Church of St Mary
Woolpit shown within Suffolk
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Woolpit is a village in the English county of Suffolk, midway between the towns of Bury St. Edmunds and Stowmarket. In 2007 it has a population of 2,030. It is notable for the 12th-century legend of the green children of Woolpit and for its parish church, which has especially fine medieval woodwork. Administratively Woolpit is a civil parish, part of the district of Mid Suffolk.
Before the Norman conquest of England, the village belonged to Ulfcytel Snillingr. Between 1174 and 1180, Walter de Coutances, a confidant of King Henry II, was appointed to Woolpit. After his "death or retirement" it was to be granted to the monks of Bury St Edmunds Abbey. A bull of Pope Alexander III likewise confirms that revenues from Woolpit are to be given to the abbey.
In the 15th century and for some time afterward, two fairs were held annually. The Horse Fair was held on two closes, or fields, on September 16. The Cow Fair was held on its own field on September 19; here toys as well as cattle were sold.
From the 17th century, the area became an important manufacturing centre for "Suffolk White" bricks, but today only the pits remain.
Mill Lane marks the site of a post mill which was demolished in about 1924. Another mill, which fell down in 1963, stood in Windmill Avenue.
In 1811, Woolpit had 625 inhabitants in 108 houses. By 1821 the population had increased to 801 inhabitants in 116 houses.
Legend of the Green Children
The medieval writers Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newburgh report that two children appeared mysteriously in Woolpit sometime during the 12th century. The brother and sister were of generally normal appearance except for the green colour of their skin. They wore strange-looking clothes, spoke in an unknown language, and the only food they would eat was raw beans. Eventually they learned to eat other food and lost their green pallor, but the boy was sickly and died soon after the children were baptised. The girl adjusted to her new life, but she was considered to be "rather loose and wanton in her conduct". After learning to speak English she explained that she and her brother had come from St Martin's Land, an underground world whose inhabitants are green.
Some researchers believe that the story of the green children is a typical folk tale, describing an imaginary encounter with the inhabitants of another world, perhaps one beneath our feet or even extraterrestrial. Others consider it to be a garbled account of a historical event, perhaps connected with the persecution of Flemish immigrants living in the area at that time.
Local author and folk singer Bob Roberts states in his 1978 book A Slice of Suffolk that "I was told there are still people in Woolpit who are 'descended from the green children', but nobody would tell me who they were!"
St Mary's Church
The church has "Suffolk's most perfectly restored angel hammerbeam roof", a profusion of medieval carved pew-ends (mixed with good 19th-century recreations), and a large and very fine porch of 1430–55. The roof is actually a double hammerbeam example, with the upper beam being false. The tower and spire are by Richard Phipson in the 1850s, replacing the originals lost to lightning in 1852 or 1853. Most of the rest of the church is Perpendicular, except for the 14th-century south aisle and chancel. There is fine flushwork decoration on the exterior of the clerestory. The medieval shrine was at the east end of the south aisle. The "quite perfect" eagle lectern is a rare early-Tudor original from before the English Reformation.
Our Lady of Woolpit and the Lady's Well
Until the Reformation the church housed a richly-adorned statue of the Virgin Mary known as "Our Lady of Woolpit" which was an object of veneration and pilgrimage, perhaps as early as the 13th century. It stood in its own chapel within the church, of which no trace survives but which may have lain at the east end of the south aisle, or more probably on the north side of the chancel in the area now occupied by the 19th-century vestry. Pilgrimage to Our Lady of Woolpit seems to have been particularly popular in the 15th and early 16th century, and the shrine was visited twice by King Henry VI, in 1448 and 1449. The statue was removed or destroyed after 1538 when Henry VIII ordered the taking down of "feigned images abused with Pilgrimages and Offerings" throughout England; the chapel was demolished in 1551.
In a field about 300 yards northeast of the church there is a small irregular moated enclosure of unknown date, largely covered by trees and bushes and now a nature reserve. The moat is partially filled by water rising from a natural spring, protected by modern brickwork, on the south side; the moated site and the spring comprise a scheduled ancient monument. The spring is known as the Lady's Well or Lady Well. Although there are earlier references to a well or spring, it is first named as "Our Ladys Well" in a document dated between 1573 and 1576, referring to a manorial court meeting in 1557–58. The name suggests that it was once a holy well dedicated like the church and statue to the Virgin Mary, and it has been suggested that the well itself was a place of medieval pilgrimage. There is no evidence to support this claim, although a local tradition arose that the waters of the spring had healing properties. A writer in 1827 described the Lady's Well as
a perpetual spring about two feet deep of beautifully clear water, and so cold that a hand immersed in it is very soon benumbed. It is used occasionally for the immersion of weakly children, and much resorted to by persons of weak eyes.
Analysis of the water in the 1970s showed that it has a high sulphate content, which may have been of some benefit in the treatment of eye infections.
- Mills, A. D. (2003), "Woolpit" (subscription required), A Dictionary of British Place-Names, Oxford University Press, retrieved 2009-04-25
- A concise description of Bury St. Edmund's: and its environs, within the distance of ten miles, London: Longman, 1827, pp. 357–61
- Arnold, Thomas (1896), Memorials of St. Edmund's abbey: Cronica Buriensis, 1020–1346, H. M. Stationery, pp. 84â85
- Clark, John (2006), "'Small, Vulnerable ETs': The Green Children of Woolpit", Science Fiction Studies 33 (2): 209–229
- Simpson, Jacqueline; Roud, Steve (2000), "Green Children" ((subscription or UK public library membership required)), A Dictionary of English Folklore (online ed.), Oxford University Press, retrieved 5 April 2009
- Suffolk Churches
- Norwich; Jenkins; Suffolk Churches
- Jenkins, Suffolk Churches
- Paine, Clive (1993). "The chapel and well of Our Lady of Woolpit". Proceedings of Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History 38 (1): 8–12.
- Webb, Diana (2000). Pilgrimage in Medieval England. London, New York: Hambledon and London. pp. 99–100, 136. ISBN 185285250X.
- "Lady's Well (holy well and moat)". National Heritage List for England. English Heritage. Retrieved 24 October 2013.
- "Suffolk HER Number: WPT 002". Suffolk Historic Environment Record. Heritage Gateway. Retrieved 24 October 2013.
- Hope, Robert Charles (1893). The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England. London: Elliot Stock. p. 163.
- Jenkins, Simon, England's Thousand Best Churches, 1999, Allen Lane, ISBN 0-7139-9281-6
- John Julius Norwich, The Architecture of Southern England, Macmillan, London, 1985, ISBN 0-333-22037-4
- Suffolk Churches Illustrated details about the parish church
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