The title of this story may sound immediately unrealistic to you, but surprisingly this is the one tale of folklore that is established on some basis of truth!
Most modern versions of the story derived from Thomas Keightley’s The Fairy Mythology, published in 1850, which gets the tale from the two earliest sources existent. These earliest two sources are from around the year 1200. Which are written around sixty years after the time the green children are said to be found. They are Historia Rerum Anglicarum by William of Newburgh [ca 1136-1198 CE] and Chronicon Aglicanum by Ralph of Coggeshall Abbey [?-ca 1227 CE].
Sometime during the 12th century, two children appeared in the village of Woolpit in Suffolk, England, seemingly out of nowhere. These were no ordinary orphans: The boy and girl spoke in an unknown tongue, sported strange clothing, and only ate raw beans. Oh, and their skin was green!
They wandered around bewildered for a short time, before being discovered by the reapers and taken to the village. Here the locals gathered around and questioned them, but no-one was able to understand the language the children spoke, so the locals took them to the house of local landowner Sir Richard de Calne (or Colne), a few miles away at Wikes (or Wakes).
At de Calne’s house, they broke into tears and refused to eat any food presented to them but appeared starving. Eventually, the villagers brought round recently harvested beans, which the children devoured. However, when the children took the beans, they opened the stalks rather than the pods, and finding nothing inside, began weeping again. After they had shown them how to obtain the beans, the children survived only on beans for many months until they acquired a taste for bread.
As time passed, the boy, who appeared to be the younger of the two, became depressed, sickened, and died, but the girl adjusted to her new life. Her skin gradually lost its original green color, and she became a healthy young woman.
When the girl learned to speak English, she relayed the story of their underground homeland—St. Martin’s Land—where everything was green, and it was always twilight. According to the girl, the boy was her brother. In one version of the story - she said that the siblings had been herding their father’s cattle when they heard a loud noise. Entranced and they wandered through the darkness for a long time until they arrived at the mouth of the cave. Where they were immediately got blinded by the glaring sunlight. They lay down in a daze for a long time, before the noise of the reapers terrified them, and they rose and tried to run away. But unable to locate the entrance of the cavern before being caught.
An alternate report states that the children had followed the herd into a cave and had become disoriented. The sound of bells led them out, but when they emerged from the cavern, they did so in Woolpit rather than St. Martin’s Land.
The girl, later known as Agnes, continued to work for Richard de Calne for many years before marrying the archdeacon of Ely, Richard Barre. According to one report, the pair had at least one child.
Over the centuries, many theories have been put forward to explain this strange account. Regarding their green coloring, The most extreme include that the children originated from a hidden world under the ground, that they had somehow stepped through a door from a parallel dimension, or they were aliens accidentally arrived on the surface. One supporter of the latter theory is the Scottish astronomer Duncan Lunan, who suggests that the children were aliens transported to Earth from another planet in error by a malfunctioning matter transmitter.
Another proposal is that the children were suffering from Hypochromic Anemia, the condition is caused by a deficient diet that affects the color of the red blood cells and results in a noticeably green shade of the skin. In support of this theory, that the girl was returned to a usual color after adopting a healthy diet.
There are many aspects which are found in English folk beliefs and fairy tales, that the children are related to the elves and fairies, until a century or two ago. If the Green Children story is a fairytale, then it has the unusual twist of the girl never returning to her otherworldly home, but remaining married and living as a mortal.
The story of the green children has endured for over eight centuries since the first recorded accounts. While the real facts behind the tale may remain known, it has provided the inspiration for numerous poems, novels, operas, and plays across the globe, and continues to capture the imagination of many curious minds.
So we are left with a question: is the story of the Green Children of Woolpit, a true event that has had the trappings of fairylore attached to it, or is it a fictional story that a large number of people in Woolpit believed and passed on to whoever asked? An answer to this question may never be found.