Celts to the Creche: Day 2
St. Hilda of Whitby
613/614-November 17, 680 AD
On this 2nd day of our pilgrimage with the Celts to the Creche, we journey with ST. HILDA (Hild) OF WHITBY. She was an Abbess; founder of double monasteries; a leader of the Celtic church; a patron of the arts, literature, and music; and greatly influenced the transformation of Britain from paganism to Christianity. The famous Synod of Whitby in 664 AD that was pivotal in the history of the Church was held at her monastery.
Hilda is known to us 1400 years later mainly through The Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. (see day 23 of Celts to the Creche). Bede penned this important work as a monk at Jarrow Abbey in Northumbria in 731. He probably wrote about this great Celtic leader based upon a lost history of Hilda’s life and from personal interviews with those who knew her, likely Bishop John of Beverly who had been trained by Hilda at Whitby. Bishop John of Beverly is the one who ordained Bede as a deacon and later ordained him into the priesthood.
Hilda was the Abbess/Founder of double monasteries, a Celtic way of monastic living that included monks and nuns in the same monastery in separate small houses, but worshipping together in the abbey church. Bede who seemed to have an unabashed admiration for Hilda, wrote that she was a woman devoted to God and a person of devotion and grace. The famous 664 A.D. Synod of Whitby that dramatically reshaped the Celtic way of life was held at her double monastery. Her last words on earth are appropriate for the struggle in today’s world, “to maintain the gospel peace among themselves and with others.”
(Please note: you are welcome to skip to the Meditation below. Since I have a passion for the life of St. Hilda of Whitby, this is a much more in-depth biography than will be provided in future “Celts to the Creche.”)
Hilda’s Family. Bede recorded that Hilda was born into the royal Deiran household, the great-niece of King Edwin of Northumbria and the daughter of Hereric and his wife Breguswith. Bede also includes a story in which Breguswith while pregnant with Hilda, dreamed that she suddenly became aware that her husband was missing. After searching for him frantically without success, she discovered a precious jewel under her garment. When she gazed at the jewel it flashed a blaze of light that illuminated all Britain with its splendor. Breguswith sensed that this was a prophetical dream not only about her husband, but also about her daughter Hilda who would bring light to the isle of Britain.
Almost immediately after her birth, Hilda’s parents and older sister were sent into exile in Elmet in western Yorkshire and Hereric died there, likely poisoned by their “host” King Cerdic of Elmet. Soon afterwards, Breguswith and her two young daughters moved back to Northumbria to be under the protection of King Edwin. They probably lived at King Edwin’s dual palaces at York and Yeavering.
According to Bede, Hilda was baptized alongside King Edwin and his extended family by St. Paulinus in the especially built wooden York Minster on Easter Sunday, April 12 in 627. It is interesting that the Annals of Wales (Annales Cambriae) and the Historia Brittonum record that King Edwin was baptized by Rhun, son of Urien in 626, so it is possible that Edwin and his family including Hilda were baptized by Rhun or perhaps they were baptized twice, by Rhun and by St. Paulinus!
Hilda had an older sister Hereswith (see day 3 of Celts to the Creche) who married into East Anglian royalty connected to King Rædwald of the famous Sutton Hoo burial. Probably after her husband’s death, Hereswith was exiled to France to live at a Merovingian convent east of Paris with Anglo-Saxon familial ties.
Bede eloquently extolled the virtues of women who were virgins in spite of marriage. Since he never mentioned Hilda’s virginity, it is quite likely as a royal princess that she was married to another royal, and was possibly not only a queen, but also a mother who in her late 20’s or early 30’s was either widowed or divorced.
Hilda’s Calling and Her Monasteries. When Hilda was 33 years old, she was in East Anglia for a year preparing to travel by ship to France to join her sister. St. Aidan, the first Bishop of Lindisfarne (Holy Island) in Northumbria [read more about St. Aidan under Day 1 of Celts to the Creche] had been brought from the great Celtic monastery of Iona off the western coast of Scotland by King Oswald to convert the people of his kingdom. When Aidan heard about Hilda, he pleaded with her to stay in England and to begin a small monastery north of the River Wear. This may have been where St. Hilda’s Church, South Shields is located now or it may have been in the vicinity of St. Paul’s Church in Monkwearmouth.
After Aidan saw her great ability to lead a small monastery, a year later, about 649, he persuaded her to become the second Abbess of Hartlepool (also called Hereteu or Hart’s Island), a double monastery on a headland at the mouth of the Tees estuary. Hilda succeeded Abbess Hieu, the founding Abbess of Hartlepool who had recently retired to Tadcaster.
In 657, King Oswiu gave Hilda ten hides of land (about 1,200 acres) called Streanaesalch to build a double monastery and to raise his infant daughter, princess Æfflæd there. Later this monastery became known by the Viking name of Whitby.
There is some discussion among Anglo-Saxon scholars whether Whitby was originally at this location or at Strensall (very similar name to Streanaesalch), a village slightly north of York where St. Mary the Virgin Church is now located. (see reference below: Barnwell, Butler, Dunn. in The Cross Goes North). I visited this church in April 2012. St. Hilda would probably be smiling that this ancient church is modern inside, has a praise band, and young families are once again worshipping here.
Whitby flourished and became a center of great literacy and learning. It probably had a scriptorium where illuminated manuscripts were copied and decorated as evidenced by styli (used to practice on wax tablets before putting pen to parchment) and other manuscript tools which were found at the site in archaeological excavations.
Towards the end of her life, Hilda began a satellite convent at Hackness, in a very beautiful part of North Yorkshire about 13 miles west of Whitby.
It is likely that Hilda also had a hermitage in Cumbria and also established a monastery or hermitage where the current St. Hilda’s Church in Ellerburn is located. It is in a beautiful secluded spot beside any idyllic brook.
Synod of Whitby. Whitby was of the Celtic persuasion (vs. the Roman way). Hilda’s monastery was probably based upon the rather rigorous Celtic St. Columbanus’ Rule perhaps mixed with some of the more compassionate St. Benedict’s Rule and likely a rule that she wrote herself. As Abbess, Hilda emphasized learning and literacy, scholarly study of the Bible, good works, holding all things in common, and living with one another in peace and love.
In 664, (see Frank Stenton’s resource listing below for information on this date), King Oswiu of Northumbria called the important and influential Synod of Whitby which was held at Hilda’s monastery. This synod was to bring together the leaders of both the Celtic and the Roman ways to decide dates of Easter, types of tonsures (monks’ haircuts), and theological leanings. It has been implied (Dugdales Monasticon, v.1, p. 220), that Hilda presided over the synod.
At the close of the synod, King Oswiu chose for his kingdom to follow the Roman way. Wilfrid, an Anglo-Saxon bishop of the Roman persuasion convinced the king that since St. Peter held the keys to heaven that it would be expedient to follow the Roman method of doing church. Even though Hilda was disappointed and rather disgusted with Wilfrid, she followed the ruling and began to transform Whitby towards the Roman way. Colman, the Bishop of Lindisfarne who succeeded Aidan, could not follow this Roman way and he and his monks left Lindisfarne moving back to the abbey on Iona, and later some returned to Ireland. Even to the end of Hilda’s life, she was not very fond of Wilfrid.
Hilda’s Influence. Bede records that Hilda was so loved and respected that everyone who knew her called her “Mother.” Bede also described her as “Christ’s servant”and many came to salvation through hearing of her industry and goodness.
Hilda’s wisdom led kings to come and ask her advice. Whitby became one of the greatest religious institutions and learning centers in England at that time. She was a great religious leader and teacher who was not only deeply spiritual, but was also a powerful administrator and visionary.
Among the men trained at Whitby, five went on to become Bishops. Bosa of York (678-86, 691-706); Ætla of Dorchester (670s); Oftfor of the Hwicce (c. 691-?); John of Beverly (Bishop of Hexham 687-706 and York 706-721); and Wilfrid II of York (721-732). Another of Hild’s students Tatfrid had been chosen to become Bishop of the Hwicce, but he passed away before he could be consecrated.
One day a cow herder on the monastery lands who had some ways with words and music was brought to Hilda to hear. She recognized his gift from God and encouraged him to stay at the monastery to learn the Bible stories and to create them into poetry and song. She must have recognized that teaching the Bible in the vernacular instead of Latin would help bring the people of the area to Christ. Through this encounter with Hilda, Cædmon became the first English poet. The only existing poem of his is the nine line alliterative vernacular praise poem in honor of God. Perhaps this appreciation for music and poetry was a carry-over from the Druidic Bards.
Hilda has continued to influence Christianity in England for over 1400 years with many churches, colleges, convents, schools, and organizations named for her and she is the patron saint of numerous places. Born only 600 years after the birth of Christ and 200 years after the Romans left Britain, she was chosen by the Spirit to be a strong and persuasive leader to bring literacy, learning, and the light of Christ to Britain.
At Sneaton Castle in Whitby, there are a group of Anglican Sisters of the Holy Paraclete at St. Hilda’s Priory. They have many beautiful representations of this woman who helped bring Christianity to pagan England. The Sisters have recently sold this property and may be building a new convent on a piece of the original land. It is quite likely that one of Hilda’s monastery outposts was on this land.
Hilda’s Resurrection Day. Hilda became very ill the last six years of her life and Bede compared her to the apostle Paul saying that her “strength might be made perfect in weakness.” In spite of her long illness, she kept serving the Lord with energy, strength, creativity, and courage. On her deathbed, she had her last Communion surrounded by her nuns on November 17, 680. Her last words to her followers urged them “to maintain the gospel peace among themselves and with others.”
It is recorded by Bede that on the night of Hilda’s resurrection, that Begu, a nun at the newly established Hackness convent saw a vision of the roof opened and Hilda’s soul carried to heaven by angels. Begu told the Prioress of her vision and they all began to pray. It is even said that the bells at Hackness rang on their own at her death. While the nuns were in prayer, the monks from Whitby came to inform the nuns of Hackness of the news of Hilda’s death, but they were already aware of her death from Begu’s vision. According to the Old English Martyrology, at Hilda’s death,
“One of her nuns perceived how angels brought her spirit to heaven and it glittered in the midst of the angels like the shining sun or a glossy new gown. The same nun heard at the same time as she departed the sound of a wonderful bell in the air and she also saw that angels raised against her spirit a very large and wonderful cross of Christ and it shone like a star of heaven. With such joy was St. Hilda’s spirit brought to the heavenly glory, where she now sees our Lord without end, whose will she did before as long as she was alive in the flesh.”
Hilda was most likely buried at Whitby and her relics later taken to Glastonbury. In Volume 1 of Dugdale’s Monasticon, it is recorded that Titus, the Abbot of Whitby when the Vikings may have destroyed it in 867, fled to Glastonbury with St. Hilda’s relics. Hilda was succeeded as Abbess at Whitby by King Oswiu’s widow, Queen Eanflæd and their daughter Æfflæd, who was raised at Hartlepool and at Whitby.
Whitby Destroyed. Whitby, being situated on the coast was easy prey for the Vikings that came from Scandinavia. This magnificent double monastery may have been destroyed by these marauders in 867. One can only imagine the fine illuminated manuscripts similar to the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Book of Kells which her scriptorium produced that were destroyed along with an extensive library of handwritten books for scholarly and theological learning.
After the Norman conquest, Whitby was reestablished by monks from Evesham Abbey in 1074. It continued for another 500 years until Henry VIII had Whitby destroyed on December 14, 1539 at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The ruins of the early Norman era abbey can be seen at Whitby, along with archaeological finds from the area in the museum there. In 1914, German battle cruisers shelled the ruins causing further damage to this historic place. Even though the monastery of Whitby is in ruins, the good works of St. Hilda still touch our lives today.
St. Hilda Today: There are numerous churches, schools, and colleges named after St. Hilda. There is a renewed interest in St. Hilda among those who study the history of women, the Church, and the early medieval era.
At Lindisfarne (Holy Island) in northeast England, the “Community of Aidan and Hilda,” a dispersed international ecumenical community of men and women has it’s office and a retreat center. Rev. Ray Simpson is the Founding Guardian of this community.
There is also a new 43 mile St. Hilda’s pilgrimage path in Northeast England from Hinderwell in Yorkshire to Whitby Abbey. It visits eight churches and chapels all dedicated to St Hilda. St Hilda’s Way was launched on Sunday June 28, 2015 with a special service at St. Hilda’s Well at Hinderwell Church.
Feast day is November 17
St. Paul prays for the new converts in Asia Minor:
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge —that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. Ephesians 3:14-21 TNIV
God is full of wonderful surprises and often leads us to places we never dreamed or imagined. When we trust our lives to the good God of the universe who loves us, then we are taken on journeys beyond our wildest imaginations.
The early Celtic monks would climb into their little leather coracles in the rough Irish Sea and ask the Spirit to blow them to where they were to share the Gospel. Their faith brought Christ to the Druids, pagans, and those who had lost their Christian foundation after the Romans left Britain.
God still calls men and women in his equal opportunity kingdom to serve, to minister, and to share the Gospel of the good news. May we be open to the Spirit’s work in our lives even if it is different than what we would have planned or divergent from what our social or religious culture says we can do.
Hilda’s affirmative response to Bishop Aidan’s requests to become the head/founder of influential double monasteries was transformative to that pagan continent. During her lifetime, much of Britain became Christian. We can imagine St. Hilda crossing that Saints’ Bridge, that thin place between heaven and earth to emphatically tell us that a simple “yes” can transform your piece of the world. Both Hilda and Mary would encourage us to simply say “yes” to Jesus the Christ being born anew in your life this Advent season.
Prayer: Thank you God for St. Hilda and her courageous good work of establishing monasteries as beacons of learning, literacy, and light bearing Christ to the Anglo-Saxons. Spirit of the Living God, blow me to places I never dreamed of or imagined and I will say “yes!” Amen.
Hymn: God of grace and God of glory on Thy people pour Thou power. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the facing of these days.
The Annales of Cambriae. from Fordham University.
Barker, Rosalin. Whitby Sisters: A Chronicle of the Order of the Holy Paraclete, 1915-2000. Whitby, UK: Order of the Holy Paraclete, 2001.
Barnwell, Butler, and Dunn. “The Confusion of Conversion: Streanæsalch, Strensall and Whitby and the Northumbrian Church.” In The Cross Goes North, ed. by Martin Carver. Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 2003, 2005 reprint.
Bauer, Nancy. “Abbess Hilda of Whitby: All Britain Was Lit by her Splendor,” in Medieval Women Monastics, Miriam Schmitt, Linda Kulzer, eds. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996.
Bede, The Venerable. Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book IV, Chapter 23.
Blair, John. The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Blair, Peter Hunter. The World of Bede. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
British Pilgrimage. St. Hilda’s Way.
Brown, Michelle P. How Christianity Came to Britain and Ireland. Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2006.
Browne, G. F. The Importance of Women in Anglo-Saxon Times: The Cultus of St. Peter and Paul And Other Addresses. New York: Macmillan, 1919. reprint.
Cavill, Paul. Anglo-Saxon Christianity. London: Fount, 1999. (Chapter 6 is good on Cædmon)
Colgrave, Bertram, trans. The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great by an Anonymous monk of Whitby. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968, 2007 reprint.
Dales, Douglas. Light to the Isles. Mission and Theology in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Britain. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1997.
Dalladay, J. Hild of the Headlands: The Story of St. Hilda of Whitby. 3rd ed. Whitby, UK:St. Mary’s Church, 2002.
Earle, Mary C. Holy Companions: Spiritual Practices from Celtic Saints. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2004.
Eckersley, John and Nancy. Walking St. Hilda’s Way.
Eddius Stephanus (Stephen of Ripon). The Life of Bishop Wilfrid, trans. by Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Farmer, D. H., ed. The Age of Bede. London: Penguin, 1983, 2004 reprint.
Fell, Christine. Women in Anglo-Saxon England and the Impact of 1066. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984.
Foot, Sarah. Monastic Life in Anglo-Saxon England, c600-900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Goffart, Walter. The Narrators of Barbarian History (A.D. 550-800): Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988, 2009 reprint.
Goodall, John. Whitby Abbey. London: English Heritage, 2002, 2006 reprint.
Griffith, Nicola. Hild. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux. 2013. (a meticulously researched sci-fi/historical fiction/fantasy of St. Hild’s life that is winning major book awards and will likely become a movie).
Hume, Basil. Footprints of the Northern Saints. London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, Ltd. 1996, 2006 reprint.
Jones, Andrew. Every Pilgrim’s Guide to Celtic Britain and Ireland. Ligouri, Missouri: Ligouri Publications, 2002.
Lapidge, Michael, “Hild or Hilda,” in The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.
Leyser, Henrietta. Beda: A Journey Through the Seven Kingdoms in the Age of Bede. London: Head of Zeus, 2015.
McDonald, Ian, ed. Saints of Northumbria. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1997.
Mayr-Harting, Henry. The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. University Park, PA: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 3rd ed. 1991.
Meehan, Bridget Mary and Regina Madonna Oliver. Praying with Celtic Holy Women. Hampshire, UK: Redemptorist Publications, 2003.
Mundahl-Edwards, Sylvia. St. Hilda and Her Times. Whitby: Caedmon of Whitby, 1997.
Nennius. Historia Brittonum. from Fordham University.
Old English Martyrology. ed. by Georg Herzfeld. available online at Google books. New edition, 2013 ed/tr. by Christine Rauer.
Parbury, Kathleen. Women of Grace: A Biographical Dictionary of British Women Saints, Martyrs, and Reformers. Boston: Oriel Press, 1985.
Plunkett, Steven. Suffolk in Anglo-Saxon Times. Stroud, UK: Tempus, 2005.
Rees, Elizabeth. An Essential Guide to Celtic Sites and Their Saints. London: Burns & Oates, 2003.
“Rhun, son of Urien” at carlanayland.blogspot.com
Sawyers, June Skinner. Praying with Celtic Saints, Prophets, Martyrs, and Poets. Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2001.
Sellner, Edward C. Wisdom of the Celtic Saints, rev. and expanded. St. Paul, MN: Bog Walk Press, 2006.
Simpson, Ray. Hilda of Whitby: A Spirituality for Now. Abingdon, UK: The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2014.
“St. Hilda” on BBC4’s In Our Time. April 5, 2007.
“St. Hilda and St. Etheldreda” by Dame Etheldreda Hession in Benedict’s Disciples, ed by D.H. Farmer, Leominster, UK: Fowler Wright Books Ltd., 1980.
Stenton, Frank. Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974. (note: according to this author, p. 129, the official dating of the Synod of Whitby would be late Sept.or early Oct, 663).
Time Team. The Time Team endeavors to locate where St. Hilda’s original Anglo-Saxon church and nun’s cemetery were on this headland. Season 7. Episode 12. Hartlepool Excavation. April 27, 2013. Youtube.
Tristram, Kate. The Story of Holy Island: An illustrated history. Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2009.
Wallace-Hadrill. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People: A Historical Comentary. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1988.
Ward, Sister Benedicta. A True Easter: The Synod of Whitby 664 AD. Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 2008.
Warren, Brenda Griffin. “Chasing Hilda.” July 23, 2016. Godspacelight.com.
________________. “St. Hilda of Whitby…maintaining the gospel peace.” November 17, 2016. Godspacelight.com.
Webb, Simon. In Search of the Northern Saints. Durham, UK: Langley Press, 2012.
Yorke, Barbara. Nunneries and the Anglo-Saxon Royal Houses. London: Continuum, 2003.
Young, Rev. George. A History of Whitby and Steonshalh Abbey. London: Clark and Medd: 1817. Google books.
Ziegler, Michelle. Heavenfield blogpost on St. Hilda.
____________. Heavenfield blogpost on Rhun.