Saint Hilda

St. Hilda Panel in the Cross
St. Hilda panel in the Caedmon Croos, St. Mary's Church, Whitby

Hilda window in St. Wilfrid’s Lady Chapel

Hilda played a major role in the events that unfolded during Wilfrid’s lifetime. It was at Hilda’s monastery that the great Synod Of Whitby took place in 664 and the choice of venue and host were no accident. Bede tells us that all called Hilda ‘mother’ and it is evident that she had the confidence of bishops and kings alike and had developed Whitby into the foremost centre of learning in Britain and the world.

Although time did not permit us to visit Whitby during our pilgrimage last year, there was an indirect reference to the great abbess when we visited the crypt near the tomb of William Fitzherbert in York Cathedral. Our venerable guide opened his talk by summarizing all the things he was going to tell us about the history of the cathedral and then said “and if I have any time left I will try to find something nice to say about Wilfrid”, which indicated some of the not too flattering views about our controversial saint that we encountered during our pilgrimage in the North! What did catch my eye during this incident in the crypt was that we were all seated facing three altars, each with an imposing oil painting portrait. The paintings were of bishop Paulinus on the left, king Edwin on the right and in the middle Saint Hilda. The significance of all these characters I will presently unfold, suffice to say at this juncture that Hilda was one of Wilfrid’s sternest critics and I often wonder if our guide was playing a little intellectual joke on us down in that crypt!

Hilda was born in 614 into the Deiran royal household in bloody and fractious times when the kingdom was under the subjection of neighbouring Bernicia. Hilda’s father was Hereric, the Anglo Saxon nephew of Edwin (future king of Northumbria), and her mother was Breguswith, a Celt. Edwin had been banished from Northumbria since 588 when king Aethelric of Bernicia, and then his son Aethelfrith (who as if to add salt to the wound had taken Edwin’s sister Acha to be his bride) controlled Deira. Hereric was also in exile under the ‘protection’ of British king Cerdic in 614 and was allegedly poisoned shortly after the birth of his daughter. Bede tells us that the death of Hereric and the destiny of the infant Hilda were foreseen by Breguswith in a dream in which she suddenly became aware that her husband was missing. After searching for him frantically without success, she discovered a precious necklace under her garment. When she gazed on the jewel it flashed a blaze of light that illuminated all Britain with its gracious splendour. A pointer if ever there was one to the light that Hilda was destined to shine on Northern Christianity and, as we shall see, indirectly on poetry in the native tongue.

Two years later in 616 Edwin defeated and killed Aethelfrith in a battle at the river Idle near Leeds and returned to rule both kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia as the united king of Northumbria and Hilda, just 2 years old, became part of the Northumbrian royal court. In 625, Edwin’s first wife had died and he chose for his second wife the Christian Aethelburgh, daughter of the King of Kent. As part of the marriage contract, Aethelburgh was allowed to continue her Roman Christian worship and she was accompanied to Northumbria with her chaplain Paulinus, a Roman monk sent to England back in 601 to assist Augustine’s mission in England which was based in Kent. Edwin also promised that he would become a Christian if “on examination of his advisers decided that it appeared more holy and acceptable to God than their own pagan religion.” (Bede).

Despite the urgings of Paulinus and letters from the Pope, it was another two years before Edwin was converted and then only after an assassination attempt on his life with a poisoned dagger on the night that his daughter Eanfled was born. Edwin was saved when Lilla, one of his nobleman, threw himself in front of the king and was slain instead. I mention this because there is a stone sentinal cross dedicated to Lilla, possibly named by Hilda, on the lonely moor track between Whitney and Hackness which I will refer to later. On 12 April 627, Edwin and a large number of his court including his great niece Hilda were all baptised by Paulinus in the river at York.

Just five years later in 632 Edwin was killed in battle against the combined armies of Cadwallon of Gwynedd and King Penda of Mercia and Paulinus, who was then bishop of York, the widowed Queen Aethelburgh, her daughter Eanfled and possibly other royal members including Hilda, fled Northumbria and the safety of Kent.

Hilda had a sister Hereswith who had a dynastic marriage to the king of East Anglia and had a son Eadwulf who became king of Mercia. When Hereswith was widowed she retired to a French convent at Chelles on the river Marne near Paris. In 647 at what was in those times a fairly advanced age of 33, Hilda prepared to join her sister in holy orders and spent a year at the court of her nephew Aldwulf, king of the East Angles, preparing for the arduous journey.

Nothing else seems to be known about Hilda in the 16 years after the death of Edwin in 632 up to 648; some conjecture that she did marry, was widowed and then, as was the custom for royal household, intended to retreat to a life in the church.

What we do know thanks to Bede was that back in Northumbria a great deal was happening! On the death of Edwin, and with the fleeing of Paulinus back to Kent, Roman Christian practices all but died away (save the efforts of James the Deacon at Catterick who continued with the Roman traditions). Aethelfrith’s sons Eanfrith, Oswold, and Oswiu returned from exile in Scotland after being educated in Celtic ways at Iona; Oswold became king of Northumbria in 633 and brought the Celtic monk Aidan from Iona to form a monastery at Lindisfarne and in 633/4 Wilfrid was born. In 642 Oswold was killed by Penda and his brother Oswiu succeeded him as king of Bernicia but subordinate to Penda and continually troubled by him; Oswin, son of Osric of the house of Deira, became king of Deira. The final twist was that Eanfled, daughter of the widowed Queen Aethelburgh and Aunt of Hilda, eventually returned from Kent to Northumbria to marry her cousin king Oswiu! Eanfled, like her mother before her, was a deeply committed Roman Christian and that year (648) her sponsoring of Wilfrid to Lindisfarne monastery began!

What was fortunate for Northumbrian Christian development was that on the eve of Hilda’s departure to France she received an urgent request from bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne to return to Northumbria and form a monastery. Hilda accepted the call and was given a small parcel of land, enough for a small household, on the north bank headland at the mouth of the river Wear. Nothing now remains of Hilda’s monastery but one possibly is that it is sited under the monastery built by Benedict Biscop in 674.

After just one year in 649, bishop Aidan made a further request to Hilda to become abbess of the much larger and established monastery at Hartlepool, another headland site at the mouth of the Tees estuary. It was sited on a peninsula called Herutea (island of the hart) and was a community of men and woman founded around 640. Hilda was to succeed Hieu, the first Northumbrian female to be consecrated to the religious life by Aidan. Bede says that Bishop Aidan and other devout men who knew her and admired her innate wisdom and love of God often used to visit and advise her. Just two years later Aidan died and was succeeded by Finan as bishop of Lindisfarne in 651.

Also in 651, Oswiu quarrelled with his neighbouring king Oswin of Deira and Oswin was murdered and Oswiu’s son Alhfrith (Alcfrid) became king of sub-kingdom Deira. Meanwhile, in 652/3 Queen Eanfled sponsored Wilfrid’s visit to Rome which took him off the scene until his return in 657/8.

After suffering enormous hassle and conflict with his Mercian overload since his succession in 642, Oswiu finally in 655 defeated and killed the pagan Penda (who had previously slain both Edwin and Oswold) at a great victory at Winwaed in south Yorkshire. This made Oswiu king of a united Northumbria and overload of southern England. Before the battle Oswiu had made a vow that if he was victorious he would dedicate his one-year-old daughter Elfleda ‘in perpetual virginity to the church’ and also promised 12 grants of land to set up monasteries – 6 in the North and six in the South. This directly affected Hilda’s fortunes because after the victory she was entrusted with bringing up the princess at her Hartlepool monastery. Also one of the grants of land of 10 hides (around 1,200 acres) was given to Hilda to form a monastery at Streonashalh (later renamed Whitby by the Vikings).

In 657 Hilda moved to Whitby with her royal charge Elfleda and formed another double monastery for men and woman on the imposing headland site on the east side of the mouth of the river Esk.

The ruins of the present abbey reputably near the site where Hilda had her first monastery Streonashalh on the headland at Whitby. The present ruins are from an abbey built by the Norman knight Reinfrid in 1070s which was rebuilt in 1220s and sacked as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries on 14 December 1539

At the advanced age of 43, Hilda set about her task with brisk energy and set the pattern of disciplined life as in her previous monastery; her abbey was to become one of the greatest religious and centre of learning of north eastern England and the known world.

Although Hilda had been baptised in the Roman tradition by Paulinus, the contact and influence in her very formative years was very much with great Celtic people like Aidan (who called her to the religious houses at Wear and Hartlepool) and Finan (Whitby) and later Cuthbert. Although Oswiu, with his Iona background, was happy with the Celtic practices, a growing movement including his queen Eanfled, son Alhfrith and rising stars like Wilfrid supported changing to Roman practices.

Oswiu, now seriously concerned about the religious differences that were threatening to destabilize his family and his kingdom decided to call a meeting of church leaders in 664 to resolve these differences once and for all. This became known as The Synod of Whitby as it was held at Hilda’s monastery. Hilda very much supported the Celtic view put to the Synod by bishop Colman but it was the Roman view, championed by Wilfrid that won the day. Hilda accepted the change to Roman ways but remained a critic of Wilfrid and bishop Colman resigned his see.

Through the rest of Wilfrid’s stormy life until Hilda’s death in 680 she remained at Whitby continuing to build on her good works and offering council and advice to kings and bishops alike. She was also responsible for nurturing the talents of a humble cowman called Caedmon who became England’s first poet and famous for adaptation of the aristocratic-heroic Anglo-Saxon verse tradition to the expression of Christian themes.


Caedmon’s popular songs must have been a great help in spreading the Christian faith out from Whitby Abbey to the rest of the land. Hilda’s protégés included 5 important bishops – Aetla, bishop of the West Saxons, Bosa bishop of York two years before Hilda died, John of Beverley bishop of Hexham and York, Oftfor bishop of Hwicce, and the second Wilfrid who became bishop of York after John of Beverley.

King Oswiu died in 670 and his widowed queen Eanfled, now in her mid forties, retired to join her fifteen year old daughter Elfleda and Hilda at Whitby Abbey. Eanfled had Oswiu buried at Whitby and later had her father king Edwin’s remains moved there too.

In 678 and very ill (Hilda was very ill for the last 7 years of her life) there was one more brush with Wilfrid that emphasised the divisions between them. In that year Theodore divided Wilfrid’s diocese – Bosa (monk from Whitby ) to Deira with his seat at York and Eata (of Melrose and Ripon) to Bernicia with seat at either Hexham or Lindisfarne. Soon afterwards he also created a new see at Ripon and invited Eadhead to be first bishop. Wilfrid appealed to Rome and Abbess Hilda immediately sent an ambassador to Rome to support the Archbishop’s decision!

Hilda planned to end her days at a new priory she had built at Hackness but on 17 November 680, in the early hours of the morning, she died at Whitby. The night before she died, Begu, a nun from Hackness monastery, had a vision. Whilst resting in the dormitory, Begu saw the roof open revealing the soul of Hilda as it was carried to heaven by angels. Begu told the Prioress and all the sisters were praying when monks from Whitby arrived to tell them the news and found that they already knew. A similar vision was also seen by one of the Whitby monastery sisters.

Hilda was succeeded as abbess by the widowed queen Eanfled and then by her daughter Elfleda who had been with Hilda since the age of one and both went on to become saints in their own right.

The double community at Whitby came to a sudden end in 867 when the Vikings invaded the area and remained in ruins until after the Norman Conquest. The rise and fall of the current abbey will be covered in a separate article.

One final thing I must mention is that the good works of Hilda live on in so many ways – not least at the priory of St. Hilda at Sneaton Castle in Whitby run by the Sisters of the Holy Paraclete, an Anglican Religious Community.

Hilda and Edwin being baptised by Paulinus
Hilda being baptised with king Edwin and his court by Paulinus in 627 when Hilda was just 13 years old.
Hilda at Lilla's Cross,
Hilda with the princess Elfleda under her charge. Sister Pam emphasised how depicting this scene on the moor emphasises the openness of the Abbess who was known as 'mother' by all. Lila's cross can be seen in the background and it was discussed whether this could indicate that another person in this grouping is the widowed queen Eanfled (mother of Elfleda who also came to live at Whitby Abbey when her husband king Oswiu died). Eanfled was daughter of king Edwin and born on the night that the thane Lilla saved Edwin from a poisoned sword by forming a shield with his own body.
Hilda with brother Caedmon the poet
Hilda with brother Caedmon the cowherd who Hilda asked to join her house and encouraged to develop his poetic talents for setting verse to music in the native tongue rather than Latin. Hilda recognised the powerful tool for putting across the Christian message this could be for people who could not read or write.
Hilda at the Synod of Whitby conference table
Hilda hosting the Synod of Whitby in 664. The 'Roman' and 'Celtic' sides can be distinguished by their form of tonsure.
Begu's vision of Hilda's soul being transported to heaven by angels.
Begu's vision at the Hackness monastery on the night that Hilda was dying in the Whitby abbey of Hilda's soul being carried to heaven by angels .

I had the great pleasure to stay there on 29 October whilst continuing with the Wilfrid Pilgrimage and researching the information for this article and about the great Synod of Whitby. The centre would make an ideal base for future pilgrimages having wonderful on-suite accommodation, numerous comfortable and incredibly well equipped conference and lounge facilities, excellent refectory packed with an amazing collection of ‘Mousy’ Thompson of Kilbern oak tables and chairs and even a licensed bar! All visitors are welcome to join in their daily services. I am most grateful to the sisters, particularly Sister Hilary who is helping me with unravelling the Easter calculation at the centre of the Synod of Whitby debate, and also manager Tony Holden and sister Naomi for all there assistance in showing me around and making me feel very welcome..

I would particularly like to thank Tony (and Sister Hilary on a subsequent visit) for showing me their St. Hilda conference room which has 5 very large pictures of different facets of Hilda’s life commissioned from local artist Juliet MacMichael.

The paintings are a wonderful reminder that Hilda was a pivotal figure in all the cataclysmic changes that occurred in the 7th century as Christianity was slowly and painfully introduced into a pagan society. I marvel when I think of all the people she would have had close contact with – Edwin, Paulinus, Aidan, Cuthbert and not forgetting our saint Wilfrid. It is clear that Hilda, or ‘mother’ as she was affectionately known, was the confidant and source of council and advice for kings, princes, bishops and people of all walks of life. The way that she helped a lowly cowman to develop his poetical talents also says three things to me about Hilda – firstly that her royal position and high office did not stop her being approachable and interested in lowly folk and helping them in any way she could, secondly that talent can be nurtured and put to use far beyond the lowly aspirations of those who are blessed with it, and thirdly that she could see that Caedmon’s popular and easily understood songs in the vernacular language could be a real help in getting the Christian message across to uneducated people.

The one unanswered question is to what extent did she dislike or not approve of what our Saint Wilfrid was doing to bring the church into line with Roman ways. Was it the policy or was it the way that Wilfrid went about it? I do hope one day to find the answer!

In search of more answers I attended the Seaton Castle course ‘In Search of St. Hilda’ 15-19th November 2006 and this included a service by the nuns at Whitby Abbey – see below.

17th November, 2006 – St. Hilda’s Day

After breakfast it was in the coach and and over to the East headland to visit the Whitby Abbey Visitors Centre where we again met many of the sisters of OHP to share with them this very special day. We processed, led by a cross, right into the chancel of the  abbey ruins for a service conducted by the chaplain Fr. David.

The weather was, fittingly, truly awful and added poignancy to the opening words ‘For over thirteen hundred years on this windswept, storm tossed headland God has been worshiped; psalms have been sung, prayers have been offered and the Eucharist celebrated – in honour of the God who is creator and Lord of all’.

We read the psalm 121 ‘I lift my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come?’ , we sang hymns about Hilda, a sister read a passage from Bede that records the death of Hilda in 680 and we all as pilgrims laid flowers in honour of St. Hilda.

One of the course members was invited to read the the passage from Bede that records when Hilda formed her monastery at Streaneschalch [Whitby] and I know that doing this – right in the very place which Bede was talking about, and the chapter in Bede that Reinfrid, a Norman knight read as a history book and gave him the inspiration to seek out Hilda’s monastery ruins [Mission to the North] and build the present abbey in 1073-4 – will be something that the reader (and I) will just never forget.


Very sadly for me, by Friday morning I was very under the weather with a streaming cold and sore throat and therefore very reluctantly decided it was time to end the possibility of passing this on to others and return home without finishing the course.

It had been a most heartening and rewarding course and I would like to extend my thanks to Sister Pam, Alan Beaumont and the Centre Marketing Manager Tony Holden for making all the arrangements and providing all of us who attended a very special insight into the work of this wonderful Christian Centre and into the life and work of our Saint.

I have to confess the course was not what I expected – after years compiling the information about the life and times of St. Wilfrid I was hoping for a lot more historical ‘meat on the bone’ around Hilda’s lifetime  – but with the very sad loss of research historian Sister Hilary this wasn’t possible. However, with the indomitable energy, drive and enthusiasm of Sister Pam we were treated to spiritual delights such as the Abbey visit on St. Hilda’s Day and an insight into the character of St. Hilda, that more than made up for this and made the visit most rewarding and memorable.

I also have to record that St. Wilfrid was not a popular subject with any of the course members or sisters of OHP that I met on the course and clearly the effects of 664 and the outrage of Colman and his Celtic followers seems to continue to the present time! It became clear that part of the bad feeling was that (unlike the Celtic way of doing things that held women in high esteem and where an abbess more often than not ruled mixed monasteries)  the Roman way did not have such a high regard for women in ecclesiastical high office. Oh dear nothing has changed has it!

This does make me wonder whether it was the role of women or another reason which threw Hilda into the Celtic camp at the Synod – something must have triggered this because otherwise her feelings would surely veer to the Roman way of doing things – for she was baptised by Paulinus in the Roman tradition and fled with Ethelburger and Paulinus back to the safety of Kent and another Roman stronghold.

One possibility discussed was that she actually married and her husband’s religion had an influence.  We know that after the death of king Edwin in 632 right up to 648 when aged 34 Aidan called her to form a monastery North of the Wear, in that 16 year gap we know nothing of what happened to Hilda in Bede’s book. Sister Pam thinks it is unrealistic that she, a royal princess, remained unmarried and perhaps in this 16 years there was  a marriage and widowhood and other contact with Celtic minded people that made her Celtic leanings likely?

What we do know though was that Hilda was a quite remarkable lady – ‘mother’ to all who met her, someone who whatever their station could be made to feel welcome and important,  and who developed her monastery to be a centre of excellence in learning  throughout Europe and the training ground of five future bishops.

In the words of the hymn we sang on the windswept, storm tossed headland on St. Hilda’s Day –

Peace was the rock on which she built
for rich and poor an equal place,
here all who came to learn to pray
might grow in wisdom by God’s grace

I have to accept that our confrontational Wilfrid, despite all his other great qualities and the convincing way he won the argument at the Synod of Whitby that changed the way the church was heading, does not engender the same warm feelings that we can so easily feel for the wonderful  Saint Hilda.

Peter Green
18th November, 2006