Hilda of Whitby / Hild of Streonshalh
614-680
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Hild of Streonshalh is known as Hilda of Whitby, a Romanized version of her name. She, herself, preferred Celtic and Anglo Saxon ways.

Still because of its common usage, there is a page under the name, Hilda of Whitby , which includes more of her philosophical work than this page.

Hild of Streonshalh became an important figure in the Catholic Church of Northern Britain and she is an important figure in the Monastic tradition. To understand her life and work, it is useful to have some context for Christianity in Britain.

Brief Chronology

  • 3rd century CE – Christianity comes to the British Isles with the advance of the Roman Empire
  • 5th and 6th centuries CE – Invasions of Angles, Jutes and Saxons
  • 597 CE – St. Augustine sent by Pope Gregory the Great to preach the Gospel in England
  • 605 CE – St. Augustine, Bishop of Canterbury dies
  • 614 CE – Hild of Streonshalh is born in Northumbria to a ruling non-Christian family
  • 627 CE - She is baptised by Paulinus of York
  • 647 CE – Hild of Streonshalh becomes a nun
  • 649 CE – She is appointed by Bishop Aidan (St.) as abbess of a new monastery at Herutea (known today as Hartepool)
  • 655 CE – Hild agrees to assume care and education of the daughter of the local ruler
  • ruler. In return, she receives land at Streonshahl (later called Whitby by the Danes) and establishes a double monastery with twelve nuns and monks
  • 664 CE – Synod of Whitby
  • 680 CE – Hild dies on November 17
  • 867 CE – The Monastery is sacked and destroyed by Danes (Vikings)
  • 1078 CE –It is refounded as a priory
  • 1543 CE – It is repressed by King Henry VIII

You may find it helpful if we establish an historical context for Hild of Streonshalh.

Historical context: Hild of Streonshalh

Hild of Streonshalh lived during a pivotal period in the history of Christianity in the British Isles and she was an important force during this period.

Christianity came to Britain with the spread of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century and eventually evolved into the Celtic Church. It was small in comparison to the larger pagan population but the Celtic Church was tenacious and faithful. For more information read: Celtic Church Information

With the dissolution of the Roman Empire in the 4th century CE and the massive invasions of Germanic peoples (Angles, Jutes, and Saxons) in the 5th and 6th centuries CE, expressions of the Celtic Christian tradition were pushed back into Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland. In addition, further progress to the north was made from an early Celtic base on Lindisfarne Island.

The first monastery on Lindisfarne was established in 635 CE by St. Aidan, a monk from the island monastery of Iona of the coast of Ireland.

Life of Hild of Streonshalh

At the time of Hild of Streonshalh's birth, her grand uncle, King Edwin of Deira, was in exile. He had been banished by Aethelric, king of neighboring Bernicia, in 588. Her mother, Breguswith and her father, Hereruc, as well as Edwin’s nephew, were in exile.

In 616, Edwin killed Aethelfrith, son of Aethelric, in battle. He succeeded in uniting Deira and Bernicia into the kingdom of Northumbria and became its king. Hereric , Hild's father, died suddenly when Hild and her older sister, Hereswith were quite young. The girls were raised by Breguswith [who was now a single parent].

Hild moved to the court of her uncle, King Edwin after the death of her father and the accession of this grand uncle to the throne, Hild, along with her mother and older sister, became members of the Northumbrian royal household and there were there during the time when St. Paulinus was trying to convert the King

After the death of his first wife, Edwin married Aethelburgh,who was a Christian. In accord with the marriage contract she was to be permitted the practice of her faith and to be accompanied to Northumbria by her chaplain, Paulinus. Sent to England in 601, this Paulinus, a Roman monk was to assist in St. Augustine’s missionary effort based in Kent.

On April 12, 627, Edwin and a large number of his court, including his grand niece Hild, were baptized in the river at York. Hild was 13 yers of age at the time.

Five years later in 632 Edwin was killed in battle with the combined forces of Cadwallon of Gwynedd and King Penda of Mercia. Paulinua, the widowed queen and her daughter Eanfled and probably other members of the royal household including Hild were force to flee from Northumbria and take refuge in Kent.

Later Hild’s sister Hereswith was widowed and retired to a French monastery, the Monsastery of Chelles, near Paris.

Very little is known about Hild of Streonshalh during the next years. Some have assumed that she too was married and later widowed. The record of her life does not pick up again until the year 647 CE, when at age 33, she prepared to join her sister at the Monastery at Chelles.

While preparing for her departure in the court of her nephew Aldwulf, King of the East Angles, Hild of Streonshalh received a summons that changed the course of her life and eventually contributed to creating a pivotal moment for the future of Christianity in Britain.

It is from Venerable Bede, (672 or 673 to 735 CE) that the record of this tumultuous period is given in his, The Ecclesiasical History of the English People. Bede records that upon the death of Edwin and the flight of Paulinus and the royal court back to Kent, Roman Christian practices all but died away in the British Isles. The practices of Celtic Christianity were widespread. (It should be noted that in the early Christian Church, there was not uniform practics. Easter was calculated and celebrated on different days. Mass was said with different rubric - even diocese by diocese. One of the reasons why the the later mendicants orders such as the Dominicans established their own uniform rites was to enable Dominican priests to say Mass as they traveled across Europe without having to discover all the local rubrics of wherever they were staying during their preaching journeys.)

The three sons of Aethelfrith, Eanfrith, Oswold, and Oswiu returned from exile in Scotland where they had beeneducated in Celtic ways at Iona.

In 633 Oswold became king of Northumbria and he brought the Celtic monk Aidan from Iona to form the monastery on Lindisfarne island.

In 642 Oswold was killed by Penda. His brother Oswiu succeed Oswold as king of Bernicia but he remained subordinate to Penda. Eanfeld, daughter of the widowed Queen Aethelburgh and aunt of Hild, eventually returned from Kent to mary her cousin king Oswiu.

Eanfeld was a deeply committed Roman, not Celtic, Christian who later sponsored St. Wilfrid at the monastery at Lindisfarne. Thus Roman Christianity now had a proponent in the Celtic area.

On the eve of Hild of Streonshalh's departure for the monastery in France ( 648 CE) she received a request from Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne to return to Northumbria and form a monastery. This summons for Aidan was a pivotal moment forHild of Streonshalh and for Northumbria.

She accepted the call, was given a small parcel of land near the mouth of the river Ware. The record shows that in 649 CE Aidan appointed Hild of Streonshalh to be Abbess of a monastery at Heretu which today is known as Hartlepool.

( NOTE:This monastery seems connected with the founding of Hartlepool. Historians note that the Old Hartlespool was founded in this area in 647 AD. Bede mentions a place, "heopru" - place where harts drink, (deer) in his History. Today there is a Abbey church of St. Hilda standing that was built in the 12th century. ) Source of information about the town: http://www.thisishartlepool.co.uk/history/oldhartlepool.asp.

The monasterty was a "double monastery",IE., a community of men and women, founded around 640 ce. Hild of Streonshalh succeeded Hieu, the first Northumbrian female to be consecrated to the religious life by Aida.

Bede writes:

“Hilda, the servant of Christ, being set over that monastery, began immediately to reduce all things to a regular system, according as she had been instructed by learned men; for Bishop Aidan, and other religious men that knew her and loved her, frequently visited and diligently instructed her, because of her innate wisdom and inclination to the service of God. Ecclesiastical History, Book 4 – Chapter XXIII)

Two years later Aidan died and was succeeded by Finan as Bishop of Lindisfarne in 651 CE.

Issues concerning the practice of the faith and evangelization were never far removed from the machinations of secular figures of the time. After many years of struggle, Oswiu defeated and killed the pagan Penda, who was responsible for the deaths of both Edwin and Oswold. Oswiu thus became king of a united Northumbria and overlord of southern England in 655 CE.

Before the victorious battle at Winwaed where Penda was killed, Oswiu had made a vow contingent upon his victory. If his forces should win he would dedicate his one-year-old daughter Elfleda ‘in perpetual virginity to the church’ and also promised 12 grants of land to set up monasteries, six in the north and six in the south. Hild of Streonshalh's familial connections to the ruling family and her growing reputation as a woman of wisdom seemed to have placed her in a position to carry out Oswlu's wish.. After Oswiu’s successful campaign he entrusted the young princess Elfleda to Hild at the Hartlepool monastery. In addition, he granted to Hild ten hides of land (about 1200 acres) to form a new monastery at Streonshahl (later called Whitby by the Danes, aka Vikings).

In 657 Hild of Streonshalh moved with about twelve nuns and monks and her royal charge Elfleda to the site of a new double monastery at the mouth of the river Esk. Again Bede describes Hild:

"When she had for some years governed this monastery, wholly intent upon establishing a regular life, it happened that she also undertook either to build or to arrange a monastery in the place called Streaneshalch [Whitby], which work she industriously performed; for she put this monastery under the same regular discipline as she had done the former; and taught there the strict observance of justice, piety, chastity, and other virtues, and particularly of peace and charity; so that, after the example of the primitive church, no person was there rich, and none poor, all being in common to all, and none having any property. Her prudence was so great, that not only indifferent persons, but even kings and princes, as occasion offered, asked and received her advice; she obliged those who were under her direction to attend so much to reading of the Holy Scriptures, and to exercise themselves so much in works of justice, that many might be there found fit for ecclesiastical duties, and to serve at the altar." Ecclesiastical History, Book 4, Chapter XXIII.

At the advanced age of 43 Hild of Streonshalh re-established the pattern of discipline and education which gave her renown and made the abbey a center of both religion and learning for northeastern England. From this abbey under Hild’s tutelage came many priests and future bishops who served the local church: Bosa of York, Aetla of Dorchester, Oftfor of the Hwicce, John of Beverly bishop of Hexam and York.

She actively recruited students for her monastery, among them the herdsman Caedmon who would become England’s first poet. He became well-known for his adaptation of the heroic Anglo-Saxon verse tradition for amplifying Christian themes. 

In this period the power and influence of abbesses was at its height. Often they wielded power comparable to that of the local bishop. Historian of Women’s history, Patricia Ranft, notes: “Probably nowhere was the power of the abbess more evident than in Anglo-Saxon England...The most beloved of these abbesses was Hilda...” Women and Spiritual Equality in Christian Tradition 117)

An abbess would not only rule a large community of nuns (and frequently monks as well), but also hold jurisdiction over vast territories often including villages and towns in matters both civil and religious.

Monastic communities would take on the personality and interests of the abbess. It seems clear that Hild of Streonshalh was the prime influence in the educational character of her double monastery. The normal duties of the abbess included administration, discipline, and caring for spiritual welfare. There is some indication too that in double monasteries abbesses had to hear member’s confessions and also performed the quasi-sacerdotal function of giving benediction to members of the community.

In matters of religious culture there was a meld in Hild of Streonshalh of the two traditions vying for supremacy in England at this time. She had been baptized in the Roman tradition by Paulinus, however the contact and influence for her formative years had come from the Celtic tradition of St. Aidan, bishop of Lindisfarne.

Hild of Streonshalh and the Synod of Whitby Although Oswiu, with his Iona background, was happy with the Celtic practice, a growing movement whose numbers included his wife Queen Eanfled and Oswiu's son, Alhfrith, along with the monk St. Wilfrid, supported changing to the practices of local church to conform with those of Rome.

The customs of southern England originating in the Roman church and those of the north influenced by the isolated Celtic tradition were bound to conflict. Those conflicts threatened to destabilize Oswiu’s ruling family and his kingdom. It was decided that a synod, a meeting of church leaders, be called to settle these differences as peacefully as possible.

The Synod was held at Hild’s monastery in Streonshalh where she urged all to maintain the peace of the Gospel.

Historian Jo Ann McNamara, in her formidable work concerning female religious life states: “Hild assumed a prestige usually reserved for bishops when she presided over the synod where the Irish and Roman churches competed for the allegiance of the Northumbrian king.” Sisters in Arms – Catholic Nuns Through Two Millennia ,p. 127.

Hild of Streonshalh supported the Celtic view put to the Synod by bishop Colman but in the end, the Roman view, championed by St. Wilfrid, who had been trained in Gaul, won the day. Hild of Streonshalh accepted the decision in the name of Gospel love but remained a critic of Wilfrid while Colman resigned his see.

This synod had a profound influence on the future of Christianity in England. In spite of the strategic loss for all those sharing Hild’s position, “the fact that the synod, attended by all the leading churchmen of the isles, was held at a monastery ruled by a woman is a tribute to Hilda's importance among her contemporaries.” Women and Spiritual Equality in Christian Tradition 118.

End years Hild of Streonshalh lived to what was then an advanced age, sixty-six years. She remained at Steronshalh continuing her good works throughout her monastic lands, offering counsel and advice to kings and bishops.

Oswiu died in 670 and his widowed queen Eanfled, in her mid-forties, retired to join her fifteen- year-old daughter Elfleda and Hild of Streonshalh at the abbey. Eanfeld and Oswiu are buried at Whitby and later King Edwin’s remain were moved to that location.

Hild was very ill or last seven years of her life. In 678, two years before her death, she had another encounter with bishop Wilfrid which illustrated the lasting differences between them.

When Archbishop Theodore divided Wilfrid’s diocese and parceled out the sections to others, one of whom was Hild’s protege Bosa, Wilfrid appealed to Rome. Abbess Hild immediately sent an ambassador to Rome to support the Archbishop’s decision.

The words of the Venerable Bede conclude the story in the most fitting manner for a woman of such high reputation and achievement.

"Thus this servant of Christ, Abbess Hilda, whom all that knew hercalled Mother, for her singular piety and grace, was not only an example of good life, to those that lived in her monastery, but afforded occasion of amendment and salvation to many who lived at a distance, to whom the fame was brought of her industry and virtue.".

In the last year of her life she continued to build her monastic family by founding the monastery of Hackness where she hoped to die. It was not to be. Hild of Streonshalh was succeeded as abbess by the widowed queen Eanfled and then by Eanfled's daughter Elfleda who had been with Hild since the age of one.

Bede states: "When she had governed this monastery many years, it pleased Him who has made such merciful provision for our salvation, to give her holy soul the trial of a long sickness, to the end that, according to the apostle's example, her virtue might be perfected in infirmity. Falling into a fever, she fell into a violent heat, and was afflicted with the same for six years continually; during all which time she never failed either to return thanks to her Maker, or publicly and privately to instruct the flock committed to her charge; for by her own example she admonished all persons to serve God dutifully in perfect health, and always to return thanks to Him in adversity, or bodily infirmity. In the seventh year of her sickness, the distemper turning inwards, she approached her last day, and about cock-crowing, having received the holy communion to further her on her way, and called together the servants of Christ that were within the same monastery, she admonished them to preserve evangelical peace among themselves, and with all others; and as she was making her speech, she joyfully saw death approaching, or if I may speak in the words of our Lord, passed from death to life." Ecclesiastical History, Book 4, Chapter XXIII)

It should be noted that Double monasteries were common, especially in Britain into the 8th century. However, such institutions were outlawed in 787 CE by the Second Council of Nice.

Special thanks to Sister Hilda Pleava, a nun in the Redemptoristine Monastery in Esopus, New York for her research and extensive writing of this page.Sister Hilda has a blog about Contemplative Life at Contemplative Horizons

See: http://monasticmusingsossr.blogspot.com



This page was updated 12/12/14

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