Hild, an Anglo-Saxon and great neice of Edwin the King of Northumbria, was born in 614 AD and died in 680 AD. She became Abbess at Hartlepool Abbey before moving to Whitby to found the new abbey here in 657 AD as a double monastery, for both monks and nuns. It is often supposed that this was the start of today’s ‘Abbey’, however Hilda’s monastery was built of wood and thatch, a far cry from the magnificent stone Benedictine Abbey, which was to come centuries later.
Hilda’s establishment was described by Shaw Jeffrey as “a sort of University and Royal Palace in one, peopled not by monks and nuns vowed to celibacy on later monastic lines, but a mixed gathering of Christian families, males and females alike, ruled like a highland clan of the old days, by a scion of the royal house”.
Local folklore says that St Hilda got rid of all the evil snakes and serpents in Whitby by throwing them off the top of the Abbey Cliff and that they turned to stone in the heat of her anger. This was a medieval explaination of the spiral fossil Ammonites found in the rocks below the cliffs. With this legend in mind, Victorian geologists named one local species after her – Ammonite hildroceras. Today Whitby’s coat of arms (one can be seen at the centre of the swing bridge) also displays three St Hilda’s Serpents.
The Synod Of Whitby in 664 AD was a great meeting of lasting importance, where the two factions of the christian church in the British Isles (the Celtic faction which followed the rules of Iona and the Roman faction following Rome) agreed a standardised way to calculate the date of Easter each year - a decision which still causes much confusion some 1,400 years later.