We’re all in shock today. Again. How many unthinkables can one take in a year? Today seems a triumph much of what’s wrong in the world: racism, sexism, hate-mongering, predatory sexual behaviour, unthinking capitalism, climate change-denying, intolerance, deliberate misunderstanding, lying etc. All those thing repressed can now, it seems, come to the fore. It is frightening. The future is a dark place now, and the positives gone out the window, despite media spin. It would be all too easy to retreat. I know I have been. As the US elections neared I cracked open my old Mercedes Lackey Heralds of Valdemar books. Why them? Well, they are moral fairy tales, in which reasoned thought to do good wins over the irrational and evil every time. I’ve read them many times. I now feel like clinging to them. I don’t want to watch or listen to the news. Everything screams: hide!
And it’s not just that. I’m tired. There are other, smaller fights, everyday fights, that have to be fought. From small, recognised injustices to the simple fight to put bread on the table and keep up with the pace of today’s life. I’m tired. I don’t want to fight.
And it’s not that. We’ve been hiding a while, haven’t we? We retreat into bake-offs, knitting, endless nature books about Britain, cosy nostalgic things. And these are good things, worth doing. But they are inward looking. Morris was inward, too, at first. He didn’t want to see outside his art, his deep and abiding passion for all things medieval that manifest in his designs and his poetry. The title of this blog comes from his great epic poem, The Earthly Paradise, 1868-70. He describes himself, in the same verse, as a ‘dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time,’. And I’ve felt that. Not that I’d want to really live in another time, but that I want to dwell in a dream of it. I’m a writer – so, like Morris, that’s part of what I do,. I dream in a fantasy world. After all, here I am writing a blog about a Victorian medievaliser!
But Morris decided to fight. He had a tipping point. Having been stalwartly uninterested in politics through his youth, but falling on the Liberal side of things, an issue in the mid-1870s opened his eyes. Once open, he could not again close them fully. In 1876 Europe was gripped in a crisis concerning Russia and Turkey (plus ça change!), and Morris was inspired by the words of the then leader of the opposition, William Gladstone, and his impassioned writing against the atrocities that the Turks had committed against the Bulgarians. Morris joined the Eastern Question Committee, he took his first tentative steps into fiery political writing. At the next election, Gladstone got in … and didn’t fulfil Morris’s hopes. But his eyes were open. He had to keep fighting. So he found another forum in which to fight.
And he used what he knew, what he could do. Okay, Morris was a famous poet. And he did what he did best. He drew upon his medieval roots and concocted an idealised, but still potent vision inspired by them. He wrote and wrote, and he lectured. He wrote novels that espoused his political thought. He tried hard to embody his theories. Maybe he failed, some of the time. But he fought. It didn’t stop him hiding a bit as well. Morris always had his obsessions – translating Icelandic sagas, calligraphy and illumination etc. etc.- and he could lose himself in that work as well as the ‘bread and cheese work’ of his design company, Morris & Co. But he channelled it, he made what he loved into the fight.
It’s hard to fight, and it’s hard to realise, as Morris did, that the fight is something that you can’t win, yourself, in your lifetime. But, like Morris, let’s not give in to hiding – let us strive to set the crooked straight. Stick to our ideals, and remember that to be idealistic is a good thing. Maybe then…
Solidarity. What does the word mean to you? For me, as a child of the 80s, it automatically means a trade union in Poland. Despite the fact that Solidarity was formed within and contra to a communist state, it was still to fight for the rights of workers and the oppressed. It seems an unavoidably socialist word, but all it actually means is ‘unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group.’[i] So, for example, ineffectual as it might be, we show solidarity with the Standing Rock protesters in the Dakotas by logging in there on facebook. Our nifty new social media networks connect us with others who think and feel the same (let’s not talk about bubbles and the shock of encountering a counter opinion). We sign petitions by the score. We blog. If we’re lucky, we reach wider fora. We might donate. We might march. We might join a party or a group. We might even go and stand by our fellows in person. It’s all solidarity. We might also create art, but does it do any good?
Although it’s facilitated by social media these days, it’s nothing new. This blog is about solidarity, of a kind, from an Arts and Crafts artist (not Morris, sorry!) to a very contentious cause. One that seems appropriate to blog about on the 5 November, as it’s all about that point where protest meets terror. Not what you’d expect a mild-mannered artist (definitely not Morris!) to involve themselves in. But involve himself he did. ‘He’ being Walter Crane, the artist of the British socialist movement bar none, and he was a great believer in unity and solidarity in the rapidly fragmenting world of left wing activism in the late 19th century.
The tale involves protest against injustice, homemade bombs, police infiltration and miscarriage of justice. And it really isn’t about Guy Fawkes! It’s about anarchy in the USA, not, for once, in the UK. The end game happened 129 years ago – not on the 5 November but on another potent day in our calendar, the 11 November. Now, we all know 11 November as Remembrance Day, the day where we remember those who fought in the two world wars – and beyond, to the wars that, despite the prayers of those at the end of both the First and Second World Wars, have kept on and kept on happening. Now, I could go off at a tangent as to why I wear the Peace Pledge Union’s white poppy (available from these outlets should you wish for one…) not the red, why I want to remember of those who have died in war, but I’d better not! Suffice to say, we’ve mostly forgotten to remember what happened on that 11 November 1887, even though what happened that day and for the long 16 months before it on 4 May 1886 inspired the institution of International Labour Day, the 1 May. How many remember now that it was the Haymarket Affair that triggered it?
The Haymarket Affair is still, as far as I know, a mystery. It happened as part of a rally in support of strikers in Chicago who were, as many were at the time, campaigning for an eight hour day with no reduction in day. There was a body of anarchists in the city, and it’s hard to know who within those groups was keen to pursue direct action and who preferred the semi-legality of rallies and marches and speeches. Certainly, a leaflet had gone out inciting people to go armed to the meeting – although it had been swiftly withdrawn. That 4 May, the police came en masse to break up the rally, the crowd was dispersing, the leaders stepping down … when a bomb was thrown into the path of the advancing police. It exploded, fatally wounding a policeman. What appears to have happened next is that the police, afraid, opened fire. Shots were fired back – some folks were armed.
To this day we don’t know who threw the bomb. There is some certainty that it wasn’t any of the 8 men arrested. The only suspect for the actual throwing, Rudolph Schnaubelt, got away. All 8 men were anarchists. Some, such as Louis Lingg, were involved in bomb making. The others? Well, they were certainly anarchists. They were also all found guilty. Three were sentenced to life in prison. Five were sentenced to hang. Lingg committed suicide in prison the day before his hanging. The other four were executed the next day, 11 November 1887.
This trail was not a local issue. The bomb sent shock waves around the world. This was a new kind of protest – it was the beginning of the kind of terrorism that we know today. It marked a black moment in the history of protest, signalling that the protestors were as likely as the establishment to use extreme force, and in this destabilising, terrifying way – not by force of numbers, but this anonymous piece of kit. From this moment, nothing would be the same.
And yet, the socialists and anarchists around the world rallied behind the eight men. Not because they thought the bomb was a good idea (although some no doubt did), but because they saw a grave miscarriage of justice unfolding. These eight men were being scapegoated, and their movement destroyed. Walter Crane was there from the beginning, ‘an outspoken advocate for the defendants from 1886 onward and vocal in his support of the movement to pardon them’[ii]. It made free speech a hot topic in 1880s London, with Morris’s Commonweal publishing many articles. Crane himself had two poems in defence of the men published there. Poems? Sounds feeble? Well, poems could be printed and taken to meetings to be recited[iii] – actually powerful!
In 1891 Crane was in America for the first time. He was a successful artist, and this was a retrospective of his work. It was also the fifth anniversary of the affair. Crane spoke at an anarchist event in Boston, reciting his poems and giving a speech. When he returned to his hotel ‘he found a letter informing him that public espousal of the cause of the Anarchists meant “hopeless ruin” to his social and artistic prospects in America’[iv]. Crane did respond to this, saying he didn’t support violence, but that he did support the key anarchist idea of ‘a life of voluntary association, of free individual development – the freedom only bounded by respect for the freedom of others’[v].
In 1894 he produced an image to commemorate the Chicago Anarchists. In 1893 the men had been pardoned, but at the same time the idea of bombing had taken off. Crane was perhaps more ambivalent to the cause, and had turned away from anarchism back to the safer embrace of socialism, but he still showed solidarity with the idea of fair justice for all in law, as had not happened for the those arrested for the bombing, even if his own allegiances had shifted. He always strove to create unity. His images are all about unity – the figures of Liberty and winged Freedom embrace us all. He was a member of several different groups – from Fabians to the Hammersmith Socialists, was friends with anarchists like Kropotkin, and published in all the journals, cunningly trying to draw the ideas together. He produced art for all the groups, and his art defined the style used for much socialist – and suffrage – art up to the First World War.
So, a poem can show solidarity. So can a piece of visual art. Although speaking out and protesting is necessary, we remember Walter Crane’s art (maybe not the poems!), Morris’s poetry and novels, Shaw’s plays more than much that actually went on at the time. They still speak to us today, and maybe can encourage us to use our creativity to stand firm – with Standing Rock, perhaps, and with any other injustice that speaks to us – and stand together in the best and most fitting way we can, that which speaks to our creative talents. So, sing, recite, paint, act, joke – even yarn bomb. But remember Walter Crane’s words of 1894 in Freedom, an anarchist journal, on how violence fails because ‘people cannot be forced into perceiving the right way, any more than thought can be stopped by force’[vi].
Note – much of the content and all the quotes of Walter Crane’s involvement in the Haymarket Affair are taken from: ‘Cartoons for the Cause? Walter Crane’s The Anarchists of Chicago’ by Morna O’Neill, originally published in Art History, 2014, and can be found here.
You can find out more about the Haymarket Affair here.
Stroud Out Loud! – the monthly open mic event I set up a couple of years ago at Mr Twitchett’s, the café – bar of the Subscription Rooms (having moved there from Black Book Cafe, where it was known as Story Supper – itself a ‘reincarnation’ of a previous Stroud event, Story Cabaret…) has moved to a new venue, and a new slot – the last Sunday of the month. The Little Vic, as it’s fondly known, is the ‘function room’ of the Queen Victoria pub, found at the bottom of the High Street, the main artery of Stroud’s throbbing metropolis.
Weighed down with an enormous pumpkin, backdrop, candles, flyers, horn, and other bardic miscellany, I arrived early to set up; hanging, with help from Team Brown, the drapes and putting out chairs and lights in exactly the same kind of way we used to set up the long-running Bath Storytelling Circle (founded by Anthony Nanson) which started off in the skittle alley of a backstreet pub before I found its current and long-standing venue, The Raven, where it’s been ever since. Finding the right venue is critical to a story circle’s success – it needs the right acoustics, the right ambience, and the right location. In the Little Vic, I think we’ve hit paydirt. With the room ‘dressed’ it looked splendidly atmospheric, and in a story performance, atmosphere does half the work. In a heritage venue that’s usually easy, but in a more modern space, often with harsh lighting, that can be harder – but the Little Vic was already half-way there, with beams and low-lighting. It is a very adaptable space as well, enabling different set-ups – which is partly why it finds itself hosting regular folk music, singers, stand-up, and now storytelling nights, as well as the odd Halloween disco (though somebody had run off with one of the life-sized skeletons the night before!). Our fabulous new banner was hung pride of place – the result of an enjoyable ‘art party’. After the logo was created by Tom Brown from a sketch-concept by his partner, Nimue, the banner was painted at Becca’s, with Kirsty Hartsiotis and myself adding the borders. Pumpkin pie and other snacks kept us going – and the result shows what can be achieved. Running a regular event like this can be a thankless task. You don’t get anything for it, and it can often feel like you’re doing all the hard work for everyone else’s benefits – providing a free, supportive and creative space for folk to flourish in (yes, you get to try things out as well, but you’re still doing the donkey work, and MC-ing well can be tiring, especially if you’re not feeling ‘entertaining’) – but the banner, and the resulting evening, shows what can happen when it becomes a truly team effort. It feels far more fun, fluid and enjoyable. I doubt I would have carried on the evening without this support, but this has given it a new lease of life.
And the awen flowed!
After I introduced the evening, the Browns evoked the perfect ambience for Samhain, the Celtic New Year (more commonly known as Halloween) with a fantastic rendition of ‘The Lyke Wake Dirge’. Then we had poems from the current Bard of Hawkwood, Anthony Hentschel, which explored and expressed the ‘shadow’. Next, veteran actor Paul regaled us with a fantastic Jewish tale, accompanied by his fiddle. We had poems from Terry Custance about his trip to the USA; followed by a personal anecdote by a visiting American, Robin O’Flynn. The fact that Robin felt welcome to walk in off the street and safe enough to share with complete strangers the story of her life was proof of the pudding, as far as I was concerned, that we had created the right kind of space. Then we had Wayland who had come up from Royal Wootton Bassett to share his tale of the Moddey Dhu, the Black Dog that haunts Peel Castle on the Isle of Man.
It was great to have a cross-section of storytelling styles and other art-forms, including acapella singing, music, stand-up and poetry. I invited young James, of the Browns, up to share his song, ‘Three Drops’, which we all joined in with, and this led nicely into my version of ‘The Battle of Brunanburgh’, adapted from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which I performed accompanying myself with shruti box and bones. After the break we had an amusing stand-up routine from Peter Adams, a vivid poem about a fox from Robin Collins, which inspired me to relate my Oxfordshire story of ‘The White Hare’(featured in The Anthology of English Folk Tales, published by The History Press on 1st November); and this, in turn, inspired Nimue to share her song, ‘The White Hare’ … I love it when such spontaneous connections emerge. Then we had Fiona Eadie’s tour-de-force, her version of Tam Lin, which she always likes to perform at Halloween – a prose version of this is featured in Ballad Tales: an anthology of British Ballads retold, which I had been slaving away at for the Halloween deadline (it is due out, also from The History Press, next July, and features myself, Nimue, and other SOL! regulars like Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis and Chantelle Smith among others). We had a comic song from James about David Attenborough, a final poem from Anthony about ‘the Owl Lady’, then I shared my version of another Anglo-Saxon poem, ‘The Ruin’, a suitably melancholic meditation on mortality and impermanence for Samhain. Nimue offered a great closing shanty, which got us all singing along, then I sent everyone on their way with a traditional Celtic valediction. Everyone went home with a bit of magic and a warm glow in their hearts. As Peter Adams quipped: ‘a Little Vic is good for you!’ It was an excellent evening and hopefully the first of many at our lovely new home.
Stroud Out Loud! returns on 27 November, 7pm for 7.30pm start. Arrive early for a slot. 3 mins if reading, up to 10 mins if performing from memory. Little Vic, Queen Victoria, 5 Gloucester Street, Stroud GL5 1QG. (NB the December SOL! Will be on the 18th).
The Anthology of English Folk Tales is out today, 1 November 2016! This treasury of tales from all around England is drawn from the History Press’s county folk tales series and features tellers such as Taffy Thomas MBE, Hugh Lupton, David Phelps, the storyteller who started the History Press on this folk and ghost tale journey – and Anthony, Kevan and Kirsty from Fire Springs! We three have five tales in the book, from Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, Wiltshire and Suffolk. And of course it has an all new cover illustration from folk tales illustrator extraordinaire, Katherine Soutar-Caddick! An ideal Christmas present for wide-ranging folk tale seekers?
That’s not all – all SIX Fire Springs members – Chantelle, David and Richard as well as the usual suspects above are going to be featured in a new History Press book coming out in 2017. Ballad Tales, edited by Kevan, is a book of 20 tales inspired by traditional British ballads by storytellers, writers and musicians. Kevan’s heroically produced all the interior illustrations, but the cover design will be a departure – Stroud-based printmaker Andy Kinnear has been commissioned to produce a cover in his inimitable macabre style… Watch this space!
‘But the night is Halloween, and the fairy court do ride…’
Tonight 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!
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.
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]
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.
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!
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…’
But 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…
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.
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]
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…
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!
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.
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.
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!