In the following year, that is the year of our Lord 680, Hilda, abbess of the monastery of Streanaeshalch, of which I have already spoken, a most religious servant of Christ, after an earthly life devoted to the work of heaven passed away to receive the reward of a heavenly life on the seventeenth of November at the age of sixty-six. Her life on earth fell into two equal parts: for she spent thirty-three years most nobly on secular occupations, and dedicated the ensuing thirty-three even more nobly to our Lord in the monastic life. She was nobly born, the daughter of Hereric, nephew to King Edwin. With Edwin she received the Faith and sacraments of Christ through the preaching of Paulinus of blessed memory, first bishop of the Northumbrians, and she preserved this Faith inviolate until she was found worthy to see her Master in heaven….
Thus the Venerable Bede introduced his account of the life and death of Hilda, abbess of Whitby, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Related to the royal families of Northumbria and of East Anglia, Hilda, whose parents had lived in exile in the British enclave of Elmet (West Yorkshire), became a Christian at the age of thirteen, instructed and then baptized by Paulinus, the missionary bishop of Northumbria. Chaste and respected, she lived at the king’s court for twenty years, at which point she decided to enter the monastic life. She intended at first to journey to Gaul and join her sister in the convent at Chelles, near Paris, but Aidan, bishop of Lindisfarne, impressed with her holiness of life, gave her a small plot of land on the banks of the River Wear, where she lived according to the monastic rule with a few companions for a year.
Aidan then appointed her abbess of Heruteu (Hartlepool), where she established the rule of life that she learned mostly from Irish sources, based perhaps in part on the Rule of Columbanus. She became renowned for her wisdom, eagerness for learning, and devotion to the service of God. In 657 she founded (or reorganized) the monastery at Whitby (known then as Streanaeshalch) as a double monastery based on Gallic examples, where both nuns and monks lived in strict obedience to Hilda’s rule of righteousness, mercy, purity, peace, and charity. Known for her prudence, kings and nobles as well as ordinary folk sought her advice and counsel. Whitby soon established a reputation for learning, and those living under her direction studied the Scriptures and occupied themselves in good works so diligently that many were found qualified for ordination. Five monks under her rule became bishops of the Church in England, one of whom continued his studies in Rome before returning to England to become a bishop. She encouraged Caedmon, a lay servant at Whitby, and was so delighted with his poetry that she encouraged him to become a monk and to continue singing his inspired poetry. Bede tells us that all who knew Hilda called her Mother because of her devotion and grace. She was an example of holy life not only to members of her own community, but she also brought about the amendment of life and led to salvation many who lived at some distance from Whitby, as they heard about her inspiring industry and goodness.
In 663, Whitby was the site of the famous synod convened to decide between Celtic and Roman practices that were dividing the Church in Northumbria. Hilda favored the Celtic position, but when the Roman position prevailed she was obedient to the synod’s decision. At the end of her life, Hilda was afflicted by a prolonged illness that Bede tells us was intended that her strength might be “made perfect in weakness”. On the last day of her life, the seventeenth of November, 680, she received Holy Communion early in the morning and summoned her nuns to her deathbed, urging them to maintain the Gospel of peace among themselves and with others.
prepared from The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
and Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980)
O God of peace, by whose grace the abbess Hilda was endowed with gifts of justice, prudence, and strength to rule as a wise mother over the nuns and monks of her household, and to become a trusted and reconciling friend to leaders of the Church: Give us the grace to recognize and accept the varied gifts you bestow on men and women, that our common life may be enriched and your gracious will be done; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The icon of Saint Hilda of Whitby was written by and is © Aidan Hart, and is reproduced here with his generous permission.
The quotation from the Venerable Bede is from The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Penguin Books 1990).