Hilda Abbess

Today the church remembers Hilda, Abbess of Whitby. I’ve always admired Hilda, and anyone who knows the magnificent ruins of Whitby Abbey on the cliffs over the town, might admire her too. Though it is disappointing to learn, this may not have been the site of the Saxon Abbey she presided over. However, in its day, the 640s and 650s, hers was a large double monastery with both men and women who shared the labour and met for worship.

Her presidency is shown as she bears bishop’s crozier. A great encouragement to those of us who looked for more equality of men and women in church ordering!

Bede describes Hilda as a woman of great energy, who was a skilled administrator and teacher. She was born into the royal a family of the area, who was influenced by a Christian princess who married into that family. She was baptised at 13 and lived in various Christian communities until she became a nun at 33, and in time, the Abbess of Whitby.

As a landowner she had many in her employ to care for sheep and cattle, farming, and woodcutting. She gained such a reputation for wisdom that kings and princes sought her advice. However, she also had a concern for ordinary folk such as Caedmon. 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. Bede writes, “All who knew her called her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace”.

The curled-up ammonites found on the Northern coasts became a legend that Hilda could fossilise snakes.

Hilda

The prestige of Whitby is reflected in the fact that King Oswald of Northumberland chose Hilda’s monastery as the venue for the Synod of Whitby in 664 when church men came from the far and wide.

It was called to reconcile the differences between traditions of the church as it had grown across Europe, especially to determine a common date for Easter, which seems to have varied all over Christendom. Oswald and his wife celebrated different dates, so one was fasting for Lent while the other celebrating Easter. A tricky situation. 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.

Hilda died after a long illness at 66. Her legacy remains in the number of educational establishments named after her, and her example from many years ago of a woman in a respected and quite influential position.

[Janet Lawrence]