“Time is a game played beautifully by children.”
This story was told by medieval writers (Ralph of Coggestall and William of Newbridge), about the discovery of fairy children in the South of England in the twelfth century.There are two versions of the story, one placed in Suffolk and one in Norfolk, with only a small distance separating them.
This article explores the tale is based around the Suffolk village of Woolpit – the village name is believed to originate from Wolfpittes, where the last wolf in England is said to have perished in the 12th century after being trapped in a wolf pit. No doubt in homage to the Green Children folktale, the village sign in Woolpit features two green children and a wolf.
In Suffolk, at St Mary’s of the Wolf Pits (Woolpit), a boy and his sister with green tinged skin were said to have been found at the mouth of the old wolf pits. When first discovered they were both extremely frightened, and no one could understand their speech. They were eventually taken to the home of Sir Richard de Caine at Wilkes.
They would not eat normal food, although it seemed that they were both starving. When some beanstalks were brought into the house, they made gestures to have them brought to them and proceeded to try and open the stalks to get at the beans. They were shown how to open the pods and ate beans and nothing else for a long time.
The boy remained depressed all the while, and soon succumbed to illness and died. The girl remained in good health, and eventually began to eat other food and lost her green colouring. She was baptised and lived in the service of the knight.
When she had learnt how to speak English, she related the story of how they had come to be at the entrance to the pits. She said they had come from a land where there is no sun, but light such as at our twilight all the time. She and her brother were following their flocks, when they chanced upon a cavern. They entered this cavern and heard the sound of bells and were so enchanted by the sweet music, that they stayed exploring until they came to the cavern’s entrance.
They passed through and into the bright sunlight of our world. They were blinded for a while and rooted to the spot by the sudden change in atmosphere and temperature. Eventually they were caught by the villagers and brought to the hall.
The green hue of the children’s skin could be the striking symptom of green sickness, the term once given to dietary deficiency anaemia. In the tale, the girl is said to have lost her green tinge, which is to be expected once a healthy diet is resumed.
The second folktale based in Norfolk follows a very similar theme but, the land the children describe is named as St Martin’s Land. These stories were probably regarded as factual at the time, and it is difficult to know what to make of them.