Tuesday 25th April 2023 St Hild of Whitby, abbess (614 – 680)
image from CatholicIreland.net
Hild was an important figure in the Christianisation of Anglo-Saxon England, she was abbess at several monasteries and recognised for the wisdom that drew kings to her for advice. The source of information about Hilda is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede in 731, who was born approximately eight years before her death. He documented much of the Christian conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. Hild was born into the royal family of the Anglian Kingdom of Deiran and bought up in the court of Edwin, King of Northumbria. Edwin converted to Christianity following his second marriage to a Kentish princess and had his entire court, including Hild, baptised. Warfare led to the death of Edwin and his wife, and Hild, returned to Kent. At the age of 33 Hild answered the call of of Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne and returned to Northumbria to live as a nun. Hilda’s original convent is not known except that it was on the north bank of the River Wear. Here, with a few companions, she learned the traditions of Celtic monasticism, which Bishop Aidan brought from Iona. After a year Aidan appointed Hilda as the second Abbess of Hartlepool Abbey. No trace remains of this abbey, but its monastic cemetery has been found near the present St Hilda’s Church, Hartlepool. In 657 Hilda became the founding abbess of Whitby Abbey; she remained there until her death. Archaeological evidence shows that her monastery was in the Celtic style, with its members living in small houses, each for two or three people. The tradition in double monasteries, such as Hartlepool and Whitby, was that men and women lived separately but worshipped together in church. The exact location and size of the church associated with this monastery is unknown. Bede states that the original ideals of monasticism were maintained strictly in Hilda’s abbey. Five men from this monastery became bishops – two became saints. Bede describes Hilda as a woman of great energy, who was a skilled administrator and teacher. As a landowner she had many in her employ to care for sheep and cattle, farming, and woodcutting. She gained such a reputation for wisdom that kings and princes sought her advice. However, she also had a concern for ordinary folk such as Cædmon. He was a herder at the monastery, who was inspired in a dream to sing verses in praise of God. Hilda recognized his gift and encouraged him to develop it. Bede writes, “All who knew her called her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace”. The prestige of Whitby is reflected in the fact that King Oswiu of Northumberland chose Hilda’s monastery as the venue for the Synod of Whitby, the first synod of the Church in his kingdom. He invited church leaders from as far away as Wessex to attend the synod. Most of those present, including Hilda, accepted the King’s decision to adopt the method of calculating Easter currently used in Rome, establishing Roman practice as the norm in Northumbria. The monks from Lindisfarne, who would not accept this, withdrew to Iona, and later to Ireland. Hilda suffered from a fever for the last seven years of her life, but she continued to work until her death on 17 November 680 AD, at what was then the advanced age of sixty-six.
Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. [Proverbs 3:13-15]
Hild or Hilda was the founding abbess of the monastery at Whitby, and played a highly significant role in the development of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England. She served widely and was recognised for her strong and skilled leadership of both female and male houses, and for her “innate wisdom and love of the service of God” [Bede]. In one of his programmes The story of the North in the BBC radio series In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg discussed ‘the power well-born women could wield in the early [medieval] Church’.
“This work which was laid upon her she industriously performed; for she put this monastery under the same rule of monastic life as the former; and taught there the strict observance of justice, piety, chastity, and other virtues, and particularly of peace and charity; so that, after the example of the primitive Church, no one there was rich, and none poor, for they had all things common, and none had any private property. Her prudence was so great, that not only meaner men in their need, but sometimes even kings and princes, sought and received her counsel.” [Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England, c. XXIII]
Let us give thanks for the leadership of the Church, particularly the leadership of women, and for those who have worked to ensure that their perspective and gifts influence the life of the Church. Remember all those who shaped our churches and our upbringing wisely and with a longing for justice.
Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Saviour, and my hope is in all you all day long. [Psalm 24:4-5]
The Rev’d Dr Jack Dyce is Emeritus Professor of Nordic Theology at the Scottish College and a member of Port Glasgow URC