The green children of Woolpit
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.