St. Hilda (614 – 680 AD)
Hilda, or Hild, was the daughter of Hereric and Breguswith and the great niece of Edwin, King of Northumbria, 616 – 633 AD. Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People [book iv, chapter 23] tells the story that while pregnant with Hild, Breguswith dreamt that she found a jewel under her garments, which emitted such a brilliant light that all Britain was lit by its splendour. This prophecy was fulfilled in her daughter, who was a shining example to everyone. Hild lived in Northumbria during Edwin’s reign and was baptized with him and many others in York on Easter Day, 12th April, 627 AD, by Paulinus, a monk sent by Pope Gregory from Rome in 601 to assist Augustine with his English mission. Nothing is known of Hild for the next 20 years but it is supposed that she left the North upon Edwin’s death, married and then was widowed. She reappears in Bede’s narrative when she returned to Northumbria invited by Aidan to set up a small monastery on the north side of the River Wear. Soon after, she became abbess of the monastery at Hartlepool.
In 657 AD, Hild was called to found or organise the monastery at Whitby, then named Streanæshalch, which had been given a grant of ten hides by Oswiu for the establishment of a monastery in thanks for his victory over Penda, Mercia’s King. During the next 60 years, during her time and that of her successors, the monastery was noted for being the site of the Synod of Whitby, the burial place of Kings (Edwin and Oswiu) and many nobles, the school where five future bishops were educated and the home of the first English poet, Caedmon. Hild established rules for a regular life, probably based on those of St. Benedict. Whitby was a double monastery but little is known about how it was organised and divided between the male and female element. As with many other double monasteries in England, an Abbess who was a member of the royal family headed the house. Some were founded on land in the possession of the abbess or a near member of the family though whether this was the case here is only a possibility.
In 664 AD, the monastery was the venue for the Synod to decide the correct calculation for the dating of Easter and the tonsure. There was much debate on both sides, which is often seen as divisive between Celtic and Roman Christianity. Hild had been exposed to both, she was baptized and instructed by Paulinus and later advised by Aidan. King Oswiu’s decision was to follow the preferences established by Rome.
During the late 7th century, the Whitby monastery became a renowned centre of learning and its abbesses were sought after for advice. Upon Hild’s death in 680, Oswiu’s widow, Eanflæd and their daughter Ælfflæd became joint abbesses and later in the 680s, Ælfflæd was sole abbess until her death in 714 when the monastery ceases to be mentioned. Hild’s death was as remarkable as her birth and life had been. The nun Begu, living at the monastery in Hackness, dreamt that she heard the bell that was used to call the sisters to prayer when one of the sisters died. Opening her eyes, she saw the roof open and a great light pour in from above and the soul of Hild borne up to heaven accompanied by angels.
The significance of the Synod of Whitby and the outcome in favour of the Roman calculation of Easter and to a lesser extent the tonsure, was that this unified the Christian church. The Christian leaders realised that divisions in the church would hinder the spread of Christianity in Northumbria and elsewhere. Hild’s importance was her ability to create a centre of learning and so her influence spread far and wide. Bede described how she ‘taught the observance of righteousness, mercy, purity, and other virtues, but especially in peace and charity.’ This is why she is remembered.