Hilda of Whitby or Hild of Whitby (c. 614–680) is a Christian saint and the founding abbess of the monastery at Whitby. An important figure in the Celtic Christianity, she was known for her wisdom. Today she is recognised as a patron saint of poetry and culture.
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. Bede wrote extensively about scientific, historical and theological matters and is widely regarded as one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon scholars. His works are some of the key sources we have for the arrival of Christianity in Britain.
Hilda was born in 614 to a royal household. Her father was the nephew of Edwin, the King of Deria, an Anglo-Saxon Northern kingdom. While Hilda was still a baby, her father was poisoned and she was raised in Edwin’s court.
When she was around 33 years old, Hilda became a nun. She intended to join her sister, Hereswith, in a monastery in France, but was called back to Northumbria at the request of Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne. She became the abbess of Hartlepool and founded the monastery in Whitby in 657.
Saint Hilda and Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey stands on the site of Hilda’s original monastery. When Hilda lived and worshiped there, the abbey was a double monastery, home to both monks and nuns. Archaeological evidence shows that her monastery was in the Celtic style, with its members living in small houses, each for two or three people. This was common in Celtic monasticism. Men and women lived separately but worshipped together. Hilda was also a wise spiritual director. She established a library and theological school and set a high standard of holiness and charity. Five of her students became bishops, two of whom – John of Beverley and Wilfred of York – are honoured as saints. Bede says of her monastery: “No one there was rich or poor, for everything was held in common and none possessed any personal property”. Bede was incredibly complimentary about Hilda’s skills as an abbess. The writer celebrates Hilda’s monastic order for its observance of peace, charity and justice piety. Hilda’s strength and wisdom were known around the whole country, and her opinions were sought out by Kings and powerful figures.
The Synod of Whitby
The prestige of Whitby is reflected in the fact that King Oswiu chose it as the host location for the famous synod in 664 to resolve the differences between the Celtic and Roman models of Church. Until this meeting, Celtic and Roman Christians celebrated the event on different dates. 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.
Death and legacy
Hilda died in 680. For the last six years of her life, she was seriously ill, but she didn’t let it deter her from her work. Bede recorded that there were many visions surrounding her death. At a monastery Hilda founded in Hackness, a nun dreamed that she saw Hilda’s soul ascend to heaven surrounded by angels through the open roof of her dormitory. By the time monks from Whitby had arrived to spread the word of Hilda’s death, the nuns there had already begun singing psalms and prayers.
Hilda is reported to have been a woman of great energy who cared for all people, no matter their status. She employed many people to car for her land, including a herder by the name of Caedmon. Caedmon was inspired to sing verses in the praise of God, a talent recognised and encouraged by Hilda. Caedmon is today known as the earliest named English poet.
Community of Aidan and Hilda, Lindisfarne
The Community of Aidan and Hilda is a dispersed, ecumenical body drawing inspiration from the lives of the Celtic saints. The Open Gate, on Lindisfarne is their main house. It was founded by Ray Simpson. They draw their inspiration particularly from the Celtic Saints, aiming to restore holistic Christian spirituality, research the first Celtic mission and related movements throughout history and draw out their application for today.
The Community describes themselves as a dispersed body of Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and other Christians who seek to cradle a holistic Christian spirituality for today. The members draw inspiration from Celtic saints such as Aidan (Irish) and Hilda (English) and God-guided indigenous personalities.
To find out more, visit https://www.aidanandhilda.org.uk/index.php