Almost everything that is known about Hilda, who in her own century
was called "Hild", comes from the writings of The Venerable Bede. He praised her enthusiastically for her wisdom and her love of God.
She was born in 614 to Hereric, the nephew of Edwin who two years
later became the king of Northumbria. Hereric was apparently
poisoned shortly after his daughter's birth. Hilda's mother, Breguswith,
had a dream in which she was searching for her dead husband. She
failed to find him, but discovered under her robe a precious gem that
shone with a light that illiminated all of Britain. This prophetic
dream was fulfilled in Hilda.
Hilda grew up as part of the Northumbrian royal court. At some point,
King Edwin's wife died, and in 625 he remarried. His new wife was
Christian, and brought her chaplain, Paulinus, with her to the
household. Paulinus had been sent from Rome to England in 601. In
627, Edwin converted to Christianity after someone attempted to
assassinate him. He and Hilda, as well as several other members of
the royal family, were baptized on Easter of that year.
Almost nothing is known about Hilda's life in the twenty years after
her baptism. It is possible that she was married and widowed. She
seems not to have had any children. She did have a sister,
Hereswitha, who had been married to the king of
East Anglia. When Herewsitha's husband died, she retired to a French
convent near Paris. In 627, Hilda prepared to take the veil and
join her sister in the convent. And so it was that, at the fairly
advanced age of 33, Hilda began the interesting half of her
Soon after she became a nun, she was recalled to Britain by the Celtic
bishop Saint Aidan. Aidan asked her to be the abbess of a
large monastery at Hartlepool. Oswiu (or Oswy), a cousin of Hilda's
who had become King, sent his very young daughter Elfleda to be raised
by Hilda at the monastery. He also gave the Church a great deal of
land on which to build more monasteries. One of these plots of land
was in a place called Streonashalh, which would later be renamed
Whitby by the Vikings
Hilda moved to Whitby in 657, with her royal charge Elfleda, and
formed another double monastery for men and women on the east side
of the mouth of the river Esk. By this time, she was 43 years old,
but she approached the task with great energy and discipline.
Under her leadership, the abbey at Whitby became the center of
learning and of religious life in northeastern England. Five of the monks living under Hilda's care at Whitby later became bishops, and three of them were canonized as saints. A great many people, including heads of state, came to seek her advice. Bede wrote, "All who knew her called her Mother, such were her wonderful godliness and grace."
One of the more extraordinary people produced by Hilda's monastery at
Whitby was Caedmon, a stable boy at the abbey who
dreamed one night that he was asked to sing, and although he had
little knowledge of music he began to sing in praise of God. He related this dream to Hilda, who
recognized it as a gift from God. She had Caedmon schooled, and he became a great poet, composing devotional songs in the Anglo Saxon language. Until then, all religious writings had been in Latin. Now people could hear the Gospel in their own tongue, and set to music. It must have been quite inspiring.
Hilda and her houses followed the Celtic liturgy and rule, but
many monasteries in Britain had begun to adopt the European
Benedictine rule and the Roman liturgy liturgy that went with it.
By 664, a dispute between the Roman and Celtic Churches over the
computation of the date of Easter had grown to disturbing
proportions, prompting Hilda and other Church leaders to convene a
conference at Whitby to settle the matter.
Hilda, although she had been baptised in the Roman tradition by
Paulinus, was more comfortable with the Celtic tradition of her
mentor, Aidan. The traditions differed not so much in doctrine, but
in such things as the proper way of figuring out when Easter should
be and how monks and nuns should dress.
The conference settled on the Roman and Benedictine rules, which were
then adopted throughout England. Although Hilda had preferred the
Celtic rules, she humbly insured the observance of Roman rules in her
houses. Her influence was a decisive factor in securing unity in the
For the last six years of her life, Hilda suffered from a painful
illness. But she continued to perform her duties as an abbess, and
until the moment of her death she never ceased thanking God for the
purifying trial of her illness. She had planned to end her days at a
new priory she had built at Hackness, but in the early hours of
November 17, 680, she died at Whitby.
The night that Hilda died, Begu, a nun from Hackness monastery, had
a vision. She saw the roof open, revealing the soul of Hilda as it
was carried off to heaven by angels. In the morning, the news of
Hilda's death arrived.
Hilda's feast day is celebrated on November 17, the date of her
death. In Christian art, she is often represented holding Whitby
abbey in her hands, with a crown on her head or at her feet.
Sometimes she is also depicted turning serpents into stone,
preventing wild birds from stealing a crop, or being carried off to
heaven by angels, as in Begu's vision.
Traditional prayers for St. Hilda's day:
O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we through his poverty might
be rich: deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that,
following the example of thy servant Hilda, we may serve thee with
singleness of heart, and attain to the riches of the world to come;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in
the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
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
respect and love our fellow Christians with whom we disagree, that our
common life may be enriched and thy gracious will be done, through
Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy
Spirit, one God, now and for ever.