Hilda – The Abbess of Whitby

Hilda – The Abbess of Whitby

Bede tells us “her prudence was so great that not only indifferent persons but even kings and princes asked and received her advice.” In fact, “all who knew her called her Mother.” And her influence spread much beyond Whitby. “For her singular piety and grace,” Bede continues, “was not only an example of good life to those that lived in her monastery, but afforded occasion of amendment and salvation to many who lived at a distance, to whom the fame was brought of her industry and virtue.”[7]

The name of Hilda of Whitby is almost legendary in English history. She ran two abbeys, educated some of the finest minds in England (including five bishops), discovered and sponsored the first English poet, and convened the crucial Synod of Whitby. Her authority and accomplishments are especially impressive when we think that Christianity was still quite new in England.

Hilda’s Early Life

Hilda was born in a renowned family around the year 614. Her father, Hereric, was a prince of the royal family of Deira (whose territories covered approximately modern Yorkshire). He was also a nephew of King Edwin of Northumbria, who is usually considered the first Anglo-Saxon Christian king.[1]

While Hilda was still a baby, her mother Bregusuit had a dream where she was looking for her husband and couldn’t find him. Instead, she found a precious jewel under her gown, which “cast such a light as spread itself throughout all Britain.”[2] That jewel represented Hilda – although her mother might not have lived to see its fulfillment.

Bregusuit’s dream was correct about the loss of her husband, who was at that time living in exile at the court of Cerdic, king of the Britons. She couldn’t find her husband because he had been poisoned. Due to these dangers, Hilda was brought up at King Edwin’s court, where she encountered Christianity and was baptized, together with Edwin and many of his court, on Easter Day 627.

We don’t know anything about Hilda’s life between then and 647, when she decided to move to a monastery in France where her sister Hereswith lived. She might have been married and become a widow. In any case, Aidan of Lindisfarne, an important Irish bishop and missionary to England[3], noticing “her innate wisdom and inclination to the service of God,”[4] advised her to join the monastery of Hartlepool instead.

The monastery of Hartlepool, a port town in County Durham, had gained a notable reputation for the devotion and learning of its members. Founded jointly by Aidan and one of his disciples, Heiu, provided a place of training for Hilda, who by that time (possibly the year 647) was already 33 years old.

Teacher and Influencer

A natural leader, Hilda became abbess of Hartlepool in 649, when Heiu moved elsewhere. In 657, she moved on to become the abbess of a community of both men and women at a seaside town in Yorkshire known as Streaneshalch (later called Whitby by the Vikings). Due to her connection to royal families, she soon became the preceptor for many young men and women of the nobility.

According to Bede, who devoted many pages to Hilda’s life and accomplishments, she placed both monasteries “under the same regular discipline,” teaching “the strict observance of justice, piety, chastity, and other virtues, and particularly of peace and charity; so that, after the example of the primitive church, no person was there rich, and none poor, all being in common to all, and none having any property.”[5]

Five of her pupils became bishops.

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