Abbess of Whitby. Born in Northumbria in 614; died at Whitby in 680.
Hilda was a grandniece of King Edwin of Northumbria and daughter of Hereric. Hild is her correct name and means ‘battle’. Both she and her uncle were baptized by Saint Paulinus at York in 627, when she was 13....
She lived the life of a noblewoman until 20 years later she decided to join her sister Saint Hereswitha at the Chelles Monastery as a nun in France. In 649, Saint Aidan requested that she return to Northumbria as abbess of the double monastery (with both men and women, in separate quarters) in Hartlepool by the River Wear.
After some years Saint Hilda migrated as abbess to the double monastery of Whitby at Streaneshalch, which she governed for the rest of her life. Among her subject monks were Bishop Saint John of Beverly, the herdsman Caedmon (the first English religious poet), Bishop Saint Wilfrid of York, and three other bishops.
At the conference she convened in 664 at Whitby abbey to decide between Celtic and Roman ecclesiastical customs, Saint Hilda supported the Celtic party. Nevertheless, she and her communities adhered to the decision of the Council of Whitby to observe the Roman rule and customs. Her influence was certainly one of the decisive factors in securing unity in the English Church.
Hilda became known for her spiritual wisdom and her monastery for the calibre of its learning and its nuns. Saint Bede is enthusiastic in his praise of Abbess Hilda, one of the greatest Englishwomen of all time: she was the adviser of rulers as well as of ordinary folk; she insisted on the study of Holy Scripture and on proper preparation for the priesthood; the influence of her example of peace and charity extended beyond the walls of her monastery; 'all who knew her called her Mother, such were her wonderful godliness and grace'.
Saint Hilda is represented in art holding Whitby Abbey in her hands with a crown on her head or at her feet. Sometimes she is shown (1) turning serpents into stone; (2) stopping the wild birds from ravaging corn at her command; or (3) as a soul being carried to heaven by the angels.
In Ecclesiastical History IV.23, the Venerable Bede records the following about St Hilda (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Bertram Colgrave, ed. Judith McClure & Roger Collins [Oxford: Oxford, 1994], pp. 212-3):
All who knew Hild, the handmaiden of Christ and abbess, used to call her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace. She was not only an example of holy life to all who were in the monastery but she also provided an opportunity for salvation and repentance to many who lived far away and who heard the happy story of her industry and virtue. This was bound to happen in fulfillment of the dream which her mother Breguswith had during the child's infancy. While her husband Hereric was living in exile under the British king Cerdic, where he was poisoned, Breguswith had a dream that he was suddenly taken away, and though she searched most earnestly for him, no trace of him could be found anywhere. But suddenly, in the midst of her search, she found a most precious necklace under her garment and, as she gazed closely at it, it seemed to spread such a blaze of light that it filled all Britain with its gracious splendour. This dream was truly fulfilled in her daughter Hild; for her life was an example of the works of light, blessed not only to herself but to many who desired to live uprightly.
A great monastic legislator in her day, St Bede tells us that St Hilda ‘established the same Rule of life’ as in an earlier monastery she had led, teaching the monastics ‘to observe strictly the virtues of justice, devotion, and chastity and other virtues too, but above all things to continue in peace and charity’ as well as ‘the study of the holy Scriptures’ and ‘the performance of good works’ (p. 211). She is also noted for her patronage of the early English poet, St Cædmon, who was one of her many spiritual children. Furthermore, according to Dorothy Neuhofer’s In the Benedictine Tradition: The Origins & Early Development of Two College Libraries (Lanham, MD: UP of America, 1999), p. 22:
Under Hilda, the Abbey of Whitby, considered the greatest monastic house in northeast England, became a noted center of learning. Hilda herself took great interest in furthering the study of literature. Whitby’s library reputedly was rich in humanistic literature, reflecting her intellectual interests.
While Whitby may not yet have been Benedictine under St Hilda, Leonard von Matt and Dom Stephan Hilpisch, OSB, note that the unique monasticism in early mediaeval England ‘became the prototype of monastic culture [in the West]. Schools, scholarship and the arts were at home in the monastery. Freedom of the spirit; a noble humanity; a wide intellectual outlook were part of the piety’ (Saint Benedict, trans. Dom Ernest Graf, OSB [Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1961], p. 149). Thus it is not surprising that, as Butler says, ‘The monastery of men at Streaneshalch [Whitby], became a nursery of holy and learned prelates; and out of it St Bosa, St Hedda, Ostfor, St John of Beverley, and St Wilfrid were raised to the Episcopal dignity.’ It has been noted (here) as a typical example of the ‘continuing functioning of cloistered royal women . . . in the broader field of the relationship between kings and the Church.’
Although St Bede is the primary source for St Hilda’s life, according to this book there is an interesting anonymous verse life of the Saint dating to the later Middle Ages, based on St Bede but incorporating other traditions about her later picked up by Sir Walter Scott in his narrative poem (which I've quote previously here) ‘Marmion’, Canto II, xvi (The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott [Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1878], p. 55):
They told . . .
. . . how, of thousand snakes, each one
Was changed into a coil stone,
When holy Hilda prayed:
Themselves, within their holy bound,
Their stony folds had often found.
They told how sea-fowls’ pinions fail,
As over Whitby’s towers they sail,
And, sinking down, with flutterings faint,
They do their homage to the saint.
My own edition of Scott lacks his notes on the poem, but the note on this passage—which I found here—reads:
These two miracles are much insisted upon by all ancient writers who have occasion to mention either Whitby or St Hilda. The relics of the snakes which infested the precincts of the convent, and were, at the abbess’s prayer, not only beheaded, but petrified, are still found about the rocks, and are termed by Protestant fossilists, Ammonitae.
The other miracle is thus mentioned by Camden: ‘It is also ascribed to the power of her sanctity, that these wild geese, which, in the winter, fly in great flocks to the lakes and rivers unfrozen in the southern parts, to the great amazement of every one, fall down suddenly upon the ground, when they are in their flight over certain neighbouring fields hereabouts: a relation I should not have made, if I had not received it from several credible men. But those who are less inclined to heed superstition, attribute it to some occult quality in the ground, and to somewhat of antipathy between it and the geese, such as they say is betwixt wolves and scyllaroots: For that such hidden tendencies and aversions, as we call sympathies and antipathies, are implanted in many things by provident Nature for the preservation of them, is a thing so evident that everybody grants it.’ Mr Charlton, in his History of Whitby, points out the true origin of the fable, from the number of sea-gulls that, when flying from a storm, often alight near Whitby; and from the woodcocks, and other birds of passage, who do the same upon their arrival on shore, after a long flight.
St Hilda’s original monastery at Whitby was, of course, destroyed by the Danes. Thus, D’Anvers tells us, ‘Her memory will ever be associated with the ruins of the Abbey at Whitby, although, as a matter of fact, they belong to a building with which she had nothing to do; a Benedictine monastery founded in the eleventh century.’ This Norman abbey, was rebuilt by William de Percy ‘for Benedictin monks, in which state it continued till the suppression of monasteries’ (Butler), when it was reduced to the present ruin. The ruins, and indeed the entire town, were made most famous perhaps by Dracula, when Mina Murray writes in her journal entry of 24 July (Bram Stoker, The Annotated Dracula, ed. Leonard Wolf [NY: Clarkson N. Potter, 1975], p. 65):
Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes, and which is the scene of part of ‘Marmion’, where the girl was built up in the wall. It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows.
According to Leonard Wolf, the ‘white lady’ is ‘The shade of St Hilda, daughter of the abbey’s founder [St Oswy]. According to some versions of the legend, St Hilda, carrying her lamp, showed herself, on particularly stormy nights, in the northern windows of the abbey to guide seamen safe to shore’ (p. 67, n. 6).
More recently, the young adult novel Shadowmancer (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2004), by G.P. Taylor, is also set in Whitby, and incorporates much of the local folklore. The final chapter is set amongst the Norman abbey ruins, which are depicted on the dust jacket.
In conclusion, there is a lovely Service to St Hilda by Reader Isaac Lambertsen here, at Orthodox England. I close with the Kontakion in Tone 6 and the Ikos of the Canon at Matins:
Kontakion, in Tone VI—
As the waves of the North Sea wash the strands of Whitby, O venerable Hilda, so let thy supplications wash over our sins, which are more than the sands of the sea, to sink them in the unfathomable depths of the mercy of God. As one who standeth with great boldness before the throne of Christ the King of kings, intercede for us now, that by thine entreaties we may find a place at His right hand.
Ikos: Heated and annealed in the furnace of burning fevers, and forged by repeated blows from the hammer of affliction, O Hilda, thou wast finely wrought by God into a mighty weapon through adversity, the steel of thy soul, thus tempered, forming an unbreakable blade to pierce the heart of the prince of this world and to fell his vile hordes, the implacable foes of our salvation. Wherefore, as we do battle against the enemy, grant that we may wield thy mediation as a sword, O venerable one, to parry the thrusts of the adversary and prevail over them, that saved by thine entreaties, we may find a place at the Lord's right hand.