St Hilda Whitby Abbey

Whitby Church and Abbey

Whitby Church and Abbey

St Hilda Whitby Abbey

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.

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.

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.

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 near Scarborough.