Tag Archives: Ralph of Coggeshall

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!


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]


[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


  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

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!



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!


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

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


  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

Malekin, the poltergiest of Dagworth and a damned Norman lord


I have to confess that I had not heard of the hamlet of Dagworth before I started researching these tales. It wasn’t even a place name on a sign, like Langham. But in the 13th century it appears to have been a place of note – or at least known to Ralph of Coggeshall. He sets the story of the changeling child that we began in Langham in the previous blog there. Dagworth is near Haughley, whose castle, at the time that Ralph’s story takes place, would have been a burnt out ruin from the recent troubles that had beset East Anglia thanks to the ambitions of Hugh Bigod. Ralph sets his tale of supernatural goings on in the reign of King Richard, which means it has to be in the 1190s.

I was wrong to think that Dagworth wasn’t famous though – only last year, in 2012, it was featured on national television, the BBC no less in Michael Wood’s Great British Story, which brought the story of Dagworth’s lost English lord, Breme, who fell at the Battle of Hastings. After that Dagworth’s story was told through Norman lords. Today Dagworth Manor is divided in two, and earlier this year I missed the chance to buy the east half – as you will see from this article in the Daily Mail, it was a little beyond a jobbing writer’s budget! There is a great website on the history of the village for more detail.

What Dagworth was really like in the 12th century is hard to guess, but we do have the Doomsday book data. The manor house must have dominated the village, and we know there was woodland where pigs rootled in the undergrowth. We know there were ploughmen, and meadowland, and that people kept cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. Then as now it was probably marshy, with a stream dividing the settlement. At some point there was a fishpond nearby, and hops and osiers grown – the map names these still. The manor house would have had a chapel – there is no church in the village. Though Chapel Hill on the other side of the railway line is suggestive that there was a chapel there … but the parish church is in Old Newton a couple of miles away.

At that time, Dagworth manor was held by Osbert Fitzhervey. Osbert had connections with the great and the good, and was connected with royalty through his uncle Ranulf de Glanville. Ranulf founded Leiston (originally at miasmic Minsmere) and Butley abbeys, and was related to the Bartholomew de Glanville who figures in another Ralph tale, the Wildman of Orford – a fact which is almost certainly no coincidence. Osbert was born at Dagworth, it seems, around 1160, married Margaret Fitzroscelin of Linstead. He became a royal judge, serving three kings, and died in 1206. His son Richard was born in 1184, which makes him about the right age to experience the ghostly goings on in the early 1190s.

The thing is, Ralph doesn’t like Osbert. It seems possible that he knew him personally as Osbert had ties with land near Coggeshall, at Bradwell only three miles from there. Setting a poltergeist story of a changeling at his house might seem bad enough – but maybe Ralph felt that someone as corrupt as Osbert would attract such uneasy spirits. In his Vision of Thurkill he singles Osbert out for special treatment. Thurkill was a peasant granted a vision of both hell and heaven in 1206 in Stisted, close to both Bradwell and Coggeshall, and he seems to have a vision of Osbert who died that same year – it’s worth quoting in full:

But now Thurkill sees a notable figure, who has to act sins that have been committed in a high station. All England knew the man once, as one of the Chief Justiciaries; most profound in law, most eloquent in speech, but most corrupt in his dealings. He died this very year, suddenly, without a will; and all his ill gotten wealth has been dispersed and squandered. He is placed on a mock tribunal. The Fiends flock around him, pleading a cause, and urging it with statement and counterstatement. He shifts from right to left, listening, noting, taking money from both sides, and fingering and counting the bribes incessantly. But the coins glow in his clutches, and he is forced by the Fiends to cram them down his greedy throat. Then they roll and iron cartwheel up and down his back, pounding him with the massive studs upon it, till he disgorges what he has swallowed. And at a sign the Fiends pick up the coins, and keep for another time.

Ralph certainly has it in for him!

But what about the spirit? Is she a changeling trapped in between this and the Otherworld? Or, is there a hint that she might be a more troubled spirit? Could she be a poltergeist? The text says, ‘He laughed wonderfully … and acted and spoke, also showing himself often through other clandestine acts.’ What were these ‘acts’? The child only shows herself to one person, a maid; otherwise her antics are invisible. The first mentions of poltergeists seem to appear in Roman times, when someone is possessed. Josephus, the Jewish historian speaks of a bowl being turned over by itself as sign that a spirit has been expelled. In the Eyrbyggia Saga from Iceland, a fish is torn apart by unseen hands. Closer to home, St Godric, who was a hermit at Finchale in County Durham (though he was actually from Walpole in Norfolk) in the 10th century who was tormented by a spirit that constantly threw things at him. These visitations are almost always scary and unsettling to these who experience them, but Margaret Fitzroscelin and her household were made of sterner stuff. Ralph goes on: ‘the wife of the knight and the entire household were at first very scared by her talk, but soon her words and ludicrous acts became familiar, she spoke confidently and familiarly to them and was often questioned by them.’ They even left food out for her.

These tales of Ralph and other 12th and 13th century chroniclers often have strange little details that seem to reveal them as truth – such as the chest with the food in it that Malekin takes. But you can also pick up the political mores of the time as well – Malekin is gifted with languages, and can speak Norman-French and Latin – and even ‘English the second language of that region’. Ralph, a Norman himself, is happy to put us English folk in our place, and all his three Suffolk tales deal with the great and the good like Osbert Fitzhervey – even if Ralph didn’t think he was very good at all!

A walk in unsuitable shoes, or, searching for the fairies

langham sm 2

On the way back from my book signing in Bury, which is a fair way from where my parents live near the coast, I wanted to visit one of the very few locations I hadn’t yet reached: Langham.  Half of the Malekin story is set there, but I’d never, ever been there.   The story is one that combines two small, remote places that make you feel as if you have stepped far away from the beaten track and into that deeper Suffolk that is inhabited by the stories of place I have captured in the book – and, it feels, by the denizens of the stories, too.  The other half of the story is set in Dagworth, about 8 miles away as the crow flies to the south east of Langham.  Both are tricky to get to – Langham especially if you don’t happen to have the 1:50 map on you at the time, as we did not.

In Malekin, the child says she came from Langham (or Lanaham in the original Latin), where she was ‘stolen by some stranger and taken away’ when she was left alone outside while her mother was working at the harvest with the rest of the villagers.  It seems highly likely that this is an early version of a changeling – this time, following the child snatched by the fairies, or, in Suffolk, ferishers or feriers.  More often, the story follows the fairy changeling that is left in place, but this tale tells what happens next to those who are taken off to fairyland – and it isn’t very pleasant or easy.  There are tales told in Suffolk of fairy changelings, too.  The same woman who recounts to the Reverend Arthur Hollingsworth the story of her own near miss with the fairies also says that she had heard of a woman who ‘had a child changed, and one, a poor thing, left in his place, but she was very kind to it, and every morning on getting up she found a small piece of money in her pocket.’[1] So, it seemed to me that this might be an ancient practice amongst the ferishers to reward the good – and why not reward Malekin’s mother as well, for the loss of her little girl and the gaining of another, different child.

But Langham has another mysterious link, one that I discovered by chance in Mike Burgess’s excellent website, Hidden East Anglia.  It isn’t even listed under Langham in his gazeteer, but under nearby Hunston.  This place, Burgess records, has a small earthwork called Mill Hill (a castle – or the site of a windmill – or even a more ancient burial mound?) from which it is said tunnels run to Great Ashfield Castle – and the Castle Ditches at Langham. 

Now, England is criss-crossed with secret tunnels and Suffolk has many: from those that run from the Angel to the Abbey at Bury, to the tunnel that run from the church to the Queen’s Head at Blyford.  Many of these tunnel stories have practical origins – drainage ditches at Bury, perhaps, and smuggler’s hideaways near the coast.  But what if those tunnels went … somewhere else?  The most famous tunnel story in Suffolk is that of the Green Children, who emerge near Woolpit from a tunnel from another land.  Is it fairyland – or maybe the underworld itself?  Once, a fiddler was lost forever in the tunnels at Bury, the ghostly notes still sometimes heard.  A farmer lost his pigs into the tunnels at Hunston – and there is no record that they popped out at Great Ashfield or Langham.  Perhaps the ferishers came out of the Castle Ditches tunnel to nab Malekin, and perhaps it is through the tunnels that she make her way around the county to steal food from humankind.  Perhaps.

But I wanted to see.  There is little info on the Castle Ditches on the web that I could find, just a note that they were east of the church, and that they are no longer visible.  Oh well. We were determined to try.  Without the 1:50 map we were a little stymied, but after a lot of dodging about to get a mobile signal I found the info about them being near the church.  We backtracked through the long village (yep, still lives up to its name) to the edge of the village and down the path that alleged it led to the church.  The path said PRIVATE in large letters, but did seem to be okay for walkers, so off we set, Cherry and I hobbling along in the pumps we had worn to Bury, and Dave limping on the track thanks to his dodgy knee.  To the left was a little strip of wood – a remnant perhaps of what the land must have been like when people named Great Ashfield, Elmswell, Oaktree Farm and Willow Wood nearby – and huge oak tree stood like a guardian spirit from the past to the side of the path to welcome us in.  Ahead, we could see water meadows by the stream that separates Langham from Hunston.  There were sheep grazing, and Queen Anne’s Lace blooming.  Idyllic.  But not, immediately, a church.

A turn of the corner onto a grassier track, and there it was.  A small flint church with a little bell tower. A tractor was dancing back and forth obliterating the long grass ahead of us, and the Hall stood imposing in 18th century brick to the left on higher ground.  It was a vision (except for the tractor!) of an earlier time.  However, the 21st century intruded not only in the tractor’s noise. The church was locked.  And to spite us, a sign informed us that the very next day there would be an open day at Langham Hall and a service in the church.  The tractor was creating a car park for the massed hordes…

Round the church we went, to the east – and higher ground.  Was there something in that thicket of brambles? We investigated the edges of the churchyard and found – a moat!  With a, um, bridge.  I hacked through the nettles (if you run through them quickly, they don’t sting, right?) but decided not to cross…

Then we took the path in front of the church.  It was clear where the castle ditches had been – two lovely flat horse paddocks now stood next to the church.  But the ground slipped away sharply to the right of the path, and we glimpsed water through the gaps in the trees. The moat again!  The castle was here – so somewhere must have been the entrance to the tunnels.  Was it near here that Malekin was stolen back when this was a fine timber castle?  Were they harvesting hay from the meadows beyond, and did the mother leave her babe safe close by the castle only to have the ferishers slip out and take her away?

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[1] Gurdon, Eveline Gurdon County Folk-Lore Suffolk: Printed Extracts No. 2 Suffolk (Lightening Source UK Ltd., Milton Keynes, 2011), p. 37, taken from Revd AGH Hollingsworth’s The History of Stowmarket, 1844, p. 248


Note on Ralph of Coggeshall

In Essex, there was an important monastery in Coggeshall , founded as a Sauvignac order in 1140 by King Stephen’s  wife Matilda.  By the early thirteenth century it had become part of the Cistercian order, and in 1207 Ralph, a monk of the order, became the 6th abbot.  Ralph of Coggeshall was the abbey’s chronicler, and he wrote the Chronicon Anglicanum from 1187.  He records he had hoped to make it a round 40 years of writing, but sadly it seems that he was defeated only  three years before reaching that goal in 1224. 

It was common for abbey’s to keep a chronicle of the events happening both locally and nationally – and sometimes internationally.  These formed the history of the abbey.  The Coggeshall chronicle survives in the British Library: MS Cotton Vespasian D. X.  It was preserved by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, a 16th and early 17th century antiquary alongside most of the corpus of Anglo-Saxon literature, one of the 4 copies of the Magna Carta, and many other rare manuscripts.  Sadly not all of Ralph’s books survive – he refers to a volume made entirely of marvels and wonders.  So sad that that doesn’t survive!  What riches would it contain?    

Most of Ralph’s long chronicle is recognisably factual.  He does offer some political comment: he admires Henry II, and goes back in the chronicle and comments on his predecessor’s criticisms of the monarch.  He is impressed by Richard I – but has the good sense to recognise his limitations, saying of him, ‘no age can remember … [a king] who exacted so much money from his kingdom’.  But it is for King John, who was king for most of the time Ralph was at the abbey, that he really reserves his bile, expressing horror at some of his policies – such as the treatment of Prince Arthur.

But this is a medieval chronicle, and the attitudes that the monks had to what was real and what wasn’t was different to our own.  Ralph doesn’t just record facts – he also records miracles and strange happenings.  He records the discovery of King Arthur’s tomb in Glastonbury, Essex-man Thurkill’s vision of heaven and hell, St Alpais’s fasting and holy life in France, and the publicani  of Rheims (not a landlord, but a sect deemed heretical by the church at the time for their belief, amongst other things, that procreation was a sin).  And, most importantly for us, he records local mirabilia – marvels, tales of wonder.  Three of these are set in Suffolk: the Green Children, Malekin and the Wildman of Orford.  A fourth tale tells of giants on the Essex coast, in Yorkshire and in Wales.  All three Suffolk tales are featured in Suffolk Folk Tales, and each will get their own blog. 

The Wildman of Orford


Orford’s Wildman has become a symbol for the small coastal village.  He was a man of the sea who was pulled up by 12th century fishermen’s nets and held captive in the bang-new castle until he finally made his escape.  He’s featured in the interpretation in the castle where his sad incarceration took place.  There’s a memorial to him on the Market Square, and he features on the Butley Orford Oysterage and on Pinney’s as you walk down to the quay.  There are also some suspiciously wild looking men on the font in St Bartholomew’s Church – though you can find them on many Suffolk fonts.  But where did the story come from?

Three stories in Suffolk Folk Tales, the Green Children, Malekin and the Wildman of Orford, come from the same early source.  The 12th and 13th centuries provide us with a whole host of stories written down by monks either as chronicles of their monasteries, or as works in their own right.  Geoffrey of Monmouth, Gerald of Wales and Gervase of Tilbury are well known for telling what we might now consider tall tales, and the three Suffolk stories are recorded by another monk – an abbot in fact.  His name is Ralph of Coggeshall, and he was abbot of Coggeshall Abbey in Essex.  You can find out more about him here.

Wildmen are a common trope in the Middle Ages.  These wild people, often called wodewoses (which seems to mean ‘wood-being’), have lived in the fringes of our minds since we first started writing stories down – and presumably were there long before that.  Enkidu, the friend of Gilgamesh in the three and half thousand year old Mesopotamian epic is a wild man who lives amongst the beasts.  Herodotus describes hairy men living in Libya, and they are often described by classical sources as living in India.  Wherever they live, they are outside human conventions, no matter how quietly they live themselves, and are viewed with fear and fascination.  One thing particularly distinguishes them from ordinary mortals: they are covered with hair from the top of their heads to their toes. 

The woods are places where civilised men don’t go – knights discover monsters and marvels in the woods in Arthurian romances.  Holy fools like Percival grow up in the woods.  Madmen run off to the woods in medieval literature – like Merlin in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, or King Suibhne in Ireland.  Outlaws can live beyond the law in the woods.  This is despite the fact that people in medieval England were using and managing woodland much more intensively than we do today for the basics of day to day life from firewood, to beechnuts, from the withies from pollarded willows to the hunting of deer in the king’s forests.  The woods were really a familiar danger – and it’s still easy to get lost, disorientated and spooked in woods to today, as countless ghost stories, sightings of big cats and even wild men attest.

You might ask what all this has to do with Ralph’s man from the sea.   When the fishermen capture him, he is described as being extremely hairy, ‘in such abundance that it appeared dishevelled and shaggy; his beard particularly was thick and pine-like, and around his chest it was particularly hairy and shaggy.’  The ‘pine-like’ makes him sound a little strange, as if his hair is more like pine-needles, thicker and fleshier than human hair, perhaps better for living under the water.  Ralph makes this strange creature like a wildman – like a woodwoses.  He doesn’t speak, he doesn’t recognise Christian symbols.  He is outside society – outside the law.  To the people who lived by the coast in Suffolk the sea would have been as other as the woodland.  It is wild and capricious, and as we know from Dunwich and the 1953 flood, can be incredibly destructive to the puny settlements of man.  Nonetheless, it would have been the main source of livelihood and connection with the outside world.  Like the woodland, it was vital but dangerous.

How true is the story?  Well, Ralph was writing around 30 years after the story was said to have taken place, in 1167.  Bartholomew de Glanville was certainly castellan of the castle at that time.  His family arrived in the area after the Norman Conquest, holding land in Norfolk and Suffolk.  From 1169 to 1175 he was High Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, and he oversaw the construction of the castle at Orford from 1167. 

Henry II built the castle at Orford in part to stop treachery by lords like Hugh Bigod who had fought against him and his mother during King Stephen’s reign – and with good reason, as Lord Hugh would rebel again in 1173!  The keep would have been built first, and the mound on which it sits.  So the castle we see now wouldn’t have looked so different back then.  Habitable, but without its curtain wall.  It immediately provided a beacon for fishermen and sailors alike, along with St Bartholomew’s (named for that castellan, perhaps?) which was begun at about the same time. 

It is presumably St Bartholomew’s that the wildman is taken into – although whether the church was complete enough by then I don’t know.  It might even have been inside the small castle chapel – or Sudbourne church between Orford and Sudbourne, which was the original parish church of the village before the castle made it important.  The poor wildman must have been completely befuddled by the Christian regalia – and Ralph and his captors don’t stop to think what he might worship, down there beneath the sea…

I should note that Orford is very different now from how it was then – the lie of the land has completely changed.  The castle was once about 2 miles inland, with marshy ground stretching out to the sea.  Orford Ness probably didn’t exist – it has been growing since that time.  Much of the woodland you see from the shore hadn’t developed as yet.  It is hard then to imagine the scene that the fishermen and Bartholomew de Glanville would have seen when you are there – and who knows whether the wildman could hear the sound of the waves from his lonely cell in the castle dungeons.

But did anyone pull anything unusual from the sea?  Sightings of mermaids and the like are often dismissed as seals and manatees and other sea creatures.  But the wildman was kept in the castle for two months – surely someone would have noticed?  And if he was just an ordinary man – well, why did he swim back to sea?  We’ll never know what really happened, but the legend has stayed strong for 8 centuries!  It’s the little details I like, that give it verisimilitude – the squeezing of the fish, the three strong nets he passes through to reach the open sea.   Even Ralph wasn’t certain, wondering whether he was a fish pretending to be human, or an evil spirit in the body of a drowned man.  The most one can say, he says, that ‘many wondrous things as well as many events of this kind are narrated.’


I was very lucky when researching my book as I really wanted to get to the bottom of the three tales, which meant going back to the original Latin in which Ralph’s book was written.  My own Latin is not that strong – I only had the chance to start learning it when I was doing my Medieval Studies MA, so only had six-eight months of studying.  Not enough to tackle anything more than passages from the Bible!  Certainly not enough to get the fine detail out of the texts.   But I was able to phone a friend… Getting hold of the text wasn’t easy.   As a freelancer, I don’t access to the big university libraries where the text would be available, but I eventually tracked it down on the web in an old out-of-print book.  I then dispatched the Latin off to my friend Monika Simon in Germany, who translated it back to me in English.  Thank you so much, Moni!