CHILDREN FROM THE SKY
by DUNCAN LUNAN
A Speculative Interpretation of a Mediaeval Mystery – the Green Children of Woolpit
With illustrations including sixteen original drawings and paintings by Sydney Jordan.
Talking to Filip Coppens on the subject of the Green Children:
Higherside chats podcast link:
In the late 12th century, two very strange children came out of an ancient earthwork at the village of Woolpit in East Anglia. The incident is recorded, from different view-points, by two chroniclers both regarded as reliable. The children wore clothing of a colour and material never seen before, spoke a language nobody recognised, and were coloured green all over. Later, when they had learned ‘our manner of speaking’, and lost their green colour, they gave an account of their homeland which definitely was no place on Earth.
Most historians since have regarded the incident as a fairy story, but in the 17th cent-ury Robert Burton included it in the astronomy section of The Anatomy of Melancholy, suggesting that the children came from another world. Could it be true? After years of research, I’ve tackled the question under three headings.
Part 1 – History and Mystery. Locates the places named in the green children story and traces the people, who turn out to be real, though mysterious, and very highly connected. The incident at Woolpit was one of a series of events at linked sites and seems to have been anticipated by the authorities of the time.
Part 2 – Enter the Green Children. Establishes the likely arrival date of the green children, and the likely identity of the green girl, who survived into adult life. I’ve traced her story to the likely date of her death, and her descendants to the present day, while exploring the continuing series of events relating to her ‘arrival’, including some strange things happening in the sky at the same time.
Part 3 – Speculation. An imaginative scenario to account for the green children and the related events. The main scenario suggests that in mediaeval times there might have been mass abductions from Earth, by extraterrestrials, for experimental purposes, with the knowledge if not the agreement of the authorities – if it was true, “The X-Files are set in the wrong century.”
Investigating the Green Children
The mystery of the Green Children of Woolpit has interested me since the mid-1960s and after looking into it briefly from time to time, I took it up seriously in 1993. At the 1995 World Science Fiction Convention I gave a talk on the green children, and had an article accepted for Analog in March 1996. Two new children's books about it and a number of articles by other writers appeared at that time, and Glyn Maxwell's play 'Wolfpit', a much more adult treatment, was performed by the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatics Club at the Edinburgh Festival. I spoke on it again at the 2005 Worldcon and an updated version of the article was published in R.I.L.K.O. Journal in 2006. After several false starts with agents and other publishers, a sixth draft of the book, “Children from the Sky – a speculative investigation of a mediaeval mystery”, was published by Mutus Liber in late May of 2012.
I discovered the story at Glasgow University in the mid-1960s, studying English and Philosophy along with Astronomy, Physics and other subjects. Among the set texts in the history of literature was “The Anatomy of Melancholy” by Robert Burton (1621), and in its astronomy and meteorology section, ‘A Digression of the Air’, I came across his great throwaway line. Having shared his excitement at the possibility of space travel, now that it was known that the planets go round the Sun in free orbit and not on solid crystalline shells, he adds that they must be inhabited (why create them, otherwise?), “and it may be that those two green children which Nubrigensis speaks of in his time, that fell from heaven, came from thence”.
The Notes to the Everyman edition of Burton gave the references, but I didn’t follow them up until 1972, when I began writing my first book, “Man and the Stars”, based on discussions which I was running in the Scottish spaceflight society ASTRA. I had intended to pursue the enquiry in Part 2B of the book, looking for possible cases of past contact with extraterrestrials, but it became eclipsed at the time by the ‘Epsilon Boötis affair’ (see “Man the Stars”) I put Burton’s quotation at the head of Chapter 11 of “Man and the Stars”, just to see what reaction it would get, but nobody ever picked up on it.
The story was recorded by William of Newburgh (Nubrigensis) in his "History of English Affairs" in 1195-98, after he had interviewed "so many witnesses, and witnesses of such quality" that he was convinced by them. During the reign of king Stephen, he says, at an earthwork near Woolpit village in Suffolk, east of Bury St. Edmunds, at harvest time, "there emerged two children, a male and a female, green of the entire body and dressed in clothing of extraordinary colour and unknown mater-ial." They were given no food at first, but even near death they wouldn't consider any food which was offered. They were saved eventually by bean plants, which happened to be just the same colour they were. After that, they were weaned on to bread and by degrees to a full normal diet: their green colour faded and they became normal themselves. The boy died soon after christening "when they had learned our manner of speaking", and the girl grew up and married a man at King's Lynn.
But clearly the reason Burton had put it in his astronomy section was that when asked about their origins, they described an upbringing in a land of permanent twilight, separated from a country of permanent sunlight by a very broad river. It sounded like a planet with a trapped rotation, keeping the same face always towards its sun, as the Moon does towards the Earth. And to add to the intrigue, when asked how they came to Woolpit, they said that because (stressed) they were out with their father’s livestock on a certain day, they heard a loud sound of bells like those of Bury St. Edmunds (like them, not the Bury bells themselves as some modern versions insist) and then ‘suddenly, as if placed in some absence of mind, we found ourselves in the field where you were reaping’ – as if by matter-transmitter, and as if by accident.
Fifteen years later, when I was running an annual science fiction short story competition for the Glasgow Herald, one of the other judges was my friend Prof. Archie Roy, astronomy professor, thriller-writer, and founder of the Scottish Society for Psychical Research. In 1989 he was investigating the phenomenon of crop circles, and he told me some anecdotes which he considered too strange to publish. I must have gone a funny colour myself, because some of them reminded me of the green children story, and although the crop circle aspect proved to be a red herring, it got me restarted on the enquiry.
Ralph, sixth abbot of Coggeshall in Essex, 25 miles south of Woolpit, tells the same story in his "Chronicon Anglicanum". He got the story from the family with whom the girl was living as an adult, in "the home at Wikes of lord Richard de Calna, a certain kind of knight", and although there still aren’t a lot of details, those that he gives mostly confirm and add to William of Newburgh’s version. Normally, if someone tells a tall story in a mediaeval chronicle, others simply copy it word for word; but these two are telling it from different viewpoints, in different words, with different but complementary details.
In September 1993 I was in London for the Glasgow Herald, covering a public meeting organised by the British National Space Centre – a NASA-style ‘town meeting’, debating whether the European Space Agency’s next ‘Cornerstone Mission’ should be Rosetta, the comet explorer, or FIRST, the Far Infra-Red Space Telescope. (Rosetta got the initial priority, but FIRST, renamed IRS, has long since completed its mission, while Rosetta didn’t launch till 2006 and is still in flight.) I had decided to write an article on the green children for Analog, and after the conference I went by bus to Bury St. Edmunds and Woolpit.
I expected just to get some local colour for the article, but beforehand I’d drawn up a list of questions with the help of my friend Bill Ramsay, a history graduate. I got a warm welcome in Woolpit – the Bygones Museum, as it then was, opened for me out of season – but everywhere that I asked my questions, the reply was “You’ll have to go to the County Records Office for that”. So I went back to Bury St. Edmunds and joined the County Archives Research Network, after which I was shown the card index and told “Just tell us what you want to see”.
Five hours later, exhausted, dehydrated and starving, I reeled out into Bury St. Edmunds market knowing that I was on to something big. It was to take ten years of virtually full-time work to research it, during which I went public with the story four times – at the World Science Fiction Conventions in 1995 and 2005, the Edinburgh International Science Festival in 1996, and the Fortean Society ‘Unconvention’ in 1997. Two of those gained good coverage, in the Herald, the Scotsman, the Observer, Sunday Telegraph, Scotland on Sunday and the Glasgow Evening Times. I spoke on it again at the World Science Fiction Convention in 2005 and the British Eastercon in 2006, but only in 2011, when I met Sean Martin of Mutus Liber and also filmed an introduction to the mystery for National Geographic Ancient X-Files, did things really start to happen. The book came out in late May 2012, and I filmed another documentary with the late Phillip Coppens, for Warner, which would have gone into the story in much more detail, but for his untimely death from liver cancer in 2012
A first point of attack was that the children were taken to “the home of lord Richard de Calna, at Wykes”. It’s not easy to find, and many modern writers have assumed that he was the lord of Woolpit itself – so small a village that probably he was of little importance. Glyn Maxwell’s play portrays him as a young man, a ‘masterless knight’, uncertain which side to back in the civil war between king Stephen and the empress Matilda (the setting of the ‘Brother Cadfael’ novels by Ellis Peters). William of Newburgh says that’s when the children arrived, but Ralph of Coggeshall got the story from de Calna and his family when the once-green girl was living with his family as an adult. The dates don’t fit: the civil war ended in 1154, Ralph didn’t go to Coggeshall until the late 1170s, and Richard de Calna died in 1189. The circumstantial evidence suggests that the children arrived in 1173, shortly before the Flemish invasion of East Anglia, during the rebellion against Henry II led by his sons and their mother. Perhaps the witnesses deliberately confused the two troubled periods, to put William of Newburgh or his enquiry agents off the scent!
But the key thing is that it seems this event really happened. Richard de Calna was much more important than most people think: his family were highly placed throughout the church in England and he was very close to the king, who took a great deal of interest in Woolpit and in the green children after they arrived. The event was anticipated – Henry II had already taken control of Woolpit and put one of his top officials in charge of it, and he put crack troops into the area when the children arrived. Almost certainly they were knights Templar, and de Calna was an associate Templar. His manor at Wykes was next door to the English provincial Master’s, and the Pope was at least aware that something was happening in the area.
Another of the questions I had set myself to answer was, ‘What were the children christened?’ There were no parish registers in those days and to trace people you have to turn to property records and court cases. One thing that intrigues me is what has motivated people, over the last two hundred years, to laboriously transcribe those mediaeval records and make them accessible to modern researchers – as long as you know your Latin! I’ve dedicated my book to the principal teacher of Latin at my old school. Tracing Richard de Calna was difficult because his service to the king was so valuable that he was excused all taxes, but once I had linked him to his family, the rest could be filled in. The person who comes to stand out, sharing an inheritance with de Calna’s daughter, is a woman called Agnes who appears out of nowhere – no family background, no maiden name to revert to when she’s widowed, yet she’s sufficiently important to marry one of Henry II’s senior ambassadors. Agnes was important in her own right: Henry III visited her at the end of her life. And when I started checking Richard Barre’s career, it looks as if he was de Calna’s protégé, probably his godson. If this story was fiction, discrepancies would have come to light long before this, but instead, each new ‘find’ in the research just strengthens the scenario.
I did a survey of mediaeval chronicles for cases of people mysteriously appearing and disappearing, and I found very few of them. Some of those were obvious stories of witchcraft and fairies, but others – the ones which had interesting details – turned out to be connected, not just geographically, but also by the people involved in them. The sites where these things happened were controlled by a small number of people who knew one another. I also looked for correlations with events in the sky, and there it got very interesting: meteor showers, huge auroral displays, explosions in the atmosphere and on the Moon – and the trail leads to Jerusalem, with Richard Barre’s father, Richard de Calna and Richard Barre himself all there at crucial times. What is most extraordinary is that the enquiry then converges with the earlier and later aspects of the Epsilon Boötis one – see “Man and the Stars”
The third part of the book is frankly labelled ‘Speculation’. Agnes was unquestionably human: she had two children, and I’ve traced one’s descendants for over a century, and the other’s down two lines of descent to the present day. If she’s the green girl, then as well as the permanent twilight in the land she came from, she said all the people were dyed with the same green colour – and after we dismiss pseudo-medical explanations, dye is the only explanation for it that makes sense. William of Newburgh said she gave many other details about where she came from, to those who were inclined to be curious, but it would be tedious to set them down – curse him! My friends and I have undertaken what science fiction calls ‘world building’, working out in detail what the children’s planet could be like, how links with Earth could be maintained, and how they could go wrong.
It may not all be true, but it holds together and provides an overall scenario for the story. There are lots of ‘natural’ explanations for parts of it, but invariably the next line goes ‘And we can dismiss the rest…’, leaving huge gaps. I’ve looked at them in depth, and can’t find any of them convincing. I can scarcely believe the scenario we do have, but what we seem to be looking at is mass abductions from Earth, for experimental purposes, with the knowledge if not the connivance of some of the terrestrial authorities – in short, as we’ve been saying to promote the book, it’s The X-Files, in the 12th century.
About the Artist
Sydney Jordan was born in Dundee and in 1954 created ‘Jeff Hawke’, the world’s longest-running science fiction strip cartoon, for the Daily Express and the Scottish Daily News, followed by ‘Lance McLane’ for the Daily Record, syndicated elsewhere as a new version of Jeff Hawke, for which I wrote a number of the stories. The total runs to 112 stories and over 10,200 episodes.
Both forms were syndicated worldwide and Titan Books have published three book collections from ‘the Golden Age’ of the strip. Books have also appeared in Scandinavia and France, and the entire canon has been published in book form in Italy, ending in 2014 with two collector’s editions by Rosellini’s Foundation of Popular Literature. Since 2003 the Jeff Hawke Club has been publishing it all in English, with critical notes by myself. As of August 2018 the JHC has published 4 books, 30 magazines and a Supplement, and the remaining stories and notes are to appear as a fifth book, “Jeff Hawke: the Epilogue”, all edited by William Rudling.
Sydney also drew ‘Time and Ms Jones’ with stories by Marise Morland for the Funday Times. A shorter strip, ‘Hal Starr’, has been published by Spaceship Away and in book form in Italian. Over the years Sydney frequently illustrated articles for the Daily Express and his work has also appeared in New Worlds, Starburst and the Sunday Times. He’s illustrated articles and stories for me in World Magazine, The Journal of Practical Applications in Space, Nuclear Free Scotland, Asgard and Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, as well as Jeff Hawke’s Cosmos. He provided the cover for Starfield, Science Fiction by Scottish Writers, first published by Orkney Press and now reprinted by Shoreline of Infinity, and as well as illustrating “Children from the Sky” he provided many of the illustrations for “Incoming Asteroid”, as well as the cover and all the interior illustrations for The Elements of Time .
After his newspaper phase Sydney worked in advertisising and the film industry, where his credits include story-boards for Independence Day. Now 91, he lives in Arundel with his wife Jan.
All images and words are coprighted. Should you wish to use any please contact Duncan.