St. Hilda (Hild), Abbess of Whitby
Born in Northumbria in 614; died at Whitby in 680.
Hilda was a grandniece of King Edwin of Northumbria and daughter of
Hereric. Hild is her correct name and means "battle." Both she and her
uncle were baptized by Saint Paulinus at York in 627, when she was 13.
She lived the life of a noblewoman until 20 years later she decided to
join her sister Saint Hereswitha at the Chelles Monastery as a nun in
France. In 649, Saint Aidan requested that she return to Northumbria as
abbess of the double monastery (with both men and women, in separate
quarters) in Hartlepool by the River Wear.
After some years Saint Hilda migrated as abbess to the double monastery
of Whitby at Streaneshalch, which she governed for the rest of her life.
Among her subject monks were Bishop Saint John of Beverly, the herdsman
Caedmon (the first English religious poet), Bishop Saint Wilfrid of
York, and three other bishops.
At the conference she convened in 664 at Whitby abbey to decide between
Celtic and Roman ecclesiastical customs, Saint Hilda supported the
Celtic party. Nevertheless, she and her communities adhered to the
decision of the Council of Whitby to observe the Roman rule and customs.
Her influence was certainly one of the decisive factors in securing
unity in the English Church.
Hilda became known for her spiritual wisdom and her monastery for the
calibre of its learning and its nuns. Saint Bede is enthusiastic in his
praise of Abbess Hilda, one of the greatest Englishwomen of all time:
she was the adviser of rulers as well as of ordinary folk; she insisted
on the study of Holy Scripture and on proper preparation for the
priesthood; the influence of her example of peace and charity extended
beyond the walls of her monastery; 'all who knew her called her Mother,
such were her wonderful godliness and grace'
Saint Hilda is represented in art holding Whitby Abbey in her hands with
a crown on her head or at her feet. Sometimes she is shown (1) turning
serpents into stone; (2) stopping the wild birds from ravaging corn at
her command; or (3) as a soul being carried to heaven by the angels
Modern Monastic Life at Whitby Need Vocations
"On a bleak Yorkshire moor, overlooking a stretch of turquoise sea, stands
one of the most isolated communities in Britain... Mother Hilda and Mother
Thekla are the only nuns left at the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the
Assumption in North Yorkshire. They live a quiet life, with eight hours of
prayer a day and little outside contact - and they're looking for new
recruits. Diane Taylor is allowed a rare visit...."
Read more at:
· For information about becoming a novice write to:
The Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Assumption, Normanby, Whitby, North Yorkshire YO22 4PS.
Another Life of St. Hilda
Abbess, born 614; died 680. Practically speaking, all our knowledge of
St. Hilda is derived from the pages of Bede. She was the daughter of
Hereric, the nephew of King Edwin of Northumbria, and she seems like her
great-uncle to have become a Christian through the preaching of St.
Paulinus about the year 627, when she was thirteen years old.
Moved by the example of her sister Hereswith, who, after marrying
Ethelhere of East Anglia, became a nun at Chelles in Gaul, Hilda also
journeyed to East Anglia, intending to follow her sister abroad. But St.
Aidan recalled her to her own country, and after leading a monastic life
for a while on the north bank of the Wear and afterwards at Hartlepool,
where she ruled a double monastery of monks and nuns with great success,
Hilda eventually undertook to set in order a monastery at Streaneshalch,
a place to which the Danes a century or two later gave the name of
Under the rule of St. Hilda the monastery at Whitby became very famous.
The Sacred Scriptures were specially studied there, and no less than
five of the monks became bishops, St. John, Bishop of Hexham, and still
more St. Wilfrid, Bishop of York, rendering untold service to the
Anglo-Saxon Church at this critical period of the struggle with
paganism. Here, in 664, was held the important synod at which King Oswy,
convinced by the arguments of St. Wilfrid, decided the observance of
Easter and other moot points. St. Hilda herself later on seems to have
sided with Theodore against Wilfrid. The fame of St. Hilda's wisdom was
so great that from far and near monks and even royal personages came to
consult her. Seven years before her death the saint was stricken down
with a grievous fever which never left her till she breathed her last,
but, in spite of this, she neglected none of her duties to God or to her
subjects. She passed away most peacefully after receiving the Holy
Communion and Anointing, and the tolling of the monastery bell was heard
miraculously at Hackness thirteen miles away, where also a devout nun
named Begu (Saint Bee) saw the soul of St. Hilda borne to heaven by
With St. Hilda is intimately connected the story of Caedmon (q. v.), the
sacred bard. When he was brought before St. Hilda she admitted him to
take monastic vows in her monastery, where he most piously died.
The cultus of St. Hilda from an early period is attested by the
inclusion of her name in the calendar of St. Willibrord, written at the
beginning of the eighth century. It was alleged at a later date the
remains of St. Hilda were translated to Glastonbury by King Edmund, but
this is only part of the "great Glastonbury myth." Another story states
that St. Edmund brought her relics to Gloucester. There are a dozen or
more old English churches dedicated to St. Hilda on the northeast coast
Shields is probably a corruption of St. Hilda.
Visit the ruins of Whitby Abbey and you'll find yourself standing at the
very crossroads of Celtic and Roman Christianity.
For here, at the Synod of Whitby in AD 663, the divided church in
England finally gave way to Rome and accepted many of the practices that
shaped religious belief in this country for centuries to come.
The site is magnificent, on a dramatic headland 60 metres up above the
town of Whitby, and only serves to enhance the edifice you see today.
Under Abbess Hilda, Whitby gained a great reputation, becoming a burial
place for kings, and a place of pilgrimage. It was at this time, that
Caedmon was inspired to compose the first hymns written in the English
language. Unusually, Whitby was a double monastery, home to both men and
women. After sacking by the Danes, it was rebuilt by the Normans after
The ruins we marvel at today are those of the thirteenth-century abbey.
The east facade shows us what a massive building this was, with its
great three-tiered choir and north transept. Even in its skeletal form,
it sends a shiver down the spine.
Icon of Saint Hilda of Whitby
Two icons of Saint Hilda
Vespers and Matins of our Venerable Mother Hilda, Abbess At Streaneshalch,
Now Whitby, of Northumbria
Whitby Abbey - A Virtual Tour
by Dr Deborah Vess
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Page last updated: 7 November 2008
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