The Green Children of Woolpit, Part 1

by Duncan Lunan.

Fig. 1. Children from the Sky, 2012, cover by Sydney Jordan

In The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1651), Part 2 Mem.3, ‘A Digression of the Air’, includes all he knows about astronomy.1  Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo had proved the planets were actual worlds, moving in ellipses, not solid crystal shells, so space travel might be possible – “to take wings and fly up… command the spheres and heavens, and see what is done amongst them.”   And if we can go to them…

“Then  (I say)  the Earth, [Mars, and Venus]  be planets alike, inhabited alike, moved about [the Sun]  alike, and it may be that those two green children which Nubrigensis speaks of in his time, that fell from heaven, came from thence…”  Various writers have picked up that story, but none have seen what Burton recognised:  if the children’s story was true then their homeland could not be on Earth.

Canon William of Newburgh  (Nubrigensis)  wrote his Historia Rerum Anglicarum (History of English Affairs) in 1195-98.  He was sceptical about wonderful events, and he was uneasy about this one, because miracles are supposed to be instructional, but he could draw no religious or moral lesson from it.  Unlike others of the time, it has no roots in folk-tales;  attributing those to ‘wicked angels’, he adds, “However of those green children, who are said to have emerged from the earth, the explanation is so much more obscure, that the frailty of our perception is not adequate to unearth it.”  He’s thought never to have left Yorkshire, yet this time he interviewed so many witnesses, witnesses of such quality that they convinced him – implying that he’d been to the scene, in Suffolk.2

Exact wording is important, even if it reads awkwardly in English.  It’s William’s Book One, Chapter 27, ‘De Viridibus Pueris – concerning the green children’.  During the reign of king Stephen, he says, at an earthwork near Woolpit village in Suffolk, (East Anglia), seven miles east of Bury St. Edmunds, at harvest time, “there emerged two children, a male and a female, green of the entire body and dressed in clothing of extraordinary colour and unknown material.”  They were given no food at first, but even near death they wouldn’t consider any food which was offered.  They were saved eventually by bean plants, which happened to be just the same colour they were;  but even then, they looked first for nourishment in the stalks, “and finding nothing in the hollow of the stalks, they wept bitterly.  Then one of those present held out to them the beans removed from the pods, which at once they accepted and ate up freely.”  After that, they were weaned on to bread and by degrees to a full normal diet:  their green colour faded and they became normal themselves.

Ralph, sixth abbot of Coggeshall monastery in Essex, 25 miles south of Woolpit, tells the same story in his Chronicon Anglicanum, De quodam puero et puella de terra emergentibus – ‘of a certain boy and girl emerging from the earth’.  There’s no copying;  the few words they share seem significant – and Ralph got the story from the family with whom the formerly green girl was living as an adult.  In his version, the children reached Woolpit by wandering through a network of caves.3  From now on I’ll use (WN) to identify William’s text and (RC) for Ralph’s.

“No-one was able to understand their speech.  Therefore taken to the home, at Wikes, of the lord Richard de Calna, a sort of knight, to be wondered at, they wept inconsolably.  Bread and other common foods were offered to them, but they did not wish to be nourished by any food which was brought to them, so for a long time they were tormented by great hunger, because they believed all the food of that place to be inedible, as the girl later admitted…” (RC)

Most writers treat this as a children’s story, making the children runaways from somewhere.   Their colour is often attributed to a condition called ‘chlorosis’, supposedly an iron deficiency which turned people green, particularly young adolescent girls;  but that was actually a catch-all name for nervous conditions of young women in early industrial Europe, including what we now call anorexia nervosa.  It didn’t turn people green, they were ‘green’ only in the sense of being immature and sexually inexperienced, and it’s now included in the category of ‘diseases which never were’.  It’s often suggested that the children were raised on a poor diet, or wandering, eating only berries, after being lost from some primitive underground community.  But there’s nowhere for such a tribe in walking distance:  that part of Suffolk is low-lying, with the water table very near the surface, and Ralph’s caves simply don’t exist.  

It’s also suggested that the Woolpit people couldn’t understand the dialect from even a few villages off.  However, Woolpit wasn’t isolated:  it was a market-town, at a triple junction with the main trading and pilgrim route to Bury St. Edmunds via Ipswich.  The villagers would recognise many dialects and most European languages;  they would know the sound of Latin and Greek from church services, and of Yiddish from the Jewish community in town.   And if the children were from only a few villages off, it’s incredible that even after days of starvation, they would refuse good, normal food.

So Did It Really Happen?

In 1993 I visited Woolpit, to get some local background for an article.   I didn’t expect more, but I was pitchforked into ten years of research which generated a full-length book, of which this and the next article are only a very short summary.  It seems nobody else has done it, because the facts weren’t hard to find, except for the work involved:  there’s no sign of a cover-up, not since the 12th century at any rate.

Woolpit is now just south of the A14 to Ipswich.  The village was given by the Earl of the East Angles to Bury St. Edmunds Abbey between 1005 and 1009.  The last wolves in East Anglia were caught there, and the village sign, for the royal Jubilee in 1977, shows the green children and the wolves.  There’s no record of the pit as such.  But northeast of the church is the Lady’s Well, supposed to have curative powers for eyesight, and there were health pilgrimages to Woolpit for centuries.  The moats leading from it have only recently been restored, which may explain why they’ve not been connected with the green children;  but in their original form they are deep and wide enough to hide their arrival.

Fig. 2. Woolpit village sign, photo by D. Lunan

“The home of lord Richard de Calna, at Wikes” took more finding, but his family held Calne in Wiltshire:  Nigel de Calna was physician to William the Conqueror and chaplain to Henry I;4  his son, also Nigel, was Treasurer to Henry II and later Bishop of Ely.  Richard was a younger son of the second Nigel, nephew of Adam de Calna and brother of Roger, both archdeacons of Norwich, where his uncle was bishop.5  Two brothers stayed in Wiltshire, but Richard followed Adam and Roger to East Anglia.  By 1135 he held land at Knettishall and Wykes, eight miles NNW of Woolpit, and in 1156 he was excused all taxes because of major, undisclosed service to the king.  He died in 1189, leaving Wykes to his heirs, and his granddaughter Sibylla sold it in 1235.6  The hall was demolished in the 18th century, but an old tithe map shows formal gardens;  the farmer there in the 1990s found wooden posts from some old, large building, probably where the children were taken.

Fig. 3. Woolpit and the Lady’s Well (based on Bygones Museum plan)

Given that they came from the ground, didn’t speak English and were green, the children were quite well treated  (though it was quickly learned that they were green all over).  Nevertheless, nobody thought to feed them for days – probably more, given the effects of their fasting.  But why take them NNW to Wykes, instead of west to the Abbey, to which Woolpit belonged?

Between 1160 and 1182 Woolpit was not controlled by Bury St. Edmunds – see below.  In 1160-61 and 1173-74, there was no priest there to take charge of the children, or make the villagers take them to the Abbey.  1161 would put the girl in her late 30s during de Calna’s visits to Coggeshall, and that’s very old for Ralph’s account.  Ralph died in 1228 or 1230, so even if he was then 70, he was born around 1160.  He was a canon at Barnwell in Cambridge, and came to Coggeshall after 1176, probably around 1180.  Since Richard de Calna died about 1189, his visits to Ralph when the girl was an adult must have been in the 1180s, after Stephen’s reign.  She had to be at least ten when she arrived, to conduct herself so well at the trial  (see Part 2), so if she’d arrived in 1173, she would be 26 at de Calna’s death.

‘Lord’ Richard may have been a Knight Templar.  Both the Order’s preceptories in Suffolk were in his area, and the Templar Master in England had a knight in service to him in the village next door, with a sub-tenant at Wykes itself.7  They had a big complex at Cressing Temple, near Coggeshall,8 and Richard may have been a physician to all of them.  de Calna couldn’t have been a full Templar, but there were two associated categories:  frères mariés, married knights, and fratres ad terminum who joined for a time, e.g. a Crusade or pilgrimage.   Either fits Ralph’s description of him as “a sort of knight”, and being a younger son of a prominent family of churchmen, and as there’s no record of him during the civil war in England between king Stephen and Empress Matilda, probably he earned his spurs as a ‘battlefield promotion’, fighting with the Templars in the Holy Land during the Second Crusade.

Fig. 6. Emblems of the Knights Templar, from The temple Church, 1843.

Henry’s chronicler thought the swineherd had been to the other side of the world, but East Anglia fits the description.  The report reached him through a Prior of Kenilworth who took office in 1160.  And that year, Henry annexed Woolpit.  (de Calna’s neighbour, the English Master of the Templars, was with him in France when he did it.)9  A future Abbot went to Rome to get the move reversed, and supposedly was banished twice to the Holy Land for interfering.  But he may have gone no further than Norfolk:  allegedly Henry refused two direct orders from the Pope to give Woolpit back,10 but actually the Pope said he should return it when he had finished with it.  The books say he assigned Woolpit to one of his poor clerks, but first it was Geoffrey Ridell, archdeacon of Canterbury and acting Vice-Chancellor of England, one of the richest men in the country;  then Walter de Coutances, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor.  If people of this calibre were looking after a village of just 60 people, annual revenue 10 pounds per year, something big was going on.  And it gets bigger.

In 1155, Henry II seized the castles and lands of William Peverell, baron of Nottingham and Derby.  There had been an odd episode in Peverell’s time:  a swineherd who entered the Devil’s Cavern, below his Peak Castle, came out in a flat, cultivated, well-lit country, at harvest time, where the people spoke his language;  where the lord of the country told him to collect his lost pig and go home by the same route, so he did.3

The War and the Trial

In 1164 Henry seized Hagenet Castle, four miles from Woolpit.  In 1173, he faced rebellion by three of his sons, fomented by his queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, and backed by the kings of France and Scotland.  In late July, 1173, Henry rushed back from the war in France for four days, going not to London or to any rebel area but to East Anglia.9  We might guess that he went to Wykes to see the children, or had them brought to him, because he then sent crack troops to Peak and Hagenet Castles.

In October the earl of Leicester invaded East Anglia with a Flemish army, and turned aside to take Hagenet.  Instead of killing the garrison in the usual way, he kept the entire unit of 300 for ransom.  The detour and hostages slowed him down, so the combined armies of England and southern Ireland cut his army to pieces near Bury St. Edmunds.  It must have seemed as if the children had been sent by God to save the kingdom – especially if Henry was expecting some kind of miracle at Woolpit.  It’s undeniable now that the king was deeply involved:  as my friend John Braithwaite said, ‘if it’s not ET Contact, it’s the political thriller of all time’.

But even when the children were on normal food, lost their green colour and learned English, they weren’t safe.  “It appeared to the wise, that they might receive the sacrament of holy baptism, and that too  [even that]  was done… Naturally when now they had our habit of speaking, they were asked who and from whence they were, they are said to have replied:  ‘People of the land of Saint Martin, who of course in the land of our birth is held in the very highest exceptional respect.’… Asked whether Christ was believed in, in that place, and whether the Sun rose, they said that land was Christian, and had churches…”  (WN)

These were not casual questions.  A century later they would have faced the Inquisition, but though they were spared that, the question at stake  (literally)  was whether they had souls.   Like trying a suspected heretic, it required the authority of a bishop, and if he ruled against them the outcome was certain.  In quoting the girl’s testimony Ralph uses the verbs asserebat, ‘swore under oath’, and the passive confessa est, ‘formally stated’.  She did all the talking, as if she’d told her kid brother to keep quiet and as if she’d been coached:  showing that she wasn’t a savage from some underground tribe.  Sydney Jordan’s woodcut-style drawing of the trial scene captures the tension, with the sinister black-robed papal observers looking on and de Calna’s hand casually resting on his sword.  (In reality, he wouldn’t have been allowed to bear arms in church and the hearing probably wasn’t at night, but it all adds to the atmosphere.)

The Abbots of Bury St. Edmunds and Coggeshall hadn’t authority to conduct the hearing;  it couldn’t even have been at Coggeshall Abbey, because women were barred from Cistercian grounds and the monks couldn’t administer baptism.  But the Abbot’s superior, Gilbert Foliot, Bishop of London, could have heard the case nearby, baptised the children, and had the boy buried at the Abbey.  And the stress on St. Martin implicates the Bishop of London:  the church of St. Martin’s-le-Grand, next door to St. Paul’s in London, owned the one on the Templars’ land at Cressing Temple.  St. Martin’s-le-Grand was the principal sanctuary in England, and in the Domesday Book, its Essex properties are listed under the heading, in block capitals, TERRA SANCTI MARTINI – ‘the Land of St. Martin’.   By calling themselves ‘people of the land of St. Martin’, the children were asking for the sanctuary they so badly needed.

(To be continued)


1.  Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, vol.2, Everyman’s Library, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1932.

2.  R. Howlett, ed., William of Newburgh, De Rerum Anglicarum, in Chronicles of the Reigns of Stephen, Henry II and Richard I, Rolls Series No.82, Longman & Co., London, 1884.   This government project reproduces edited texts of 99 mediaeval chronicles, many of them running to multiple volumes.

3.  J. Stephenson, ed., Ralph of Coggeshall, Chronicon Anglicanum, Rolls Series No.66, Longman & Co., London, 1875.

4.  William Farrer, An Outline Itinerary of King Henry the First, English Historical Review, XXXIV, (July, Oct. 1919), reprinted Frederick Hall, Oxford, undated.

5.  Francis Blomefield, An Essay towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk, 11 vols., William Miller, London, 1805-10.

6.  W.A. Copinger, The Manors of Suffolk, T. Fisher Unwin, 1905.

7.   Deputy Keeper of Records, ed., Liber Feodorum, the Book of Fees, commonly called Testa de Nevill, reformed from the earliest MSS.   Part I, AD 1198-1242, His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1920.

8.  C.G. Addison, The Knights Templars, 2nd edition, Longman Brown, 1842.

9.  Rev. R.W. Eyton, Court, Household and Itinerary of King Henry II, Taylor & Co., London, 1878.

10.  Thomas Arnold, ed., Memorials of St. Edmund’s Abbey,  (3 vols.), Rolls Series No.96, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1890.

Children from the Sky, a speculative interpretation of a mediaeval mystery – the Green Children of Woolpit, by Duncan Lunan  (Mutus Liber, 2012), is available from bookshops or through Amazon.  For details of it and of Duncan’s other books, see his website,

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