Welcome to this month’s Time Travel Nexus Investigates! At TTNI, we’re playing detective, hunting the TTTs (time-travelling tourists), and attempting to solve some much-talked-about cases of real-life time travel.
So… did two green, bean-eating children travel back in time to the 12th century from a future dystopian Earth?
Origin of the claim
The intriguing story of the Green Children of Woolpit comes from the writings of two medieval historians, William of Newburgh and Ralph of Coggeshall.
William was a canon at the Augustinian Newburgh Priory in Yorkshire and wrote about the Green Children in his Historia rerum Anglicarum in about 1189. He stated that his account was based on “reports from a number of trustworthy sources”. Ralph was a monk and later abbot of a Cistercian monastery at Coggeshall, about 26 miles south of the village of Woolpit, Suffolk. He wrote about the Green Children in his Chronicum Anglicanum sometime during the 1220s.
Nature of the claim
One day, during the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154), the villagers of Woolpit discovered two children, a young brother and sister, next to one of the pits they used for catching wolves (a ‘wolf pit’, which it’s said is where the village got its name).
These weren’t ordinary children. Their skin was green and they spoke an unknown language and wore unfamiliar clothing. Local landowner Sir Richard de Calne took them in and they refused all food for several days. Then they came across some raw broad beans and couldn’t get enough.
Over time they adapted to eating normal food and their green colour started to fade. The pair were baptised. The boy, who was sickly and frail, died shortly after, but the girl survived.
The girl learned to speak English and told people that she and her brother had come from a place called ‘St. Martin’s Land’. It was a place where the sun never shone, the light was like twilight and everything there, including all the inhabitants, was green. She also said it was a Christian land and had churches. She didn’t know how they’d arrived in Woolpit but said they’d been herding their father’s cattle and got lost after following the cattle into a cave. After being guided by the sound of bells, they were suddenly by the wolf pit where the villagers found them.
The girl was employed as a servant for many years in Richard de Calne’s household, eventually marrying a man from King’s Lynn, about 40 miles from Woolpit. Astronomer and writer Duncan Lucan has done some research into Richard de Calne’s family history and concluded that the girl was given the name “Agnes” and ended up marrying a royal official called Richard Barre.
Some people, including Duncan Lucan, believe that the children were aliens accidentally transported to Woolpit from their home planet. Lucan thought the planet might’ve been stuck in a synchronous orbit around its sun, creating the twilight conditions, and that the people’s green skin was a side effect of consuming alien plants.
The problem with Lucan’s account is that the girl said her people were Christian and had churches, which wouldn’t make sense if they were aliens. Unless, of course, there’s some theory out there that Jesus went on magical excursions to other planets during his ministry.
Others have suggested that the children were not aliens but humans from the future. They walked through a time slip and ended up in the 12th century, similar to what happened to Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain. They came from a time in Earth’s future, when climate change has caused the planet’s atmospheric conditions to degrade so drastically that no one can see the sun anymore and everyone’s turned green. As Sir David Attenborough predicted very recently, it’s led to the collapse of civilisation as we know it and the extinction of “much of the natural world”. It’s left pockets of survivors, the remnants of humanity, trying to make their way in a new, bleak world, and religion has come to the fore again. ‘St. Martin’s Land’ is one of these new settlements.
This would explain their unknown language and unfamiliar clothes. Their language could’ve been Modern English, or perhaps a future form of English—both of which would’ve been incomprehensible to the Early Middle English speakers of the 12th century.
If true, the Green Children of Woolpit are some of the earliest TTTs we have on record.
The evidence consists of the two accounts by William of Newburgh and Ralph of Coggeshall, written in about 1189 and 1220 respectively. These tell broadly the same story, although some small details differ. It’s said that the children popped up in Woolpit during the reign of King Stephen, which ended in 1154, which means that both accounts were written many years after the incident. The fact that there is no mention of the Green Children in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is also telling. It could either mean that it’s a myth or that it happened at a slightly later date, after the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was no longer being updated. Perhaps it occurred during the reign of Stephen’s successor, Henry II, who was king between 1154 and 1189.
William of Newburgh, living in a remote Yorkshire monastery, would not have had any first-hand knowledge of the events but did say that he relied on contemporary historical sources. Ralph of Coggeshall, on the other hand, said he heard the story from Richard de Calne, the man who took the Green Children in. However, there is no other evidence for the existence of ‘Agnes’ and some historians think it unlikely that she would have been married to Richard Barre.
Modern historians have put forward two possible non-paranormal explanations for where the story may have come from. The first is that it was a myth descended from folklore, describing an imaginary encounter with extraterrestrial inhabitants from another world or dimension. The second is that it’s a garbled account of a real event.
It could be that the children were Flemish immigrants from the nearby village of Fornham St. Martin. A large number of these immigrants were killed at the Battle of Fornham in 1173. Some historians have suggested that the children were orphaned in the battle and fled, ultimately wandering into Woolpit. They would’ve been speaking Flemish and wearing Flemish clothes, which would’ve been unfamiliar to Woolpit residents. It could also be that they were suffering from chlorosis, a type of anaemia that causes the skin to turn green and improves with a better diet. Perhaps the story was embellished and distorted years later as a means of emphasising how different the children were. This would mean that the story is more about racial differences than it is about time travellers or aliens.
It’s a good explanation. However, historians have noted that it is not without its difficulties. Brian Haughton points out that surely an educated local landowner like Richard de Calne would’ve recognised the children’s language as being Flemish, saying that it must have been fairly widespread in eastern England at the time. Haughton also argues that it was Flemish mercenaries who were killed in the Battle of Fornham, mercenaries who would hardly have brought their families with them.
Brian Haughton has said that even though the Green Children of Woolpit are described in two 12th-century sources, that does not mean the story is genuine. He points out that medieval chroniclers had a tendency to record wonders and ‘miracles’ that no historian would accept today, but were widely believed at the time. He conjectures that perhaps the Green Children is one of the earliest English fairy tales we have.
He accepts, however, that we do not and cannot know the truth of the matter unless descendents of ‘Agnes’ can be traced or further documentary evidence found. He says that until then, “the story of the Green Children will remain one of England’s most puzzling mysteries”.
To be honest, I’m stumped a little bit by this one. Ralph of Coggeshall says he actually heard the story first-hand from Richard de Calne. I can’t see any reason why de Calne would make up such a strange tale. Furthermore, he would’ve known whether the children were Flemish immigrants and Ralph, surely, would’ve recorded it if they were.
There’s also the possibility that other evidence does exist, but those in the know are keeping things under their hats. A local author and folk singer, Bob Roberts, said in his 1978 book A Slice of Suffolk that, “I was told there are still people in Woolpit who are ‘descended from the green children’, but nobody would tell me who they were!”
So there could be descendents of the mysterious Agnes still floating about. Why would they not want to come forward? What are they hiding?
I’m going to put this one down as “true—maybe”. I don’t have enough evidence to say that the Green Children of Woolpit being time travellers from a future Earth dystopia is true. That’s all just fanciful (and fun!) speculation.
However, there’s too much evidence to discount the story of the Green Children as ‘false’ either.
Next month: Andrew Carlssin