This past weekend is the feast day of St. Hild of Whitby. According to Bede, she died on 17 November 680 and her feast is celebrated in the Episcopal Church on November 18th and in the Church of England on November 19th.
Hild’s return to Northumbria from East Anglia in 646 was one of the most important events in the development of the early Northumbrian church. She had been in East Anglia staying with her nephew King Ealdwulf waiting for a ship to take her to Gaul (France) where she could join her sister Hereswitha in the convent at Chelles. Like her sister, Hild was almost certainly a widow. She was 32 years old and for a woman of her time, she would have been expected to either marry or enter a convent long before, particularly since her closest male kinsmen were all dead.
Hild and her sister Hereswitha remind me of Mary and Martha of Bethany. When she was widowed, Hereswitha decided to leave England and enter a convent in Gaul (France) where she could be free to lead a contemplative life, free of all the hassles of royal, secular life or even royal religious life. She left behind at least one son who became a long reigning king of East Anglia. Gaul was a common destination for southern English women before the 650s because there were very few convents or double monasteries in England. Had she remained in the land ruled by her brothers in law, she would have had to found her own monastery as most other royal women of her era did if they wished to remain in Britain. Its also possible that her brothers in law would rather she leave the kingdom than require support from them. So at age 32 Hild goes to East Anglia to wait for a whole year for transportation to join her sister at Chelles when Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne and probably her cousin King Oswine calls her home to Northumbria (Deira?). If she was a widow, then presumably she could have refused and continued to join in her sister in Gaul. If she wasn’t a widow, then her cousin King Oswine, the head of her father’s kindred in 647, could have demanded that she return home, but it seems likely that King Anna of East Anglia could have seen to it that she made it to Chelles, if they wished. So, there is no reason to believe that Hild didn’t return home to a world of work of her own accord. There were no convents in Northumbria; she would have to build everything from scratch.
So why did Bishop Aidan want to to come home so badly that he would make a last ditch effort to catch her before she boarded a ship for Gaul? It was finally time for the Lindisfarne mission to begin to found women’s monasteries (convents) and Aidan was certainly searching for capable women. He needed a Martha. I believe that with the help of King Oswine, Aidan identified Hild as just the woman he needed probably because she had a reputation as been a good manager of a household. Aidan had previously given the veil to Heiu, the first nun in Northumbria, but she doesn’t seem to have been cut out to be an abbess. Aidan gave Hild the veil at the age of 33, and placed her on one hide of land (big enough to support one family) on the north side of the River Wear (possibly near Abbot Utta’s monastery of Gateshead?) where she remained for one year while she was learning to be a nun.
After her year of training, Hild moved on to become Abbess of Hartlepool in her homeland of Deira. Abbess Heiu who had earlier founded Hartlepool retired to Calcaria (Tadcaster?). Bede does not connect Heiu’s retirement to Hild’s arrival at Hartlepool; he simply says that Heiu retired shortly after founding Hartlepool. Running the first convent, really double monastery (both men and women under an abbess), was not an easy job! Bede tells us that when she came to Hartlepool she set to work establishing the Rule of Life in accordance with that she had been taught by Bishop Aidan with great industry. In 651 her cousin King Oswine was executed by his rival King Oswiu and Bishop Aidan died within a fortnight of each other. Despite the bitterness that Oswine’s execution must have held for Abbess Hild, as it did for Oswiu’s Queen Eanflæd another cousin of Oswine, Hild seems to have had at least the respect of Oswiu. While at Hartlepool she was entrusted the infant oblate Ælfflæd daughter of King Oswiu and Hild’s cousin Queen Eanflæd, whom she raised and eventually succeeded her as abbess of Whitby.
Two years later, in 657, Hild went on to found a new monastery at Whitby (Streanæshalch), one of the greatest monasteries of the age. It was here that the famous Synod of Whitby was held in 664 with Abbess Hild as the hostess. Synods are not usually held at convents or double monasteries; that it was held here is a testament to the respect Hild and her monastery as held by the entire Northumbrian church. Here as Lees and Overing famously entitled an article, she was ‘birthing bishops and fathering poets’. Throughout the seventh century, Whitby was the lead training and learning monastery in Northumbria. Among the young men trained at Whitby, five went on to become bishops — Bosa of York (678-86, 691-706), Ætla of Dorchester (670s), Oftfor of the Hwicce (c. 691-?), John of Beverly (bishop of Hexham 687-706 and York 706-721) and Wilfrid II of York (721-732). Another of Hild’s students Tatfrith had been chosen to become bishop of the Hwicce died before he could be consecrated. It was also Hild who recognized that the shy cowherd Cædmon had been blessed by God with the ability to compose songs of praise to God in the English language. Bede considered Cædmon to be the first Christian poet in the English language and he includes a snippet in his History, translated into to Latin. Some of the early scribes who copied Bede’s History translated it into Old English and they are the among the earliest examples of Old English poetry (in at least two dialects, if I recall correctly). One of the most impressive modern crosses (below) raised in Britain is dedicated to Cædmon and Hild and placed near modern Whitby. The four panels are from top down: Christ, David with his lyre, St. Hild (surrounded by the faces of her five students who became bishops) and Cædmon near eye level. We know during this time Hild was also expanding her monastic network to include at least another monastery at Hackness and perhaps another monastery near Carlisle.
Cædmon’s Cross (modern), Whitby
(available here via a creative commons license)
Hild did not escape being pulled into the politics of her day. She had been baptized by the Roman Bishop Paulinus of York in c. 626 with her uncle King Edwin. Yet, she returned to Northumbrian at the summons of Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne, who followed Iona’s practices and was, as we would say today, not in communion with Rome. We know that she was on Lindisfarne’s side at the Synod of Whitby and consistently was a leader among the Anglo-Celtic party in Northumbria. This made her the rival of Bishop Wilfrid. When Wilfrid was deposed and his see was divided in 678, Hild’s student Bosa became Bishop of York with authority over Whitby. According to Stephan’s Life of Wilfrid, when Bishop Wilfrid appealed the loss of his see and his exile to Rome (the first such appeal from Britain), much to his surprise when he reached Rome in 679 he found representatives from “holy” Abbess Hild and Archbishop Theodore waiting for him. They lost their case to Wilfrid, but King Ecgfrith would not allow Bishop Wilfrid to return to Northumbria. We don’t know if Hild heard the outcome of their case against Wilfrid, she died the following year on November 17th. Despite Wilfrid’s various wins and losses over the next 25 years, Whitby managed to keep a bishop of its own training at least through the lifetime of Hild’s successor and foster child Abbess Ælfflæd who died about 714.
Hild was considered a saint immediately upon her death. Although Bede does not tell us that she was buried in the Church of St. Peter at Whitby we can probably assume this is so. Her legacy at Whitby became a complicated one that I shall save for another post. However, material in Bede’s History, deference given to her memory even by her rivals disciples in the Life of Wilfrid, and the beautiful account of her death in the Old English Martyrology both confirm that information of Hild’s life was preserved in detail outside of Whitby. We might suspect that her five bishops and the countless numbers of students who enjoyed her hospitality and instruction ensured her sainthood. The works of Anglo-Saxon England’s own Martha have stood the test of time and her memory flourishes today as one of the few early female saints of the Church of England. She is the only female English “Celtic” saint recognized today; books on female Celtic saints must always make room for this one Englishwoman. There are probably more church and school dedications to St. Hild within the Anglican Communion than any other non-biblical female saint.
Updated 20 Nov 2007
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book III Chapter 25 and Book IV Chapters 23, 24. McClure and Collins, eds. Oxford UP, 1994.
Stephan of Ripon, Life of Bishop Wilfrid, D. Farmer, Ed. The Age of Bede, Penguin.
Lees, Clare and Gillian Overing. “Birthing Bishops and Fathering Poets: Bede, Hild, and the Relations of Cultural Production.” Exemplaria 6 (1994) 35-65.