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St Hilda

St. Hilda was born in AD614, after her father's death she was brought up at King Edwin's court in Northumbria. In 627 King Edwin was baptized on Easter Day, April 12, along with his entire court, which included Hilda, aged 13 years old, in a small wooden church hastily constructed for the occasion near the site of the present York Minster.

In 647 Hilda decided to abandon secular life and serve God as a nun. Hilda's original convent is not known, except that it was on the north bank of the River Wear. Here, with a few companions, she learned the traditions of Celtic monasticism, which Aidan brought from lona. After a year Aidan appointed Hilda as the second Abbess of Hartlepool Abbey.

In 657 Hilda became the founding abbess of a new monastery at Whitby, then known as Streonshalh; she remained there until her death.

Archaeological evidence shows that her monastery was in the Celtic style, with its members living in small houses, each for two or three people. The tradition in double monasteries, such as Hartlepool and Whitby, was that men and women lived separately, but worshipped together in church. The exact location and size of thechurch associated with this monastery, is unknown.

Five men from this monastery became bishops and two also join Hilda in being revered as saints : Saint John of Beverley, Bishop of Hexham, and Saint Wilfrid, Bishop of York. They rendered untold service to the Anglo-Saxon Church at this critical period of the struggle with paganism.

Bede describes Hilda as a woman of great energy, who was a skilled administrator and teacher. She gained such a reputation for wisdom

that kings and princes sought her advice. She also had a concern for ordinary folk such as Caedmon, however. He was a herder at the monastery, who was inspired in a dream to sing verses in praise of God. Hilda recognized his gift and encouraged him to develop it.

Although Hilda must have had a strong character she inspired affection. As Bede writes, "All who knew her called her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace".

The Synod of Whitby

King Oswiu chose Hilda's monastery as the venue for the Synod of Whitby, the first synod of the Church in his kingdom. He invited churchmen from as far away as Wessex to attend the synod.

Most of those present, including Hilda, accepted the King's decision to adopt the method of calculating Easter currently used in Rome, establishing Roman practice as the norm in Northumbria. The monks from Lindisfarne, who would not accept this, withdrew to lona and later, to Ireland.

Hilda suffered from fever for the last six years of her life, but she continued to work until her death on 17th November 680, at what was then thought to be the advanced age of sixty-six. In her last year she set up another monastery, fourteen miles from Whitby, at Hackness. She died after receiving viaticum, and her legend holds that at the moment of her passing the bells of the monastery of Hackness tolled. A nun named Begu also claimed to have witnessed Hilda's soul being borne to heaven by angels. 

Legacy

Hilda was succeeded as abbess by Eanflaed, widow of King Oswiu, and her daughter, .AElfflaed. From then onward we know nothing about the abbey at Whitby until it was destroyed by the Danish invaders in 867.

After the Norman conquest of England that began in 1066 AD, monks from Evesham re-founded the abbey as a Benedictine house for men. Thus it continued until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII in 1539.

A local legend says that when sea birds fly over the abbey they dip their wings in honor of Saint Hilda. Another legend tells of a plague of snakes which Hilda turned to stone - supposedly explaining the presence of ammonite fossils on the shore. In fact, the ammonite genus Hildoceras takes its scientific name from St. Hilda. It was not ­unknown for local llartisans" to carve snakes' heads onto ammonites, and sell these relics as proof of her miracle. The Coat of Arms of nearby Whitby includes three such snakestones.

From the late nineteenth century until the present day, there has been a revival of interest in and devotion to, St. Hilda. With the development of education for modern women she has become the patron of many schools and colleges all over the world. College of St Hilda and St Bede, Durham, St Hilda's College, Oxford and St Hilda's College (University of Melbourne) and St Hilda's Collegiate School, Dunedin are named after Saint Hilda. Hilda is considered one of the patron saints of learning and culture, including poetry, due to her patronage of Caedmon.

 

 

From a 19th centuiry unknown local artist painting of Whitby Harbour and Abbey