A Medieval Marvel: the Green Children

‘But the night is Halloween, and the fairy court do ride…’

picture1Tonight is Halloween, and it’s supposed to be the night when the fair folk rise up out of the hollow hills and ride through the lands of the living. If see them dancing and step into the ring to dance alongside them, you could be caught forever… There are many dangers for the unwary mortal stepping into the Otherworld, but less is said about those poor creatures who by chance step out of that world into ours. What if you didn’t want to come to the mortal world? What if it was an accident? Just two children strayed away from their homes, lured into a tunnel by the sound of pretty bells, only to awake in the blazing dawn to a land of strangers, fear and death.

There have been many theories about the Green Children of Woolpit. Many of them have been prosaic, striving to make sense in today’s pragmatic, secular world of something inexplicable. In 1173 there was a battle just outside Bury St Edmunds during the Revolt between Henry II and his sons Henry, Richard and Geoffrey (complicated – don’t go there! Read Sharon Penman’s The Devil’s Brood if you want to find out more). Suffolk was heavily involved in this revolt after the Earl of Leicester landed at Walton Castle and persuaded Hugh Bigod, the Earl of Norfolk, to take up his cause. It causes two stories in Suffolk Folk Tales – A Strange and Terrible Wonder and Maude Carew – and may be the spark for the Green Children.

The 12th century saw a surge of immigration into East Anglia from Flanders across the sea – welcomed in as the Jewish communities were starting the long process of victimisation and eventual banishment in the late 13th century. There was a settlement of Flemish fullers at Fornham St Martin, close to the battle site at Fornham St Genevieve – did the children flee, and get lost? Did they become sick as they wandered, and suffering from dietary deficiencies, was their skin tinged green by chlorosis? Was the Flemish they spoke unrecognisable to the villagers of Woolpit? Was the girl’s talk of St Martin’s Land a reference to their old village? So far, so good. But surely Richard de Calne would have understood Flemish and realised what had happened? This theory assumes an extremely parochial, limited existence for our medieval forebears. I don’t buy that someone living in Bardwell wouldn’t know what was going on in Fornham St Martin. I mean, it’s only about 9 miles away – you could easily walk there and back in a day!

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So where does that leave us? Are they the Babes in the Wood from the Norfolk story? Poisoned by arsenic by their wicked uncle, abandoned in Thetford Forest (scary – got lost there once myself!), they wander into Woolpit. The older, stronger girl survives, but her younger brother is too weakened and dies. Maybe? This tale doesn’t appear until the printing of a broadside in 1595. The most commonly cited wood for the tale is Wayland Wood, just south of Watton, and about 30 miles from Woolpit. Not impossible, but … in the story the children die. The wicked uncle is punished, but there’s no Disney happy ending. They die. Both of them. Alone in the forest.

Putting the green children in context helps. It’s a wonder tale, one of many collated by medieval writers, and particularly in the 12th and 13th centuries. Anything goes! These mirabilia, or marvels, were, perhaps, some of the earliest folklore collecting, predating people like John Aubrey and William Camden by centuries. But their reasons for putting in these tales to their accounts were different. We can’t assume that they were simply included because credulous monks and scholars believed them – though that may have been the case in some instances! There was a conscious searching for the hidden things of the world, that one day might be revealed and understood. The recording of marvels like the Green Children thus becomes a kind of scientific experiment, recorded for posterity when we might understand it better. Or, often, there is a moral lesson within the stories – though it’s hard to pinpoint what that might be in this tale.

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At this time, this kind of tales was avidly lapped up by the aristocracy. Courtly scholars such as Walter Map, Gervase of Tilbury and Gerald of Wales record many mirabilia and fantastica to thrill and chill their courtly audiences. Henry II and Henry the Young King were apparently keen on these stories. The stories included range from international folk tales to locally collected ones. Did our monkish scholars include similar tales to curry royal or aristocratic favour? But these stories give another possibility in our search for the ‘real’ green children – were they aliens? Alexander the Great saw alien spaceships at the Siege of Tyre in 329 BC, they allegedly ‘observed three soaring discs, which were described as “shining silvery shields, spitting fire around the rims,” … These “shields” were said to have annihilated a stone wall with a lightening-like beam weapon.’[i] In The King’s Mirror, a Norwegian example of these collections of tales from about 1250, an incident is recorded of ships in the sky over County Clare in the 10th century[ii]. In this case, one of the ‘aliens’ comes to earth to fix a problem with his anchor, but, unable to breathe our air, he dies. Gervase of Tilbury also records this tale, but sites it in England, and develops it further with the adventures of a Bristolian in the sky – and that story features in Anthony’s Gloucestershire Folk Tales….

But I don’t think our Green Children were aliens. For me, they seem to have come out of the hollow hills where the fair folk live. Green is a fairy colour, although the ballad Tam Lin mentioned in the first line says that the fairies were ‘grey’ – perhaps referring to the idea that they were spirits of the dead instead of another race… Is Halloween, when the fairy court do ride the first zombie apocalypse? There is another instance, recorded by Gerald of Wales, where the interaction goes the other, more usual way – a boy is approached by two little men saying, “If you will come with us, we will lead you into a country full of delights and sports”[iii] and led into another world with a sunless sky. John Aubrey also records an instance a few centuries later, in which a man accesses the world below through a round barrow; this became the basis for ‘The Fairies of Hackpen Hill’ in my Wiltshire Folk Tales. Its common knowledge that those who go into fairyland come out changed, and that many pine away. Perhaps it’s true of those who come out of the Otherworld, too, like the green boy. The green girl was a different matter, even though her story hints that the Otherworld was possibly more fun than ours as she showed ‘herself to be extremely high-spirited and unrestrained’![iv]

Notes:

[i] Morphy, Rob ‘Anchors Away: Sky Ships and Storm Wizards’, 2011 http://mysteriousuniverse.org/2011/09/anchors-aweigh-sky-ships-and-storm-wizards/

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konungs_skuggsj%C3%A1

[iii] Cambrensis, Geraldus The Itinerary through Wales and the Description of Wales (JM Dent & Co, London, 1908), pg. 68

[iv] Translation of Ralph of Coggeshall’s story by Dr Monika Simon, 2012

Images:

  1. The Green Children © Kirsty Hartsiotis
  2. Image from http://hypnogoria.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/folklore-on-friday-babes-in-woods.html
  3. Image from http://io9.gizmodo.com/5917914/why-are-there-spaceships-in-medieval-art

Green children, pudding and a ruddy great swan…

Okay, I lied – there are going to be three blogs on the Green Children. That’s how much I love this tale. This one, however, is a more personal take, going back to my earliest memories of Suffolk’s stories. As a tiny child my mythology was personal, concerning only the village, Layham, where I lived – with terrors like the bridge over the Brett by the mill which had gaping holes that would, I was sure, suck me down; like the fascinating fungus in the dead elm spinney next to the house. I had no idea that the rectory where I once got terrifyingly lost at a garden party was where poor Maria Marten had her first and only job, or that Black Shuck lurked on the lanes into Hadleigh – but that was soon to change.

the-swan

Back in 1979, when I was six or seven my Mum started making really exciting things. Mum was props mistress at the local amateur dramatic society, Hadleigh Amateur Dramatic Society (HADS), and I became used to her making all sorts of strange things – I particularly remember the box of fake gems that I loved to run by fingers through and dream… Some of the furniture she acquired actually stayed in the house, I think! This time, it was a huge, huge prop. It was a swan – to be the centrepiece of a medieval feast – and I was fascinated. Mum says of it, ‘I know I used a bird book to work from. It must have taken a while, though, to build up all the stages. It was a wire netting base then papier maché then possibly crepe or tissue paper.’ It was, as you see, a thing of beauty!

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There were also tempting puddings – almost edible, they were: Mum didn’t have any clay so she simply made the puddings from pastry, which she then painted and adorned with plastic fruit. Having been a props mistress myself, I know they often have long, long lives – not so these. She says, ‘eventually they just disintegrated in the props cupboard…’

the-green-children-jpegBut what were they for? I knew it was a play, of course, but I was intrigued by the title, ‘The Green Children’. Who – or what – were these children, and why were they green? I was too young to go to the play and find out for myself, but Mum must have told me the story. It was one of my first encounters with the county’s folklore, and I loved it, even though it was a sad tale. It stayed with me ever since, helping develop a fascination with fairy lore and the Otherworld that lasts to this day. The sad fate of the green boy particularly affected me – and still does, I confess. As a child who was uprooted from my home several times, I admire the green girl for getting on with it, knuckling down and fitting in, but I was like the green boy, lonely and pining for a time and place where I was comfortable…

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The play was written by a couple who lived a couple miles north of Hadleigh in Whatfield, Mona Bruce and Robert James. The Internet Movie Database describes James as ‘a prolific “I know the face, but” performer of intelligence, authority and a distinctive countenance’, whose finest moment may have been as a ‘conscience-stricken scientist’ in the 1966 Doctor Who episode, ‘The Power of the Daleks’![i] His wife was a writer and actress, ‘known for Within These Walls (1974), To Sir, with Love (1967) and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple: 4.50 from Paddington (1987).’[ii] They became heavily involved in HADS – James was the Chairman, and also in the Whatfield Amateur Dramatic Society.

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They wrote the play – actually a musical – in 1972, and it was revived in 1979, the production my Mum was involved in. Here’s what they have to say about it – it sounds as if we ought to have known the play better, if only for the tickly question of money! Let’s revive it, now! It was a humorous take on the story, full, says a local newspaper, ‘of funny Suffolkisms’ such as ‘“They must have been foreign,” said a startled villager. “’Appen they come from Essex,” came the reply.’[iii]

 

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In rehearsal

 

 

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So hungry!

 

 

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In the ‘green’ room… (just to give an idea of how green they were!)

Fortunately, Mum has a few pictures from the production, which, in 1979, stared Allyson White as the green girl, and Stephen Hicks as the green boy. Captions my Mum’s. You can even see my Mum, looking willowy and Pre-Raphaelite in the background of the rehearsal one…

 

She – and I – wonder what happened to the swan…

Notes:

[i] http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0416877/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm

[ii] http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0115551/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm

[iii] Newspaper clipping ‘Musical Shows Off Group’s Talents’ (3 December 1979), private collection

Images:

All images © Cherry Wilkinson

The Green Children of Woolpit (and Bardwell)

The cover image on Suffolk Folk Tales shows two of my favourite tales from the book. One, the story of King Raedwald of East Anglia, has featured already in this blog, but the one that gazes soulfully out of the page at you hasn’t – despite being one of Suffolk’s most famous tales. I’ve been biding my time, waiting for the right moment. And now it’s arrived – The Green Children features in The Anthology of English Folk Tales (The History Press) out on 1 November. I was really keen for this story to feature in the book because not only it is important for Suffolk, but is a nationally important tale, one of the first that shows the place of the fair folk – or the dead? – the Otherworld. Or does it? I’m going to do two blogs about this story – this is the first, looking at the story in Suffolk, and the places and people associated with it. The second blog will look at the theories that have grown up around this little tale – and other medieval mirabilia.

It’s an old tale, one of three in Suffolk Folk Tales recorded by the monk Ralph of Coggeshall in his Chronicon Anglicanum around the turn of the 13th century: the others being the Wildman of Orford and Malekin. Unlike the other two, the Green Children has another source, a slightly earlier source, from the Yorkshire monk William of Newburgh. The stories vary a little, but not in their essentials – the discovery of children with green skin in the small Suffolk village of Woolpit just outside Bury St Edmunds, then a major pilgrimage site for the relics of St Edmund. I decided to mostly follow Ralph’s story, for, although his is a slightly later recording, he knew Suffolk and his feels more realistic, with its names and places specified. Anyone who has anything to do with folklore will know that that is a mocker – specificity does not historical accuracy make – but when you are reaching back into the reign of King Stephen, much is inevitably guesswork.

In Woolpit they are proud of the green children – they feature on the village sign, and in the museum you can buy mugs featuring them!

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I should note that Woolpit probably doesn’t mean ‘wolf pit’ as William of Newburgh assumes – or, it does, but not in the way he thinks. Woolpit’s an old village. We know of it in the early 11th century when East Anglia was under the rule of Ulfketel Snillingr. Ulfketel is in the background of another of the tales in Suffolk Folk Tales, The Legend of the Holy Wells. Woolpit (Wlfpet) was given by Ulfketel to the abbey at Bury (in thanks?) after the battle of Thetford in 1004. Ulfketel means ‘wolftrap’[i]. Is that the explanation behind the name? Simply named after the lord of the manor?

There probably were pits around the village, though. There were three Romano-British farmsteads nearby – perhaps the pits were in one of those? Or maybe they emerged from the Roman clay pit at nearby Elmswell?[ii] We’ll never know – and more on the theories in the next blog! Ironically, the story of the green children wasn’t the most famous thing about Woolpit during the middle ages. It was the site of a holy well, and a shrine to the Virgin Mary. By the time the green children were found in the late 12th century, pilgrims were probably already making their way to pray at the image of the Virgin in the church. No wonder the villagers moved the green children on so fast!

In Ralph’s version, you see, it isn’t Woolpit where most of the action takes place. According to him, the villagers take the children to the nearby manor of Wikes, to the custody of the Constable of the neighbouring hundred, Blackbourn (Woolpit was in Thedwastre hundred), Richard de Calne. He was a real person, who definitely held a manor at Bardwell. We know his granddaughter Sibilla sold land there. Her name possibly links us back to Ralph – she is ‘de Colonia’, not de Calne. Is this a reference to Colchester (Colonia Victricensis) in Essex, not far from Coggeshall? Well, probably not, but you never know – after all, he had links with the landowners at Dagworth where Malekin is set.

To my mild dismay I discovered there were two manors called Wikes – both of them in the little village of Bardwell. I confess I couldn’t discover which was the correct manor. So, after an unsatisfactory lunch at Wyken Vineyard (sorry – it was really nice, but very small and rather expensive!) I decided to plump for the other one, Wykes. If you look on an OS map today, Wykes manor is not there. However, we had an old map bought by my Grandad in the 1970s, and there it was – low earthworks near the church, clearly marked. All gone, ploughed away in the last 40 years.

 

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The Black Bourn still trickles past, and it was possible to imagine the scene – but, as you see, there wasn’t a bump in the field to mark the house.

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I felt rather sorry for it, so Wykes it was. I felt a bit sorry for Bardwell too, oblivious, it seemed, to its association with Ralph’s famous story, and was keen to bring it back into the tale.

The green girl seems to have been happy at Bardwell – although in the end she did go to yet another country … across the border to Norfolk, to live with her husband in what is now called King’s Lynn!

Notes:

[i] Information taken from http://www.woolpit.org/history/

[ii] The Green Children of Woolpit by Elizabeth Cockayne (n.d.), p. 5

Images:

  1. Me and the Woolpit mug © Kirsty Hartsiotis
  2. The ‘green children’ of Woolpit on the village sign © Copyright Rod Bacon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
  3. The Black Bourn at Bardwell © Kirsty Hartsiotis
  4. Wykes Manor, Bardwell © Kirsty Hartsiotis

More video – Kevan performs The Ruin for upcoming Malmesbury Wessex Week show

On Friday 21 October, Chantelle and Kevan will be performing The Flight of the Sparrow,  at Malmesbury’s Wessex Week.

It’s a show of monarchs, mortality and morality in tale and song. Kevan and Chantelle explore the lives of Saxon kings, queens and saints in this enchanting ‘scop’ show for adults. With clarsach, percussion, Anglo-Saxon riddles, poetry and songs of the mead-hall, the duo will illuminate the time of Athelstan.

Here’s a wee taster of Kevan performing the great Anglo Saxon poem The Ruin, said to be about the ruins of Roman Bath:

Tales of Witchcraft and Wonder – videos!

Those lovely folks in Inkubus Sukkubus recorded the whole show on 9 September 2016 and are releasing videos on You Tube! Here are a selection – watch this space for more as they come up.

Kirsty starts the whole thing by telling The Deerhurst Dragon:

Ronald Hutton introduces the band in his own inimitable style:

And here’s one of my all-time favourite songs, the Witch of Berkeley:

The Life, Labours and … Ghosts of a Forest Collier – by Kirsty Hartsiotis

 

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Timothy Mountjoy (1824-1896)

 

It’s fitting, perhaps, to be posting this on the death day of William Morris. Exactly ten years older than Morris, and dying in the same year, the man pictured here isn’t known at all. An internet search for Morris brings up thousand upon thousand of entries. For this man, Timothy Mountjoy, the references are expended by the end of the first page[i]. And yet, like William Morris, Timothy Mountjoy was a passionate, obsessive man, deeply committed to the cause of bettering the conditions of life – in Mountjoy’s case for his fellow miners and their families. Like Morris, too, he was compelled to write. In his case, it was a memoir of his life and the Forest of Dean in the mid-19th century, rather than poetry or actual Socialist polemic against the mores of their shared world.

I discovered Timothy Mountjoy while researching Gloucestershire Ghost Tales. There are many ghost tales from the Forest, but I was struggling to find one that spoke to me, that I wanted to tell. Then I found this strange tale of dark, drunken deeds on Ruardean Hill, and what happened after … which became ‘The Body in Pan Tod Mine’. And the source? Mountjoy’s book.

Now, this book is, on the face of it, a strange source for a ghost story. Mountjoy was a Baptist minister, a committed Christian who expends a lot of ink in The Life, Labours and Deliverances of a Forest of Dean Collier in telling us about his faith. He was one of the men who brought trade unionism to the Forest miners, was the General Secretary of the first union for coal miners in the Forest, the Forest of Dean Miners’ Association, and fought to improve their lot throughout his life – though with little thanks and only varying success! But hidden in the interstices of his book are fascinating glimpses of another life, one of haunted woods, of dark deeds and of Mountjoy’s own uncanny second sight. In Gloucestershire Ghost Tales, his story is told in ‘The Body in the Pan Tod Mine’ – which, it seems, Mountjoy (and the rest of the Forest, according to him!) witnessed. Note, dear readers – there’s a little extra ‘ghost’ tale at the bottom of this post … read on!

The Life, Labours etc. is exceedingly rare – though I would dearly love my own copy, they are not available for love nor money[ii]! So I went to Gloucestershire Archives to read it, armed with a notebook and a pencil. Everyone else seemed to have piles of documents, so I felt a little small sitting there with my single tiny volume. But it was worth it. Timothy Mountjoy should be better known.

Born at Littledean Hill in 1824, he was born into a rapidly changing world. In the 1820s the Forest of Dean was just about to become a major place of industry. Iron and coal had been mined there since at least Roman times, and small scale free mining had taken place since the reign of Edward I (a reward for Foresters who had taken part in the Siege of Berwick, apparently!). But the industrial revolution changed the pace and scale of mining forever. After all, what did it need more than anything? Iron and coal. Hundreds of pits were opened up – but as Mountjoy records, the conditions for the men who worked in them – and their families – were bad to the point of dangerous. He describes how, in 1819, 4 men were killed when their chain link (probably made of flat iron links and hemp rope) broke. The youngest man, Meredith, was only 12, the same age that Mountjoy started in the pits 17 years later.

Mountjoy own start in life was tenuous – as a baby he cried day and night, until the girl who was watching him was minded to throw him into a nearby well! As a young lad in the pit he was careless one day and knocked his head fooling around – knocking himself out and falling down the pit. He got away with bruises, but it must have been experiences like that that made him so keen to improve the conditions (and pay, of course) of the miners, but also made him turn to religion.

But Mountjoy knew things … he speaks how he would dream true, and recounts how once, he dreamed that there were lots of men milling about Prospect Pit, and as he came in he saw there was a man lying dead. Alarmed by the dream he reported it to the bosses (though maybe not to the man he saw dead) but nothing happened. Then, a cry was heard, and it was discovered that the roof of part of the pit had collapsed, crushing a boy, Mark Williams, to his death beneath. Mountjoy was sure his dream had been a warning. His first wife, too knew things too. He records how she told him early in their marriage that she would die in her 35th year … and she did.

He describes forgotten ghosts, too. Who was the ghost by the crooked pear tree that his sister saw, and who was haunting the Temple[iii]? He himself had an experience. One night when he was walking over Owl Hill homewards through the Heywood Enclosure, the woods closing in on him as he went, the night dark under the trees … and there, eyeball to eyeball with him, a white face, two huge dark eyes… He backed away… It followed … and so it went until the edge of the wood when a shaft of moonlight revealed the spook – a calf and its mother! Full of relief and chastising himself for believing for a moment that ghosts really existed young Timothy made his way homewards only to see a white shape rise in front of him when he was nearly home. Hair standing on end, Timothy stopped – but the spook took fright at the sight of him and legged it … and Timothy saw he was leaving a trail of potatoes as he fled. No ghost there, but a potato thief in a sheet!

Notes:

[i] You can find out about him in Four Personalities from the Forest of Dean by Ralph Anstis (Albion House: Coleford, 1996)

[ii] There is a booklet of extracts from the book Hard Times in the Forest by Timothy Boughton and Fred Mountjoy (Forest of Dean Newspapers Ltd, 1971) but this is almost as unavailable as the book itself!

[iii] This is Solomon’s Temple, an 18th century house built on what is now Temple Lane – but of course a real temple was discovered many years later near Littledean Hall, a Roman temple!