In which our intrepid hero delves into Suffolk folklore.
Late last month, over at Kobold Quarterly, John Ling wrote a short (but excellent) article on the legend of the Green Children of Woolpit, Suffolk, complete with d20 writeups. Ling cites his sources here; they’re a good primer for anyone interested in the story.
The Green Children have fascinated me ever since I first heard about them, many years ago. One of my favourite sources for English folklore, Westwood and Simpson’s The Lore of the Land has this to say about the strange couple:
The story [of the Green Children] was first told by the chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall, writing at the monastery of Coggeshall, Essex, in about 1210. He says that, ‘within living memory’, a boy and a girl whose skins were green were found near the mouth of one of the pits at ‘St Mary’s of the Wolf-pits‘. The villagers who found them could not understand what they said, and so took them to the house of their lord of the manor, Sir Richard de Calne.
The family name refers to the town of Calne, Wiltshire, most recently a centre for crop circle activity. But Calne is some 250km away from Woolpit.
Nigel spent his early years studying at Laon, famed birthplace of Bertha Broadfoot, Charlemagne’s mother. Nigel studied under renowned theologian Anselm of Laon, and his contemporaries included the future Bishop of Hereford, Archbishops of Canterbury and Rouen—and possibly even the legendary Peter Abelard himself.
Some sources claim that Nigel and Alexander, third Bishop of Lincoln, were brothers; others suggest that they were merely cousins. Nonetheless, Alexander is credited as the patron of Geoffrey of Monmouth; amongst other books, Alexander commissioned Geoffrey to write The Prophecies of Merlin, the first record of the half-demon wizard outside the Welsh tongue.
Nigel’s son, Richard FitzNeal, also a Chiswick prebendary, would go on to become Lord High Treasurer to Henry II and Richard I, Stephen’s successors. He also served as Dean of Lincoln—an important administrative post under Alexander—and eventually as Bishop of London until his death in 1198.
(Nigel’s other son, William of Ely, succeeded Richard as Lord High Treasurer.)
No word on whether Richard FitzNeal was granted lands near Woolpit, although history places him in Ely, a mere 55km from Woolpit, in the early stages of his life. On the other hand, at least we’re in the right century; indeed, some commentators place the Woolpit tale early in Henry II’s reign.
An interesting family, to say the least, and very well-connected. If Richard FitzNeal and Sir Richard de Calne were one and the same, then what undisclosed uses might Richard have had for the Green Children? If nothing else, uncle Alexander would’ve found them quite intriguing…
The Lore of the Land continues:
At first, the children wept inconsolably and refused all food, until on seeing some freshly cut beans they made signs to show they would like some. For a long time, they would eat nothing else, and the boy soon languished and died. The girl, however, throve, gradually losing her green colouring, and remained many years in Sir Richard’s household, albeit somewhat lascivious (‘as I have frequently heard from him and his family’).
Perhaps Richard complained of the girl’s lasciviousness—or maybe he was boasting?
The girl told them that she came from a land where the sun never shone and everyone was green. She and her brother had been following their flocks when they came on a cavern, and, hearing the sound of bells from within, followed it and eventually emerged into daylight. They had lain stunned by the brightness for some while before the villagers found them.
Some versions of the tale suggest that the bells rang out from nearby Bury St Edmunds, which has its own fairy tales (again, from The Lore of the Land):
There wus a farmer, right a long time ago, that wus, an he had a lot o’ wate [wheat]… An he huld [hurled] all his wate in a barn, of a hape he did! but that hape got lesser and lesser… So off of his bed he got, one moanlight night, an he hid hiself hind the oud lanetew [lean-to], where he could see that’s barn’s doors; and when the clock struck twelve, if he din see right a lot of little tiddy frairies. O lork! how they did run—they was little bits o’ things, as big as mice, an they had little blue caoots and yaller breeches an little red caps on thar hids with long tassels hangin down behind. An they run right up to that barn’s door. An if that barn door dint open right wide of that self. An lopperty lop! over the throssold [threshold] they all hulled [hurled] themselves. Well, when the farmer see they wus all in, he kum nigher and nigher… An he see all they little frairies; they danced round an round, an then they all ketched up an air [ear] o’ wate, an kopt [threw] it over their little shoulders, they did. But at the last there come right a dear little frairie that was soo small that could hardly lift that air o’ wate, and that kep saying as that walked—
‘Oh, how I do twait [sweat],
A carrying o’ this air o’ wate.
An when that kum to the throssold, that kount [couldn’t] git over no how, an that farmer he retched out his hand an he caught a houd o’ that poooare thing, an that shruck out, ‘Brother Mike! Brother Mike!’ as loud as that coud. But the farmer he kopt that inter his hat, an he took that home for his children; he tied that to the kitchen winder. But that poooare little thing, that wont ate nothin, an that poyned away and died.
No one said that the Green Children’s flock consisted of mere sheep, and although the girl was named Agnes in some tales, who’s to say the boy wasn’t named Michael?
Incidentally, the source (above) which names the girl as Agnes also suggests she married a man in either King’s Lynn or Lavenham (both towns in Suffolk), and that after her first husband died, she may have married Richard de Barre—but then the account quickly dismisses the latter possibility.
However, as Archdeacon of Ely, and Chancellor to Henry II, it’s almost unthinkable that de Barre wouldn’t be acquainted with Nigel de Calne, Richard FitzNeal and their extended family. Richard could easily have introduced Agnes to her future husband.
Other towns and villages in the vicinity of Woolpit have stories of their own. The hamlet of Dagworth is the site of one of the earliest remaining changeling tales, also attributed in The Lore of the Land to Ralph of Coggeshall:
[I]n the time of King Richard a fantasticus spiritus haunted Dagworth Castle, home of the lord of the manor, Osbern of Bradwell. She spoke to its inhabitants in the voice of a child one year old and said she was called Malekin. She was a human child who had been stolen by the fairies from a cornfield while her mother worked. She had already lived with the fairies for a term of seven years, and after another seven would be allowed to return to the human world. She would speak to the servants ‘according to the idiom of the region’, that is, in the Suffolk dialect, but when she talked to the priest, with whom she discussed the Scriptures, spoke in Latin.
Malekin was invisible, although she could be both heard and felt. Only one person in the castle had ever seen her, and that was a servant girl with whom she had become friends. This girl used to put out food for her and often asked Malekin to appear. Malekin finally agreed to do so provided the girl promised neither to touch nor try to catch her. The girl said later that Malekin looked like a tiny child dressed in a white linen tunic.
One can only guess that this was a fairy glamour, and that Malekin’s true form would appear if the mien were dispelled by touch.
Interestingly, another version of this story suggests that Malekin was male—and that he was born in Lavenham.
Nearby Stowmarket was also plagued by fairies, known in the local dialect as feriers, ferishers or farrisees. (Note that this version of the Woolpit tale claims that the current Earl Ferrers is one of Agnes’ descendants. What’s in a name?)
The Lore of the Land reports the following account, from a woman of almost 80, quoted in the 1844 History of Stowmarket:
Her father was a leather breeches maker and her mother having had a baby (either herself or her sister, she forgets which) was lying asleep some weeks after her confinement in bed with her husband and the infant by her side. She woke in the night, it was dimmish light, and missed the babe. Uttering an exclamation of fear, lest the fairies… should have taken the child, she jumped out of bed, and there sure enough a number of the little sandy things had got the baby at the foot of the bed and were undressing it. They fled away through a hole in the floor, laughing as if they shrieked, and snatching up her child, on examination she found that they had laid all the pins head to head as they took them out of the dress. For months afterwards she always slept with the child between herself and husband, and used carefully to pin it by its bed clothes to the pillow and sheets that it might not be snatched hastily away.
John Aubrey apparently wrote also of the uniquely sandy-haired fairies of Stowmarket:
The fairy wore yellow satin shoes, was clothed in a long green coat girt about by a golden belt, and had sandy hair and complexion.
The History of Stowmarket contains further accounts:
S— living for 30 years at the cottages in the hop ground on the Bury road coming home one night 20 years since, in the meadow now a hop ground, not far from three ashen trees in very bright moon-light saw the fairies. There might be a dozen of them, the biggest about three feet high, and small ones like dolls. Their dresses sparkled as if with spangles like the girls at shows at Stow fair, they were moving round hand in hand in a ring, no noise from them. They seemed light and shadowy… I passed on, saying, the Lord have mercy on me, but them must be the fairies… I looked after them when I got over the style, and they were there, just the same moving round and round. I ran home and called three women to come back with me and see them. But when we got to the place they were all gone. I could not make out any particular things about their faces. I might be 40 yards from them, and I did not like to stop and stare at them. I was quite sober at the time.
Another account from same book, presumably also sober, as it was given by a parish clerk:
Fairies frequented several houses in Tavern Street about 80 to 100 years since. They never appeared as long as any one was about. People used to lie hid to see them, and some have seen them. Once in particular by a wood-stack up near the brick-yard there was a large company of them dancing, singing, and playing music together. They were very small people, quite little creatures, and very merry. But as soon as they saw any body they all vanished away. In the house after they had fled, on going upstairs sparks of fire as bright as stars used to appear under the feet of the persons who disturbed them.
Fornham All Saints even has its own mermaid (from History and Antiquities of Hengrave, quoted, again, in The Lore of the Land):
The Mermaid pits are said to derive their name from the story of a love-sick maid, who perished there:
‘Now there spreaden a rumour that everish night,
The (pitts) ihaunted been by many a sprite,
The miller avoucheth and all thereabout,
That they full oft hearen the hellish rout.’ […]
The fragment of story about the ‘love-sick maid’ is tantalizing: we are left uncertain as to whether this is simply the usual tale of a betrayed girl drowning herself and thereafter haunting the pool or river where she died, or whether she was thought of as turning into one of the cruel and vindictive freshwater mermaids that inhabit pits and pools in East Anglia.
These mermaids are described either as long-armed beasts with long, green tresses and hooked talons, or as beautiful women, differentiable only by their webbed feet. But both share strong, homicidal impulses and cannibalistic urges.
Before we get too far off track, we should hearken back to the Woolpit tale:
William of Newburgh, a monastery in Yorkshire, also tells the story, which he may have got in the main from Ralph, as they sometimes exchanged material. However, he includes details not mentioned in Ralph’s version of events, dating the appearance of the Green Children to the reign of King Stephen (1135-54), and saying that, when they emerged from the cave, they found themselves among reapers getting in the harvest. Both children learned to speak English, and they said that they came from St Martin’s Land, where the people were Christians, and the sun never shone there, though not far off, on the far side of a broad river, they could see ‘a certain luminous country’.
Numerous explanations have been given for ‘St Martin’s Land’, including an enclave of Flemish weavers in the nearby village of Fornham St Martin (a couple of kilometres or so from Fornham All Saints).
But what if there’s another possibility; hell, if we’re going to lend credence to stories of wanton, green Christians from beneath the earth, then why not broaden our horizons just that little bit farther?
The Catholic Encyclopedia lists two St Martins, the first being Pope St Martin I, and the other St Martin of Tours. Martin I is a relatively obscure pope, born near Rome in the 7th Century and dying in exile in the Crimea, at the behest of Byzantine Emperor Constans.
Martin of Tours, however, is far better known in western Europe. St Martin’s feast day, Martinmas, November 11, traditionally marked the beginning of Advent. A half of Martin’s cloak became a prized relic of the Carolingian Dynasty. And legend credits Martin with bringing chenin blanc grapes to France and teaching vignerons to prune their vines.
He’s a patron saint of soldiers, and is regarded both as one of the mediaeval period’s most popular saints, and one of France’s greatest—presumably, in part, for his association with viticulture.
Martin was born in the 4th Century in the Roman province of Pannonia Prima. From the 9th Century onwards, the area was home to the Kingdom of Hungary, which converted to Christianity soon after it was established.
Surely, Hungarian, unrelated as it is to most other European languages, would be pretty much unintelligible to the people of mediaeval Suffolk? And is it not possible, as in the case of Viganella, Italy, that a small village at the bottom of a Carpathian valley might be deprived of sunlight for a good part of the year?
Even if the Green Children did not hail from Hungary, we know from the story of Malekin that some fairies can speak Latin and that they may know Scripture—why not hagiography as well? And even if they knew nothing of St Martin’s early life, how many common, 12th-Century men could gainsay the Children’s tale?
Truth departs meekly when the wee folk are about.