There is a village two hours hike from the abbey of the slain East Anglian king, Saint Edmund. While in the twelfth century this village was known as Wulput, it is recorded in the Great Survey of 1086 as Wlfpet. Wolfpit. For nearby the village was a deep pit into which all carrion was slung, there to attract the carrion eaters.
Was that pit still there when this story begins? Indeed that it was, for in the twelfth century there still was a bounty on a wolf’s head. Its pelt would fetch even more.
So, two hours out of St Edmundsbury, on the road to Ipswich, is a village named for its wolf-pit, yet grown around a barley farm . . . and it being now harvest the reapers are busy at mowing that field.
“Hoad yew hard!” cries one of them reapers. He’s clapt eyes on a rum un. All turn to see where he’s garping.
A couple of jaykies there and them like nawthen known. Just ketch a look at their clobber, formed wholly oncommon and all the wrong culur. And that’s not all that’s odd on ‘em.
The reapers approach—but cautious now: them jaykies are shivering and shrinking and ‘olding each other like they’re jowned to hip. Decatedly jaykies: Yew see them hides? Boy and his sister’s as green as orf blud. And now Boi Kemp’s closer, phew bor! do them steenk.
Now’s the axing of whence them jaykies. Must be from that pit, them being wholly on close to ut.
Boi Kemp, he’s reaper-king, he claws an ‘old on ‘em. Them jaykies squirm but Boi Kemp’s copped a good hoad and them squigglers can’t get away.
“Call ut a day,” he tells his mowers. “Moost un ut’s done. We’ll get these rennies back hoom. Send orf un tell grut lawd on ut. See what’s the sways.” And with that he strucks orf, dragging the jaykies-rennies alun ‘im.
Their lord is Vice-chancellor Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. But Boi Kemp don’t mean him. He’s too grand to bother with them. It’ll be his steward at best, his looker at worse.
Back home, Boi Kemp gives them jaykies to Mawther Kemp with instructions to ‘old with no jannicking (as if she needs telling with her alwus busy). “Do I feed ‘em?” she axes. “Best not, them not bein hooman. Nah, let the looker luk affa ’em.”
But the looker don’t respond at once to the call. Days pass. Brother and sister, neither fed, start looking dicky. Mawther Kemp takes pity on ‘em; she sets ‘em a dish of swill intended for swine. But them jaykies refuse ut. She tries ‘em on a crust of bread and a bowl of cook-juices for dipping in. But them jaykies won’t touch ut. It’s not till Boi Kemp’s mate comes in with a sack of field beans still in their pods that them jaykies, though weakened of strength, pules and claws for ‘em. So now Mawther Kemp feeds ’em un beans.
The looker finally comes. While hearing the tale he garps at the jaykies. He sniffs. “Well, they can’t stay ‘ere. S’pose I’m to take ‘em. Reckon the abbey’ll want ‘em.” He takes them away.
The looker treats the brother and sister somewhat better than had Boi Kemp and his mussus. Though for the first weeks they’ll eat nothing but beans, as weeks make to months they learn that there’re other foods. They develop a particular liking for the local made barley-bread. Slowly, their sickly-green skin changes to what we’d call normal. And slowly they learn our language. But the looker’s no further on with what to do with them. It’s the priest that now plays a part.
“Since the children can speak and hear our Lord’s language, they must now be instructed in the Lord’s ways. And for the sake of their souls, they must be baptised.” He asks of their names. The girl answers him, “Agnes, me, and the brother Johan.”
So now the priest asks more of them. He’s in mind to send the boy to the abbey; that’ll take care of him. But the girl’s coming on age when she’ll be a problem. Too many ungodly men would lead her in to bad ways. He needs find her a suitable marriage, and soon.
He begins by asking whence they came.
“We’re not from this land,” she says, quite chirpy now she knows the tongue.
The priest nods and checks his retort. Everyone knows they’re not from this land. “So, Young Agnes, what’s the name of the land whence you come?”
She looks at her brother. He’s quiet. He’s younger than her, and seems still to be sickly. “I’ve never heard tell the name,” she says. “But I do know it’s in the particular care of Saint Martin. He, above all, is much venerated there.”
The priest nods his head slowly. “Will that be Saint Martin of Tours?” So the children are French, from the Touraine? If so, ought they belong to King Henry’s train? Or maybe to the Vice-chancellor Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford (he has connections with France). In reply the girl Agnes shrugs.
“But how came you to here? You remember a sea-crossing?”
Again Agnes shrugs. “We remember only that we were feeding our father’s flocks in the fields when we heard a great sound—like the bells at Saint Edmundsbury chiming. And we listened, to admire the sound, and of a sudden we found ourselves here and amongst your people in the field they were reaping.”
The priest scratches his head. Had some awful thing happened that the children now have forgotten all in between? He has heard it to happen. He asks, “Tell me more of this Saint Martin’s land.”
“Well,” she says, taking a deep breath to sustain her, “there is no sun in our land to rise every day, no sun to shine on our countrymen. Instead, we must be content with stray beams—like twilight—like that which precedes the sunrise here.”
“Hmm,” the priest grunts his opinion. Perhaps the land is every day, every year, cast-over by cloud. He asks if ever she had seen the sun before coming here.
“Oh yes—though only as it shone upon a country not far distant from ours, across a very considerable river.”
A very considerable river, he muses: that could be the sea, the Channel.
He would have asked more of Young Agnes, but he has no chance. For that very same day the two children are taken away.
News of the children has been slow to spread—particularly to those who ought to have been told from the start. But it now has reached the estate’s steward, himself the lord of Wykes manor at Bardwell, less than a blink of a ride away from Woolpit, Sir Richard de Calne. With no by-yer-leaves he takes the two children into his care—to give them safe refuge, he says.
The priest grunts. Into his care means he’ll work them as serfs, and now who’s to protect them, the poor ailing orphans. And the priest has it right, for within a ten-night the boy Johan has upped and died, just plain withered away.
Of the girl Agnes the priest soon hears more worrying things. She’s wanton, they say, and impudent, too. The priest sniffs. Nothing wrong with the girl that marriage won’t put right. But how to arrange it now she’s in the grasp of Sir Richard?
He grunts. And grins. He’ll write to Vice-chancellor Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, He’s the real lord of Woolpit. And he’ll tell him the full of the tale.
∗ ∗ ∗
What Vice-chancellor Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, did when in receipt of the news is hard to divine. Yet it’s said Young Agnes was married to a man at Lynne, where still she lived a few years later when William of Newburgh, an Anglo-Saxon Augustinian canon from Bridlington, Yorkshire, included the story in his Historia rerum Anglicarum.
Despite its fantastical elements The Green Children of Saint Martin’s Land purports to be a true story—though in my version I do admit to some little embellishments (plus I’ve pinned it to an historical personage, Walter of Coutances, who isn’t given in the original). That original reads more like a fairy-tale or folk-lore than a factual story. Yet it was recorded by two contemporary historians—William of Newburgh & Ralph of Coggeshall—both of whom are regarded as reliable witnesses of the political and social events of their time.
So what’s the truth behind the story? It’s a question that’s puzzled me since I first encountered the tale some twenty years past. I’ve woven some of my answers into the narrative.
Orphaned Children of a Mercenary
First, it’s now generally thought that the children hailed from Flanders—witness their unfamiliar clothes and that they had first to learn the language before they could give their strange story. Some commentators have placed the children in the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154); this because William of Newburgh wrote extensively of events in that reign. The story itself is undated.
The early years of the twelfth century saw an influx of Flemish migrants to East Anglia. More arrived later to serve as mercenaries in the army of King Stephen. But in 1154, when Henry of Anjou became Henry II, King of England, he persecuted the remnants of these mercenaries.
A mercenary soldier, his wife and children brought with him to England; the soldier now dead, the widow a stranger in this strange land, and with her two children . . . It’s feasible. And yet by bringing in Vice-chancellor Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, as lord of Woolpit, I’ve placed the story twenty years later. In 1173.
The Great Revolt
1173 saw the Great Revolt. In brief, Henry II kept his sons long on titles and short on power and shorter still on money. Encouraged by their mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, in 1173 the eldest sons, supported by Louis king of France, William king of Scotland and the counts of Boulogne, Flanders and Blois, rebelled. And they weren’t alone in it.
Major baronial revolts broke out throughout Henry’s Angevin Empire: in England, Brittany, Maine, Poitou and Angoulême.
In England the fighting came to a head not far from Woolpit, at Fornham St Martin. Robert de Beaumont, earl of Leicester, leading an army swollen with Flemish mercenaries was defeated by a loyalist army in the command of Humphrey de Bohun, Constable of England.
Again the situation is feasible: a mercenary soldier, his wife and children brought with him to England; the soldier now dead, the widow a stranger in this strange land with her two children . . .
Those who favour this latter date point to Fornham Saint Martin. Could this be the children’s Saint Martin Land?
Saint Martin’s Land
Although I have pinned my narrative to this date, 1173, I’m not so sure the above is the answer. The villages of Fornham Saint Martin and Woolpit are in the same hundred (Thedwestry). Such an odd phenomenon as these green children would have been reported at the hundred court where someone would have spoken up, attention drawn to the recent battle. Yet that didn’t happen. Was it preferred, for the sake of the Flemish orphans, to keep quiet? If so, that might explain the stranger elements of the tale—the subterranean dimly lit land, the children’s inability to explain their translation from there-to-here; an attempt to make the tale ‘otherworldly’ and thus to protect the Flemish orphans.
But there is another possible answer.
In his commentary Jeffrey Jerome Cohen suggests the story allowed William de Newburgh ‘to write obliquely about the Welsh’ (William was less than impressed by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain). Cohen sees the green children as a memory of Britain’s past, and particularly the violence of the Norman invasion and subsequent annihilation of the indigenous population. In this, it is noted that the abbey at Hastings bears the dedication of St Martin of Tours—which brings the story back to the Great Revolt of 1173.
With England subdued, Henry II was able to quell the rebels of his continental empire. His most urgent need was to secure a strategically important route through his empire. For this he needed to remove the rebels of the Touraine—the capital of which is Tours: Saint Martin’s Land.
Yet that leaves unanswered how the children got from ‘a’ (the Touraine) to ‘b’ (Woolpit).
One thing is certain. Their diet had been nutritionally deficient for several months.
There is a form of anemia known as green sickness (hypochromic anemia) in which the red blood cells are paler than normal. The most common cause is iron deficiency.
Green sickness, or chlorosis, is typified by a distinct green tinge to the skin, accompanied by lack of energy, shortness of breath, headaches, and ‘a capricious’ or scanty appetite.
Since iron is found in dark-green leafy vegetables (cabbage, kale), pulses and beans, nuts and seeds, meat and fish, one wonders if the children had eaten at all, and for how long this dire situation had lasted. Certainly for long enough to get them from the Touraine to England, maybe smuggled aboard a boat along with their rebel parents. The perpetual twilight could be the lingering smoke from razed villages and strongholds; the bright land to the far side of the wide water, the hope of survival across the Channel.
But that’s only a suggestion.
I’ve already mentioned Vice-chancellor Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, better known as Walter of Coutances. Between 1174 and 1180 he was ‘lord of Woolpit’. One assumes he held the manor off the abbey of Bury St Edmunds, the abbey being tenant-in-chief in 1086.
Sir Richard de Calne of Wykes is mentioned in Ralph de Coggeshall’s account. He reportedly gave the green children refuge in his manor, six miles to the north of Woolpit. This would be Wykes manor, in the parish of Bardwell, which in 1230-1240 was in the hold of Walter son of Sibila de Calna. Sir Richard died in or before 1188.
And who did Agnes marry?
According to astronomer and science-fiction writer Duncan Lunan who has researched Richard de Calne’s family history, she married a royal official named Richard Barre (c.1130-c.1202), an English justice, clergyman and scholar.
And finally . . .
Theories regarding the provenance of the story and its meaning literally abound—I’ll leave you to pursue them on wiki’s Green Children of Woolpit.
As a fantasy writer myself I’m impressed by how many early fantasy writers were inspired by the story—including Francis Godwin whose The Man in the Moone was published posthumously in 1638 and which in turn inspired Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s voyage to Laputa. (But perhaps that’s another post in waiting.)