­der they didn’t have a good ex­pla­na­tion for how they got to Wool­pit. And if their par­ents had been killed by sol­diers, no­body would have come look­ing for them.

The Green Girl sur­vived to adult­hood. Her skin even­tu­ally lost its green tint. She got some nor­mal clothes, a job as a ser­vant and, even­tu­ally, a hus­band. But ac­cord­ing to the records, she never re­ally fit did in.

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