St. Bede the Venerable, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, gives us the fullest information about this remarkable descendant of the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlers of Britain. Hilda’s father, a nephew of St. Edwin, King of Northumbria, was living in exile in what is now North Yorkshire. St. Paulinus, archbishop of York, baptized her when she was thirteen, along with St. Edwin himself. For the next 20 years she lived, as Bede puts it, “most nobly in the secular state.” But then she decided to consecrate her life to God. Her first plan was to go to a monastery in France, where her sister was already a nun. However, St. Aidan, the bishop of Lindisfarne, fortunately persuaded her to remain in Northumbria.
For a while Hilda lived alone on a small plot of land given her by Bishop Aidan. Then she was elected abbess of a monastery at Hartlepool.
Now, this abbey was a double monastery, with one wing for nuns and one wing for monks. But each group led an independent existence except when they gathered to sing the divine office and to attend Mass. Abbess Hilda was thus the “boss” of both branches of the monastery in all but strictly spiritual matters. Her task was to reorganize the religious community she found at Hartlepool. Although inexperienced herself when she began, she was apparently so gifted that she was able to achieve the assigned task, adopting for the abbey a rule of life based on Irish monastic traditions.
Success led to her promotion. In 657 she was elected abbess of the monastery of Streaneshalch, later renamed “Whitby”. Whitby was also a double monastery. Once more Hilda carried off the managerial task effectively. She laid special stress on education. Her insistence on reading and the study of Latin and biblical literature, and her setting up of an extensive monastic library of manuscripts helped her to train a good many of her monks for the priesthood. Several of them eventually became bishops. But Hilda’s drive for education by no means excluded the nonclergy of the abbey, men or women. Thus she encouraged Caedmon, a cowherd of the monastery, to write religious poetry in Anglo-Saxon. He became the first English Christian poet.
As Abbess Hilda’s name and fame spread throughout Britain, she was consulted by many, including princes and kings, and the monastery itself was an acknowledged religious and cultural center. A very important synod was held there in 663-664 to decide whether the Celtic portion of the Church in Britain should give up its divergent custom of computing Easter and adopt the Roman computation. Representatives of both the Roman Rite and the Celtic Rite gathered to discuss the problem. Hilda’s monastery had followed the Celtic method; but when the majority voted to adopt the Roman computation, the Abbess accepted the decision, which ended a long-standing tension between the Celtic Catholics and the Anglo-Saxon Catholics of Britannia.
Although Abbess Hilda was in poor health during the last seven years of her life, she did not allow illness to interfere with her duties, especially that of teaching.
St. Hilda died in November 680. St. Bede tells us that a nun named Begu in a daughter house of Whitby Abbey at Hackness, 13 miles away, had a dream in which she heard the tolling of the passing bell and saw Hilda’s soul departing for heaven. She alerted the rest of her sisters, and at dawn they were already in the Hackness chapel praying for the soul of the deceased abbess when the monks from Whitby arrived to announce the sad news.
The Danes invaded England around 875, armed to the teeth. They destroyed Whitby Abbey. St. Hilda’s relics were removed, and eventually lost. Devotion to her nevertheless remained strong, especially in the north of England. There, fourteen churches bore her name, including eleven in Yorkshire and two in Durham.
Biased historians have termed the era we are discussing, the “Dark Ages”. Actually, there were many Christians during that period who illuminated the “darkness” by their efforts to preserve Christian culture, particularly people who had embraced the monastic life. Among them were some remarkable women religious like St. Hilda, a very “modern” educator indeed!
–Father Robert F. McNamara