Who Was St Hilda?

ST. Hilda – Abbess of Whitby (c. 614 -680)

St. Hilda’s life fell entirely within the 7th century, one of the most interesting in England’s history. The separate waves of Anglo-Saxon invasion had ended; the original small settlements had coalesced into the larger kingdoms; a pattern of national life was shaping itself and the Christian Church was locked in a desparate struggle with paganism.

St. Hilda was related to the royal families of both Northumbria and East Anglia, and her parents lived in exile in Elmete (near Yorkshire) when she was born in 614.

In 617, at the age of three, Hilda was able to return to her native country, Northumbria. About 625, Hilda’s great uncle King Edwin, a widower, married the King of Kent’s daughter Ethelberga, who was a Christian. Her chaplain, Paulinus, was consecrated Bishop of Northumbria, bringing Christianity to that former pagan country. The stories of conversions came down through the writings of Bede.

On Easter Eve 627 Hilda, together with King Edwin and other members of the royal household, was baptised at York. Over the site of the baptistry Edwin later erected a church, the nucleus of the present York Minster.

Northumbria was then overrun by the neighbouring pagan King of Mercia, at which time King Edwin fell in battle. After these events Paulinus took the lead and deputised James, his deacon, to remain in York while he accompanied Hilda and Queen Ethelburga and her companions to the Queen’s home in Kent.

During the next 13 years little is known of Hilda. However in this time Queen Ethelburga founded a convent at Liming and it is assumed that Hilda remained with the Queen-Abbess, developing her spiritual life.

Hilda intended to enter a famous religious house of women in Cales, France, but first visited her sister in East Anglia. However, it was not God’s plan for Hilda to go to France.

While Hilda was in the South, Northumbria was again overrun by the Mercians and relapsed into paganism. Some Christians still remaining, sent a missionary appeal to Iona (Scotland) for help, to which Aiden responded and once more Christianity – but a Christianity of the Celtic, not of the Roman pattern – was established in Northumbria. Aiden, bishop of the Northumbrian church, then contacted Hilda in East Anglia, inviting her to return to Northumbria and organise the religious life for women there, and so her life’s work was begun.

First Hilda was put in charge of a group of women in a small religious house on the River Wear. Bishop Aiden realised she was ready for further responsibilities, and the opportunity presented itself in Hilda taking her place as Superior in the religious house at Hartlepool.

Later Abbess Hilda of Hartlepool was offered a parcel of land in an Anglican settlement at the mouth of the River Esk, in which place there was already a Christian church where King Edwin’s body had been buried.

So in 657 Hilda founded (or refounded) the Abbey of Whitby and became Abbess of Whitby, where she remained till her death in 680. Her life there was many sided. First, she was the spiritual leader of a large community of Sisters, Novices, and women and young men studying for the service of God. Five of these, including Wilfred of York, became bishops. Also as a landowner she had many in her employ to care for sheep and cattle, farming and woodcutting. Not only did she bring a knowledge of the Gospel to the ordinary people, but religious and learned men, as well as many kings and noblemen from other places, sought her help and counsel. She was a great hearted missionary, teacher and educationalist, as well as caring for her own people. She encouraged Caedmon, one of her herdsmen, in his poetic gift, and he still holds a place in English literature.

Another well known episode in the life of Hilda was the Synod of Whitby in 664. The issues were far-reaching, involving ecclesiastical matters with the everyday life of ordinary folk. To put it briefly, Northumbria had been converted to Christianity twice over, once from Kent and once from Scotland, that is, once from Rome and once from Iona. It was all one faith, but as Iona was far remote from the centre of Christendom in Rome, it had developed an organisation in line with the customs of the Celtic race.The most important was the difference in the timing of the Easter festival. After much debate Hilda, who favoured the Celtic time, deferred to the decision of Synod, which found in favour of the Roman usage, thus illustrating her great example of obedience and humility. Hilda’s Abbey became one of the great religious centres of North Eastern England.

So her life passed on until her death on November 17, 680. Hilda’s great care was that her monastic family should be one in the Lord, and her last recorded words were: “Have evangelical peace among yourselves.”