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Were Woolpit's Green Children connected to the bloody Battle of Fornham? Historian Martyn Taylor investigates

Once owned by the Abbey of St Edmund, the village of Woolpit derives its name from wolf-pits that were to be found there.

Suffolk folklore says that two children, their ages unknown, were found in one of the pits, what was unusual about them was the greenish hue of their skin.

The brother and sister claimed they were from a subterranean world called St Martins land and were drawn to the light after hearing bells coming from the direction of Bury St Edmunds. Neither spoke English and their garb was strange and though food was offered to them, they would only eat green beans.

Woolpit village sign showing the Green Children. Picture: Martyn Taylor
Woolpit village sign showing the Green Children. Picture: Martyn Taylor

As they were deemed to be foreign, they were sent to a local lord, Richard De Caine, who had them baptised, he not knowing if they were Christian or not. Shortly after the boy contracted an illness and died. The girl gradually lost her green colour, learnt English and ate normal food. Unfortunately for her she was described as 'very wanton and impudent'. Eventually given the name Agnes, she supposedly married a royal official by the name of Richard Barre, at King's Lynn.

All these intrigues – according to chroniclers William of Newburgh, writing in 118, and Abbot Ralph of Coggleshall, in 1220 – only served to ‘muddy the waters’ in an era when there was a bloody confrontation known to history as The Battle of Fornham in 1173. The big question that had to be addressed: Who were these children and where did they really originate from?

The root cause of why there was ever a battle at all lay with the Earl of Leicester, Robert de Beaumont, and his wife, the Countess Petronilla.

Fornham Battle of 1173. Photo : Geoff Price
Fornham Battle of 1173. Photo : Geoff Price

Taking advantage of the instability in the country following the baronial wars and the aborted coup by three of Henry II’s sons, he invaded England with a force of 3,000 Flemish mercenaries and loyal knights. Landing at Walton, near Felixstowe, he marched north intending to meet his own forces coming from Leicester.

After sacking Haughley Castle he went on to be confronted by a royal army led by the King’s Justicar, Richard De Lucy, the Chief Constable of England Humphrey De Bohun and four other noble lords along with 300 knights, presumably on horseback.

At the head of the royal army flew a banner of St Edmund, blessed and given by Abbot Hugh 1st of the Abbey of St Edmund.

The two sides engaged near the three Fornhams, All Saints, Genevieve and St Martin, the latter obviously a major element in the Green Children’s story.

The original Fornham sword in Moyse's Hall Musuem. Picture: Moyse's Hall
The original Fornham sword in Moyse's Hall Musuem. Picture: Moyse's Hall

Unfortunately, for the main antagonist Leicester, his army of mercenaries were caught trying to ford the River Lark and were shown no mercy, the townspeople of Bury joining in at the killing field.

Beaumont and his wife were captured and ransomed, returning from France years later.

A postscript to all of this occurred in 1826 near the church at Fornham St Genevieve when an ancient ash tree, being felled on a mound of earth, gave up a hidden secret when about 40 skeletons were revealed. The theory was that these violated bodies were given a proper burial after the battle, as opposed to the mercenaries.

Since then, two swords from that period have been found, the latest in April 2017 in a pond at the All Saints Hotel. One of these can be seen in an exhibition relating to the Battle of Fornham in Moyse's Hall Museum.

So what has this to do with the Green Children? Were they part of the Flemish baggage train that may have been left behind after Haughley, after all this is only a few miles away from Woolpit? However, that doesn’t explain the St Martin connection unless, of course, some of the Flemings escaped and got back to the baggage train and told the children.

Martyn Taylor. Picture: Mecha Morton
Martyn Taylor. Picture: Mecha Morton

This might explain where they came from but not their skin colour. Did the children have some dietary deficiency, they may only have had access to vegetables, perhaps they had cirrhosis, a complaint of the liver? Their strange clothing may have even contributed to their ‘greeness’, Flemings were renowned as weavers but had the natural dyes on their clothes bled, the dye not being ‘fixed’ properly?

In recent years preposterous theories have been put forward, eg the children were aliens, not of this world having survived a glitch in a time warp!

As a rich part of East Anglian folklore this story has much to be commended.

Martyn Taylor is a local historian, author and Bury Tour Guide. His latest book, Going Underground: Bury St Edmunds, is widely available