I used to visit London frequently as my father lived there for many years, and one of my favourite ways to pass an afternoon was to go to the British museum alone and spend hours in just one or two of the galleries, sketching or just gazing at the beautiful human things and imagining who made them and how… I remember being incredibly moved when I looked closely at a decorated box from Egypt about 2000 years old and saw how the painter had realised he or she didn’t quite have the space left to do what they had planned, I followed the “how can I make this work? Thought process that then ensued through to it’s elegant conclusion and felt I had a long distance relationship with this artist somehow across so much time and space. The British is a space where on a quiet day you can travel through time and almost feel the breath of the people who created the artefacts against your cheek…
The first time I saw the Sutton hoo helmet I could only stand and gape foolishly…I think it is one of the most stunning objects I have ever seen and I have been back to see it often since. For me it’s beauty lies as much in its decay as in its conception and craftsmanship and I find the bright new reproduction of what it may have originally looked like a little brash and soulless by comparison.
So when I received the manuscript for Suffolk folk tales by Kirsty Hartsiotis and there was mention of the helmet in it my heart leapt. But it didn’t actually feature in any of the tales as such so I searched for a way to blend it with one of the ones in the book in a way that would enhance them both.
The Green children is a curious story which is presented very much as a true account, although explanations of the children’s colour and origin vary. Whatever you choose to believe it is a fascinating tale of the discovery of two otherworldly lost souls taken in by the populace of the settlement at Wool pit.
The idea of having one or both of the children peering through the helmet appealed enormously, making that eye socket a window between worlds, like the museum I love so much. So I began looking for ways of making it work… In the end I used the little girls face only for maximum impact and just a small section of the helmet around the left eye socket in detail. I built this one up very slowly. The child is entirely rendered in inktense and the helmet in watercolour and coloured pencil with considerable deployment of my embossing tool to add texture and depth. It was a labour of love, this one. I almost didn’t want to finish it.
And here is is the story itself, reproduced with the kind permission of Kirsty Hartsiotis
The Green Children
During the reign of King Stephen, Aylwin and Elstan of Woolpit were on their way through the woods to check their snares. They knew they had to be careful with their footing in this part of the wood, as there were pits in the claggy ground and blocks of old brick to trip over. The place was snarled with brambles and nettles, hardly a proper wood at all. No one came here, as it was said to be infested with wolves. Ideal for poaching.
That day they made their way up the slope about a mile from Woolpit, on the way to Elmswell. One snare had a young hare, which pleased them, but the rest were empty. Then Elstan caught a movement out of the corner of his eye.
‘Get out your sling,’ he whispered. ‘There’s something there.’
The two of them crept forward, further up the hill towards Elmswell, Alywin with his sling at the ready, until the ground suddenly dipped into a large bramble-filled pit. Elstan slipped, skidded and fell, and a scream filled the air.
A child’s scream.
They peered into the pit, and there, huddled among the brambles, were two children. The children were dressed in rough homespun like themselves, but there the similarity ended. These children were green from their thick hair down to their bare toes.
Aylwin and Elstan froze. Green was an unlucky colour, a fairy colour. But these were just children. The older, a girl, looked to be about nine or ten years, the boy several years younger. They were scratched and weeping, and didn’t look like a threat.
‘Who are you?’ asked Elstan. ‘How did you get here? Where are your folks?’
The children stared back at him, and the men realised that they couldn’t understand English. So Aylwin waded down into the pit and picked them up. They didn’t fight; just wept some more.
Back in Woolpit, the whole village turned out to see the wonder. It was soon decided that they couldn’t keep the children in Woolpit. Who would feed them? And would their landlord, the Abbot at Bury, approve of the ungodly things? Better to take them to someone who would find amusement in their novelty.
It was decided they should go to Sir Richard de Calne at Bardwell, eight miles away. He was the Constable of the hundred, and would know what to do. Aylwin and Elstan were volunteered to take them. It was a long trek for the children. They wept as the men chivvied them on, step by step, until they came to the edge of Bardwell.
There were three manors in Bardwell. Unsure where to go, the Woolpit men went first to Wyken Hall. The servants there drove them away with fleas in their ears. Past Bardwell Hall they went until at last they saw the squat tower of the church on a low hill ahead of them, and right beside it the manor house of Wikes.
Sir Richard received the green children with grave thanks and gave Aylwin and Elstansome coins to see them on their way.
‘You’ll see them treated right, my lord?’ asked Aylwin. ‘Them’s just children, when all’s said and done.’
‘No harm will come to them here,’ said Sir Richard.
The children were brought before him, tear and travel stained. They really were very green. But it was only fair to try to communicate with them. He knew that the villagers would only have their own English, so he tried his Norman-French and when that didn’t work he tried a few words of Flemish. Neither had any effect, save to make the children cry even more.
His wife, Sibylla, leaned forward and whispered, ‘Perhaps the poor mites are hungry. You can be sure those villeins wouldn’t have given them anything from their stores.’
So bread and cider and good meat were set before them. But the children just stared at the spread as if it was poison. Even when Lady Sibylla tore off some bread and ate it herself to give them the idea, the children just wept. The lord and lady looked at each other. Unspoken between them was the thought that this newly brought marvel would not last that long.
Just at that moment, a maid came in from the gardens with baskets of broad beans, and as they walked past both the children sat up and pointed.
‘Bring those beans here,’ cried Lady Sibylla, and she handed the basket to the children.
Immediately the children started pulling at the beans, but instead of trying to open the pods, they opened the stems. When they saw that they were empty, the tears started again. Lady Sibylla took the pods and snapped them open to reveal the beans inside. As soon as they saw the beans both the children gave cries of joy and started to stuff the raw beans in their mouths.
After that they settled into the household. Sir Richard saw to it that while they were set simple tasks by the servants, they also received instruction in English and French. He made the priest their tutor, as they seemed to have no knowledge of God.
The girl thrived under this care. Her long green hair and green skin soon glowed with health, and she was soon speaking a few simple words to make her needs known. The boy was different. After the bean harvest was over, the girl began to eat other things – vegetables at first, then bread, although she would never touch meat. But the boy wouldn’t eat. His sister tried to tempt him with all sorts of dainties that the kitchen staff gave her, but he just turned away. She tried taking him out just before sunrise and just after sunset, and that pleased him a little, but he shied away from the bright sunshine. Soon enough he was too sick to go out, and before harvest time was over he was dead.
Lady Sibylla spoke quietly to the priest, and he was buried outside the west end of the church, with the other unbaptised babes, to catch what holiness he could. His sister seemed grateful, but it was hard to tell.
The girl would walk out from the manor whenever she could, wandering over the Black Bourn and through the reedbeds and the stubbly fields. All the field hands knew to watch her, in case she strayed too far, but she never did. She would come back with bunches of the harvest flowers; loosestrife, mallow and deadnettles, take them to the little grave, and sit there quiet and alone.
By Christmas her English and French were good and she happily ate anything that was put in front of her. She went less to the grave and was soon at the heart of the household, laughing with the servants, playing rowdy games with the other children and even flirting a little with Sir Richard’s pages. Sir Richard noticed, too, that the greenness of her skin had faded a little and her hair had gained yellow tints. The marvel might soon be gone, so he gathered his friends together for a great Christmas feast and brought the girl out.
There were gasps of fear from his friends, and Sir Richard realised how used he was to her strangeness. She didn’t seem worried by the crowd. When he drew her forward to speak, she stepped up on the dais without any fear.
‘Tell us, child, how you came here,’ he asked. ‘Tell us of your own home.’
The girl lifted her gaze to the assembled nobles.
‘My brother and I were herding our father’s sheep that day. Our land isn’t like yours, but we do herd and farm like you do. I did this every day, but he was new to it, being young. One of our lambs got lost, and we set out after it. We could hear him bleating, so we just kept on going until we were far from our home. It was coming on for night when we found him, and when we turned to go back we realised we didn’t know the way. So we just walked and walked, and then, in the darkness, we both fell, and we plummeted down a long way until we landed on dry earth and saw a tunnel stretching out. And there were strange sounds all around us, sweet sounds, the like of which we’d never heard before, and those sounds drew us. We walked towards them. It seemed me that we walked all night. At last, we saw that there was light ahead, and we ran, hoping we’d be near our home, but as we came out the light was so bright that we both fell down in a faint. When we woke up those men were there, and they dragged us out and it was so bright, and so strange, and we couldn’t understand them at all.
‘Our land isn’t like yours. Yours is so bright! I find it lovely now, the sunshine on the flowers, but at home the sun is always beyond – just a distant glow to the west. Like twilight, it is gentle, quiet light. We’re all green. To see you pink people was a shock, but now it makes me laugh! And we would never eat the flesh of animals. It goes against all that is right. Our sheep were our friends; they gave us their wool so that we might be warm. But here everything is different. You have God to guide you – and the beautiful sound of the church bells that drew us here. Maybe it was God’s plan to bring us here … but’ – she glanced guiltily at Sir Richard – ‘sometimes I wonder if I went back to Woolpit I might find my way home.’
Her words were a sensation. No one talked of anything else for a season. But soon new stories came to take the place of the marvel. The girl began to change as well. She was baptised, and given a name: Agnes. Slowly, as the season passed from winter into spring and from spring into summer, her greenness dwindled away, until her skin was simply pale and her hair simply fair. Those who came seeking the green child went away disappointed.
But Sir Richard remembered what she had said. So he had his men take her to Woolpit. The two farmers, Aylwin and Elstan, were fetched, and they showed the girl where they had found her. But though the brambles were cleared, there was nothing to be seen there but heavy clay. After that, Agnes never mentioned her first home again. She threw herself into the life of Wikes Manor and seemed to want to forget her origins.
Sir Richard saw that, though she was baptised, there were some things that made her different. She still liked to wander alone by the stream at sunset. More worryingly, she was drawn to the young men and seemed to see nothing wrong in exchanging kisses with his squires. It was disruptive, and he worried that there would soon be a shame she couldn’t hide. With one of the lads, from Lynn in Norfolk, Sir Richard thought there was something more serious with him than just the flirting, so he gave Agnes a fine dowry, and she was married.
Agnes lived the rest of her life in Lynn and gave birth to several children. None of them was green, but it was said that her descendants were all fun-loving and didn’t fear God as much as they should.
© Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2012