St Hilda of Whitby is one of Whitby’s most famous historical residents. We’ve got a great deal to thank her for, so we thought we’d share some of what made her so important to English history.
Hild, or Hilda as we know her today, 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.
Most of what we believe about Hilda’s life comes from the Benedictine monk, Bede. 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 and Christianity
St Hilda of Whitby lived in a time of incredible religious and political change in Britain. Christianity was emerging across the country and Hilda was baptised into the Christian faith with King Edwin in 627.
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 Northumberland at the request of Bishop Aidan. 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. This was common in Hilda’s time, and often the monks and nuns lived entirely separate lives on the same site. However, there is no evidence to suggest the two worshiped separately at Whitby.
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 was known UK wide, and her opinions were sought out by Kings and powerful figures.
Saint Hilda was the abbess in charge of the Abbey during the Synod of Whitby. This incredibly important meeting took place in her monastery and was called to resolve the date of Easter. Until this meeting, Celtic and Roman Christians celebrated the event on different dates. This was a landmark change in English Christianity.
Legends about St Hilda
There are many legends about St Hilda. One local folklore tale claims that St Hilda freed Whitby of all evil snakes by flinging them from the Abbey cliffs. We believe this to be the medieval explanation for all the spiralled ammonite fossils that can be found along our coastline.
The snake tale was so prevalent that you can still see relics of it today. The Whitby coat of arms still proudly displays three of Hilda’s snakes. Take a look next time you’re crossing the swing bridge and you’ll see them. There’s also a fossil named after our abbess: ammonite hildoceras.
Hilda died in 680. For the last six years of her life, Hilda 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. Caedomon is famed as the earliest named English poet.
St Hilda of Whitby
St Hilda of Whitby is one of our most exciting figures. It’s thought to this day that when seabirds fly over the Abbey, they dip their wings in her honour. When you next Visit Whitby, be sure to visit St Mary’s Church, look out over the town and take a moment to think about the influential abbess.