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Picture a quaint little English village in the Middle Ages. It’s the 12th century, and you’re in the charmingly named Woolpit. Woolpit is located in Suffolk, and it still exists. Just over 2,000 people live there today.

In the 12th century, a group of harvesters stumbled upon a most extraordinary pair of children. The boy and girl were dressed in unusual clothing, the likes of which the villagers had never seen. Neither child spoke a word of English, but conversed in their own strange language. But that wasn’t the weirdest thing about these kids.

Their skin was a vivid green.

Although they appeared to be starving, the children refused all food until they were offered raw beans, which they ate voraciously.

Sir Richard de Calne of Wyke took the children in and had them baptized. Soon after, the little boy grew sick and died, but the girl remained healthy. Eventually, she was encouraged to eat a regular diet, and the green hue vanished from her skin. As she learned English, she told a most unusual tale.

She explained that the children came from a land where the sun never shone and the light was like twilight. They called their home St. Martin’s Land. They had been herding their father’s cattle when they heard a loud noise coming from a cave. Deciding to investigate the sound, they entered the cave and suddenly found themselves in Woolpit.

The girl was given the name Agnes. As an adult, Agnes had an illustrious career as a reportedly “wanton and impudent” servant, which, judging by the time, probably means she flashed a bit of ankle.

The story of the green children of Woolpit is detailed in two historical accounts–one by Ralph of Coggeshall (died c. 1226) and the other by William of Newburgh (c. 1136–1198). Although the two writers emphasized different details, their reports are very much the same.

There is a possible scientific explanation for the children’s green skin–hypochromic anemia, or “green sickness.” Hypochromic anemia can be caused by a vitamin-B6 deficiency, diminished iron absorption, or excessive iron loss. It can also be caused by infections and lead poisoning.

So that theory covers the green skin, but the girl’s story of their incredible origins? That one is anyone’s guess.

Have you ever heard of the green children of Woolpit? What do you think–were they from another land or just gifted storytellers? (Who wore weird clothes, spoke in another language, and had green skin.)

For more unsolved mysteries and spooky stories, please sign up for my blog posts. Once the A to Z Challenge is over, I’ll return to posting on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

PS: If you liked this post, you’ll enjoy reading about The Black-Eyed Kids. Or The Creepiest Children in Film.

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38 Comments

  1. Tarkabarka

    I think I read about them in a British folktale collection, and I still think it’s a fascinating story. We have a similar one in Hungary from the 18th century where a boy way caught in a fishing net – he was practically amphibian, and felt at home in the water. I always wonder what the story is behind these “wild children”

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    Multicolored Diary – Epics from A to Z
    MopDog – 26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary

    Reply
    • JH

      Ooh, that’s a really disturbing one, Tarkabarka. Hadn’t heard of that–I’ll have to look into it. Thanks for letting me know!

      They’re definitely weird accounts. Sorry to say I don’t have much of an explanation for them.

      Reply
  2. Stephanie Faris

    Interesting and spooky story! I think she probably had a very vivid imagination…or something in the story changed in retelling. But I wonder if they were like the kids in Flowers in the Attic? Kept in a cave in the dark for many years?

    Reply
    • JH

      Ooh, that would be creepy, Stephanie! A very sinister explanation.

      One of the documents I read said the green skin could have come from arsenic poisoning, but I couldn’t find another source that linked green skin with arsenic, so I didn’t mention it.

      Reply
  3. Madeline Mora-Summonte

    How did the cattle graze/what did they eat if they lived in a land with no sun? And were these children terrified, sad, missing their family and friends? Did anyone go investigate the area where the children were found, like look for a cave or a hole in the earth, etc?

    I like Stephanie’s idea that maybe these kids were kept locked away. Maybe they managed to escape their captors/family and the girl told the story about the cattle to make their life seem more “normal’?

    Okay, okay, I’ll stop now. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      No, that’s cool, Madeline. I love theories and questions. If we are to believe the girl’s story, I would suggest that her “cattle” were probably very different than ours. However, one of the accounts of the tale said that everything in her land was very green.

      I couldn’t find a single mention of anyone trying to find the children’s home again, but human nature being what it is, I’m sure people tried. As for them being homesick, I’m guessing they were. The little boy never thrived, and died soon after being found, and the girl wouldn’t eat properly for some time.

      Reply
  4. Tui Snider @TuiSnider

    Ooh – another strange goody from you!

    Maybe the kids were kept in some sort of hidden dungeon that to their young minds seemed like an entire world?

    Very strange, indeed!

    Btw, have you ever heard of the blue people of Kentucky?

    Reply
    • JH

      Could be–dungeons seem to be the popular theory. 🙂 I had heard of the blue people of Kentucky, but it was a long time ago. I’ll have to check into it again.

      Thanks for commenting, Tui!

      Reply
  5. Paul

    That is definitely one for the strange file. If I hadn’t had my daily allowance of Coffee I might have put the kids down to being Aliens who were trying to invade the planet.

    As you mentioned, There is almost a scientific basis for everything that occurred, but not quite everything, so it leaves a lingering twist in your mind at the end of the tale.

    Another great post.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Paul. To this day, some people believe they were aliens. Others think they were fairy folk.

      It’s intriguing that the girl grew up to be a relatively normal woman, from all reports, in spite of her wanton ways.

      Reply
  6. Samantha Bryant

    Interesting! A different sort of Hansel and Gretel tale.

    Reply
    • JH

      Funny you mention that, Samantha. Some fairytales were inspired by this old story.

      Reply
  7. Ev Bishop

    Very cool and mysterious all the more interesting to me because, as you point out, they didn’t both just disappear eventually. . . .

    I haven’t been commenting a lot because of time constraints, but I’m finding your A-Z tales very fun (if “fun” can be used for some of them, heh heh. “Interesting” or “riveting” is more accurate). 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      Welcome back, Ev! Yes, if I’d been around there back then, I would have grilled Agnes when she was an adult, but there’s no suggestion that anyone questioned her further.

      No worries about the commenting. I love comments, but I totally understand that life gets busy. It means a lot to me that you take the time to read my posts, so thank you!

      Reply
  8. Bonnie

    I love stories like this. The potential for interpretations! Villages were a lot more isolated in those days and any foreign travellers (gypsies, nomads, evacuating far flung villagers) would have different clothing, customs, diet, and language. Travelling at night and sleeping during the day could account for not seeing the sun. So could living in a dense forest or a cave system underground.

    I tend to imagine more sinister scenarios. The children were part of a cult and were left behind in the cave in a trance to die of a slow poison.

    So much fun. Of course it could be dimensional travel, but that’s not my first thought.

    Reply
    • JH

      You’re right, Bonnie–there’s many ways this story could have played out. That’s what I love about these things. As much as I’m a journalist, I don’t always try to come up with an answer, because I like a little mystery in the world.

      If nothing else, there’s enough weird stuff that really happened in the world to inspire thousands of great fiction stories!

      Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Patricia!

      Reply
  9. Chrys Fey

    Cool tale. At first when you said they had green skin, the first thing I thought was ALIENS! lol

    Reply
    • JH

      That is a popular theory, Chrys. You’re certainly not alone in thinking that. 🙂

      Reply
  10. Mary Aalgaard

    That is mysterious. They must have had to fend for themselves for quite some time, maybe since they were small. In which case, they probably formed their own language with each other, similar to what twins do.
    Play off the Page

    Reply
    • JH

      That could be, Mary, but it goes against the girl’s story of being with her father’s cattle one minute, and in another world the next. But they could have made up their own language in any case.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  11. Alex J. Cavanaugh

    I have heard of them before. That is a really mysterious story. The green can be explained, but their origins are another matter.

    Reply
    • JH

      Or can it? Try as I might, I couldn’t find a single picture of someone with legitimately green skin. And if it’s a Vitamin B6 deficiency that typically causes it, you’d think we’d hear about cases from poorer countries where people are starving.

      Or even more cases from the Middle Ages.

      Reply
  12. C. Lee McKenzie

    Fascinating story. I’d never heard this one, but I have heard similar ones. What I enjoyed about this is there is a medical explanation, but still enough mystery to make it compelling fodder for the writer of dark tales.

    The name Coggeshall intrigues me, too. I found a grave in Boston’s old cemetery with that name and have wanted to use it in story ever since. I’m holding on to it for just the right character.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks for commenting! Coggeshall is a great name.

      I love the mystery aspect of this one too. It intrigues me. I don’t like everything in life to be perfectly explained.

      Reply
  13. Frank

    My first thought about the skin color was diet. The cave, well, I have no clue.

    Reply
    • JH

      Spooky, isn’t it?

      Reply
    • Catherine Mcgregor

      I currently live in woolpit. I have done for 15 years. I have always been interested in mysterious things, but I honestly think there is a reasonable explanation for this one. The story above here is is a great, detailed overview of the tale, but there is more to it than this. They did search the caves, which are no where to be found now. It was just a cave. The children would only eat green beans, which gave the green hue. I believe, the green beans were the only food the recognised, because I think the did come from the land of twilight, Iceland, Finland, Norway etc. Explains the unusual language. Not something people from Suffolk would have heard at that time. Possibly travelling with parents and separated or orphaned. Wandering until they were found here. British food would be very foreign to them and we all know how fussy kids can be with food. Hence majority green beans! There is obviously a bit of embellishment that goes with the retelling of every story, and whether this one has a terrestrial or extra terrestrial origin, it’s a cool story!

      Reply
      • JH

        Thanks for your post, Catherine. Sorry it took me so long to respond. This is really interesting and it certainly sounds logical, but can a diet of green beans actually turn the skin that color? First I’ve heard about this.

        Reply
  14. Caris

    Now I want to go to Woolpit and search for a portal 😉 This is an intriguing one. I’m enjoying your A-Z posts!

    Reply
    • JH

      Well, even if you don’t find a portal, you’ll find wolf dens–that’s what woolpit means. And how cool would that be?

      Thanks so much for reading, Caris! I appreciate the kind words.

      Reply
    • Catherine Mcgregor

      I’ve looked!! No luck!! 😃

      Reply
      • JH

        Don’t give up. 😉 The truth is, as they say, out there.

        Reply
  15. Djinnia

    I had not heard of this before. What a intriguing story!

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Djinnia! I’m glad you liked it.

      We seem to find the same things interesting. 🙂

      Reply
  16. Heather M. Gardner

    Why is it that kids are so much creepier than adults?

    The green doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the cave/wardrobe part of the story. 🙂

    Heather M. Gardner
    Co-host: Blogging from A to Z April Challenge
    Blog: The Waiting is the Hardest Part [http://hmgardner.blogspot.com/]

    Reply
    • JH

      I think because we expect them to be innocent, but most are far from it.

      Yeah, if the artist’s rendering of them is accurate, it looks like they were wearing jumpsuits or full leotards, which would have been unusual for that time. But I’m not sure if that’s a genuine depiction or not.

      Reply

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