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Hilda of Whitby

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Saint Hilda of Whitby
Born c. 614
Died 17 November 680(680-11-17)
Honored in Roman Catholic Church; Anglican Communion; Eastern Orthodox Church
Feast November 17

Hilda of Whitby (c. 614–680) is a Christian saint. The source of information about Hilda is The Ecclesiastical History of the English by the Venerable Bede in 731, who was born c. eight years before her death.

Early life

According to Bede, Hilda (or Hild, the Old English form of her name) was born in 614, the second daughter of Hereric, nephew of Edwin of Northumbria, and his wife Breguswith. Her elder sister, Hereswith, married Æthelric, brother of king Anna of East Anglia. When Hilda was still an infant her father was murdered by poisoning while in exile at the court of the British King of Elmet (in what is now West Yorkshire). It is generally assumed that she was brought up at King Edwin's court in Northumbria. In 627 King Edwin was baptised on Easter Day, 12 April, along with his court, which included Hilda, in a small wooden church hastily constructed for the occasion, near the site of the present York Minster.

The ceremony was performed by the monk-bishop Paulinus, who had come from Rome with Augustine. He accompanied Æthelburg of Kent, a Christian princess, when she came North from Kent to marry King Edwin. As Queen, she continued to practice her Christianity and, no doubt, influenced her husband's thinking.

From her baptism to 647 nothing is known about Hilda. It seems likely that when King Edwin was killed in battle in 633 she went to live with her sister at the East Anglian court. Bede resumes her story at a point where she is about to join her widowed sister at Chelles Abbey in Gaul. She decided instead to answer the call of St. Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne to return to Northumbria and live as a nun.

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 Iona. After a year Aidan appointed Hilda second Abbess of Hartlepool Abbey. No trace remains of this abbey but the monastic cemetery has been found near the present St Hilda's Church.

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 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 the monastery's church is unknown. Bede states that the original ideals of monasticism were strictly maintained in Hilda's abbey. All property and goods were held in common; Christian virtues were exercised, especially peace and charity; everyone had to study the Bible and do good works.

Five men from this monastery became bishops and two are revered as saints - Saint John of Beverley, Bishop of Hexham, and St. Wilfrid, Bishop of York, rendering untold service to the Anglo-Saxon Church at this critical period of the struggle with paganism.

Her character

Bede describes Hilda as a woman of great energy who was a skilled administrator and teacher. She gained such a reputation for wisdom that even kings and princes sought her advice, but she also had a concern for ordinary folk like Cædmon. 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. Most of those present, including Hilda, accepted the King's decision to adopt the method of calculating Easter currently used in Rome, but the monks from Lindisfarne, who could not accept this, withdrew to Iona and later to Ireland.

Illness and death

Hilda suffered from fever for the last six years of her life but she continued to work until her death on 17 November, 680, at what was then 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.


Hilda was succeeded as abbess by Eanflæd, widow of King Oswiu, and her daughter, Ælfflæd. From then onwards we know nothing about the abbey at Whitby until it was destroyed by the Danish invaders in 867. After the Norman conquest of England, 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 honour of the saint. 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 name from St. Hilda. It was not unknown for local “artisans” to carve snakes' heads onto ammonites, and sell these “relics” as proof of the miracle. The coat of arms of nearby Whitby actually include three such 'snakestones'.

From the late 19th century until the present day there has been a revival of interest in and devotion to St Hilda. With the development of education for women she has become the patron of many schools and colleges all over the world. College of St Hild and St Bede, Durham, St Hilda's College, Oxford and St Hilda's College (University of Melbourne) are named after Saint Hilda. Hilda is considered one of the patron saints of learning and culture (including, due to her patronage of Cædmon, of poetry.)

Two churches in Whitby (Roman Catholic and Anglican) have been dedicated under her patronage, and another in Bilsborrow, Lancashire.

There is an Anglican church named after St. Hilda in the Cross Green area of Leeds. It was opened in September 1882. There is a statue of St. Hilda in the nave, depicting her as the Mother of her Abbey at Whitby. She also appears in a stained glass window at the east end of the church. The church is still active and a sung mass is held there every Sunday. Several small streets in the immediate area are named after the church - St. Hilda's Mount, St. Hilda's Road, etc.

Since 1915 at St Hilda's Priory, Sneaton Castle, on the western edge of Whitby town, there has been a community of Anglican sisters - the Order of the Holy Paraclete - which draws inspiration from the monastic and educational ideals of St Hilda. More recently, the Community of St Aidan and St Hilda has been founded on Lindisfarne.

In the Roman Catholic church, St. Hilda's feast day is November 17. In the Church of England, it is 19 November. In the calendar approved for the Anglican Use in the Roman Catholic Church, St. Hilda's feast day is celebrated on 23 June, together with St. Etheldreda, Abbess of Ely, d. 679, and St. Mildred, Abbess of Minster-in-Thanet, d.c.700.

On the upper west side of Manhattan in New York City is St. Hilda's and St. Hugh's School. St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s School is an independent Episcopal day school that opened its doors in 1950. The school is coeducational and includes toddlers through grade 8.

St.Hilda's College at the University of Melbourne was founded in 1964 as the women's college associated with the (then) exclusively male colleges Ormond (Presbyterian) and Queens (Methodist), becoming co-educational in 1973.

St. Hilda's College, University of Toronto is the women's college of University of Trinity College. Though the schools have long been merged and the formerly women-only residence recently made co-ed, the saint is honoured as co-patron (with Our Lady) of the Lady Chapel in which daily services are held by Trinity's Faculty of Divinity.

St. Hilda's Anglican School for Girls is an independent, girls' school in Mosman Park, Western Australia.

St. Hilda is also the patron saint of the National Cathedral School for Girls in Washington DC.

St. Hilda is also famous in Singapore, as in St. Hilda's Primary and Secondary schools.

St. Hilda's Diocesan High School is an Anglican boarding school for girls in Brown's Town, St. Ann, Jamaica . The grade levels go up to Fifth Form. The school was founded by Canon James Philip Hall, who was then Rector of St. Mark's Anglican Church in Brown's Town, in 1906.

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