Hilda – The Abbess of Whitby
Hilda – The Abbess of Whitby
The name of Hilda of Whitby is almost legendary in English history. She ran two abbeys, educated some of the finest minds in England (including five bishops), discovered and sponsored the first English poet, and convened the crucial Synod of Whitby. Her authority and accomplishments are especially impressive when we think that Christianity was still quite new in England.
Hilda’s Early Life
Hilda was born in a renowned family around the year 614. Her father, Hereric, was a prince of the royal family of Deira (whose territories covered approximately modern Yorkshire). He was also a nephew of King Edwin of Northumbria, who is usually considered the first Anglo-Saxon Christian king.
While Hilda was still a baby, her mother Bregusuit had a dream where she was looking for her husband and couldn’t find him. Instead, she found a precious jewel under her gown, which “cast such a light as spread itself throughout all Britain.” That jewel represented Hilda – although her mother might not have lived to see its fulfillment.
Bregusuit’s dream was correct about the loss of her husband, who was at that time living in exile at the court of Cerdic, king of the Britons. She couldn’t find her husband because he had been poisoned. Due to these dangers, Hilda was brought up at King Edwin’s court, where she encountered Christianity and was baptized, together with Edwin and many of his court, on Easter Day 627.
We don’t know anything about Hilda’s life between then and 647, when she decided to move to a monastery in France where her sister Hereswith lived. She might have been married and become a widow. In any case, Aidan of Lindisfarne, an important Irish bishop and missionary to England, noticing “her innate wisdom and inclination to the service of God,” advised her to join the monastery of Hartlepool instead.
The monastery of Hartlepool, a port town in County Durham, had gained a notable reputation for the devotion and learning of its members. Founded jointly by Aidan and one of his disciples, Heiu, provided a place of training for Hilda, who by that time (possibly the year 647) was already 33 years old.
Teacher and Influencer
A natural leader, Hilda became abbess of Hartlepool in 649, when Heiu moved elsewhere. In 657, she moved on to become the abbess of a community of both men and women at a seaside town in Yorkshire known as Streaneshalch (later called Whitby by the Vikings). Due to her connection to royal families, she soon became the preceptor for many young men and women of the nobility.
According to Bede, who devoted many pages to Hilda’s life and accomplishments, she placed both monasteries “under the same regular discipline,” teaching “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 person was there rich, and none poor, all being in common to all, and none having any property.”
Five of her pupils became bishops: Bosa of York, Etla of Dorchester, Oftfor of Worcester, John of Beverley, and Wilfrid of York. Hilda’s school operated closely with the innovative school Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus established at Canterbury, and the two educators might have consulted each other on texts and methods.
Bede tells us “her prudence was so great that not only indifferent persons but even kings and princes asked and received her advice.” In fact, “all who knew her called her Mother.” And her influence spread much beyond Whitby. “For her singular piety and grace,” Bede continues, “was not only an example of good life to those that lived in her monastery, but afforded occasion of amendment and salvation to many who lived at a distance, to whom the fame was brought of her industry and virtue.”
One of her famous pupils was Caedmon, a cowherd who lived in the monastery at Whitby (monasteries produced enough products for their members’ consumption and more). An unlearned man, already advanced in years, he had a dream where a mysterious figure ordered him to sing. After protesting in vain that he had no such ability, Caedmon asked what he was supposed to sing, and was told, “Sing the beginning of created beings.”
In the dream, Caedmon “began to sing verses to the praise of God, which he had never heard. ... Awaking from his sleep, he remembered all that he had sung in his dream, and soon added much more to the same effect in verse worthy of the Deity.”
After he related his dream, he was taken to Hilda, who recognized his gift and decreed that he should enter her monastery where he was instructed in “the whole series of sacred history.”
Bede, who describes Caedmon as a “very religious man,” said that he “sang the creation of the world, the origin of man, and all the history of Genesis : and made many verses on the departure of the children of Israel out of Egypt, and their entering into the land of promise, with many other histories from holy writ; the incarnation, passion, resurrection of our Lord, and his ascension into heaven; the coming of the Holy Ghost, and the preaching of the apostles ; also the terror of future judgment, the horror of the pains of hell, and the delights of heaven; besides many more about the Divine benefits and judgments.”
The only hymn by Caedmon that has come down to us is only forty-two words long, and is considered the earliest recorded English poem.
The Synod of Whitby
By the middle of the seventh century, Christianity had come to England from two main sources: through the efforts of Pope Gregory I, who sent missionaries such as Augustine of Canterbury, and through the patient work of Irish monks such as Aidan. While keeping to the same theological foundations, these two traditions differed in some ways, such as their liturgy, the date of Easter, and the tonsure of monks.
The tonsure of monks might seem like a trivial issue (Irish monks wore their hair longer, shaving only the fore part of the head, while Latin monks shaved the center part of the head, leaving a crown of hair that some say represented Christ’s crown of thorns). But the date of Easter was seen as crucial, since the Irish tradition celebrated it almost a month after the Roman tradition, and this caused frictions within the country.
In 663, Oswy asked Hilda to host a synod of nobles and bishops at her monastery in order to solve these problems. Hilda was on the side of the Irish but in the end Oswy declared he was inclined to adopt the Roman calendar and, given his political authority, others followed his lead. Hilda conceded for the sake of unity.
Hilda’s Death and Legacy
In 674 Hilda contracted an illness that lasted six years, and included periods of violent fever. According to Bede, during this time “she never failed either to return thanks to her Maker, or publicly and privately to instruct the flock committed to her charge; for by her own example she admonished all persons to serve God dutifully in perfect health, and always to return thanks to Him in adversity, or bodily infirmity.”
She died in 680, while exhorting “the servants of Christ that were within the same monastery” to persevere in peace and unity. She was 66 years old.
Oswy’s daughter Aelflaed, who had been trained by Hilda to succeed her, took her place. In the end, the monastery of Whitby didn’t survive an attack by the Danes, but Hilda’s fame has lived on and has inspired many men and women after her.
 See Simonetta Carr, “Medieval Christian Brides,” https://www.placefortruth.org/blog/medieval-christian-brides
 Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, Book 4, Chapter 23, Fordham University, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/bede-book4.asp
 See Simonetta Carr, “Aidan of Lindisfarne – A Seventh-Century Door-to-Door Missionary,” https://www.placefortruth.org/blog/aidan-of-lindisfarne-a-seventh-centur...
 Bede, Ecclesiastical History 4:23.
 See Simonetta Carr, “Hadrian of Nisida and Theodore of Tarsus – Seventh-Century Star Teachers,” https://www.placefortruth.org/blog/hadrian-of-nisida-and-theodore-of-tar...
 Bede, Ecclesiastical History, 4:24
 Simonetta Carr, “Augustine of Canterbury – A Reluctant Missionary,” https://www.placefortruth.org/blog/augustine-of-canterbury-a-reluctant-m...
 Bede, Ecclesiastical History, 4:23.