Saints for Our Times: St. Hilda helped unite the English church
By Mary Lou Gibson
Hilda was a seventh century noblewoman who became one of the most accomplished English women of her time. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of her life and her accomplishments is how she was able to attain great influence and authority in the Anglo-Saxon church without ever being ordained.
Very little is known about her early life. Much of her story comes from an account by the Venerable Bede, historian and doctor of the church, entitled “Ecclesiastical History of the English People.”
She was nobly born in 614, the daughter of Hereric, nephew of King Edwin of Northumbria. Her father was murdered when she was very young and she was brought up at the court of King Edwin, her great uncle. She was baptized when she was 13 when King Edwin and his entire household became Christian.
In Bede’s account, Hilda lived a normal life of a noble woman until she was in her early 30s. She then decided to live a religious life and traveled to Gaul where her sister, Hereswith, was already professed and living in the royal nunnery of Chelles, near Paris. Kathleen Jones writes in “Women Saints” that after about a year, Aidan, bishop of Lindisfarne, persuaded Hilda to return to Northumbria and follow her vocation there.
She was given a bit of land near the river Wear and lived a secluded life there for a time with a few companions. Her first experience as an abbess came some years later at a small monastery at Hartlepool. Rosemary Guiley writes in “The Encyclopedia of Saints” that during this time, Hilda received extensive religious instruction from Aidan and others. A few years later she was called on to improve the monastery at Streaneshalch (later renamed Whitby).
She was a Benedictine abbess for more than 30 years of this double monastery of men and women. The monks were responsible for worship while the nuns led an enclosed life of prayer and contemplation. Jones writes that Hilda established a regular pattern of monastic life and taught the observance of justice, purity, peace and charity. One interesting aspect of the double monastery was that the nuns were superior to the monks.
Hilda was the superior of the whole establishment. Since the monastery had to be self sufficient, it included a farm that produced several different crops, a vegetable garden, beehives and boats for fishing. Local workers were hired as farm laborers, according to Jones.
Sarah Gallick writes in the “Big Book of Women Saints” that Hilda trained many future bishops at Whitby. The most famous of her monks was Caedmon, an elderly cowherd whose gift of song and poetry was encouraged by Hilda. She soon became famous for her wisdom and kings and princes came to her for advice. At Whitby, Hilda built up a library of manuscripts that included all of the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament. These manuscripts were available in various translations and had to be copied by hand on parchment or vellum.
The vellum came from the skins of calves on the farm while parchment was produced from sheepskin. All of this work was done on tablets made from beeswax.
Bede tells us that Hilda insisted that all the monks and nuns should make a thorough study of Scriptures and engage in good works as well. He describes Hilda as a woman of great energy and a skilled administrator and teacher. Whitby followed the practices of the Celtic Church brought to northern Britain by St. Columba. At that time, Gallick explains, all the religious houses in the north of England followed Celtic traditions.
There were distinct differences between the Celtic system and the Roman Church such as the date of Easter and the degree of authority attached to the papacy. In 664, the bishops and clergy held a synod to determine these questions and they met at Hilda’s monastery. The final decision taken at the synod was to adopt the Roman system and acknowledge the supremacy of Rome. Although this ruling went against Hilda’s wishes, she accepted it and the rites and practices of the double monastery at Whitby were changed accordingly.
Hilda became ill with a fever and chronic pain during the last seven years of her life. She died at dawn on Nov. 17, 680. Guiley describes an interesting legend related to Hilda’s death. When the bell was rung to announce her passing, it was heard by a nun, Begu, in a monastery 13 miles away. Guiley writes that Begu had a vision in which she saw the soul of Hilda borne up to heaven by angels in a radiance of light.
Gallick credits Hilda with being a decisive factor in uniting the English church. Her feast is kept on the Roman Calendar on Nov. 17 and in the Church of England on Nov. 19. She is the patron of education.