Aidan, seventh century missionary to the north of England and a man ‘before his time,’ selected certain women for key positions in the expanding Celtic church. One of these was Hilda of Whitby (614-680 A.D.).
Aidan arrived in England in 635 A.D. at the invitation of King Oswald of Northumbria and founded a monastery which was to be a mission and training centre for men on the island of Lindisfarne. Aidan’s vision, however, stretched wider than this.
Around the year 647 the Anglo-Saxon historian, Bede, writes that Aidan, hearing of a woman called Hilda who was shortly intending to depart to France to join a convent for celibate women, saw her leadership potential and persuaded her to stay in England.
Hilda came from a family of aristocrats and her great uncle was the powerful King Edwin of the Northumbrians. The times were troubled, however and while she was still young, her father, Hereric, was banished from the royal court. At this time, her mother, Breguswith, had a dream that her husband was suddenly taken away and, though she searched for him, no trace of him could be found. Then suddenly, in the midst of her search, she found a precious necklace under her garment; as she gazed closely at it, it spread a great blaze of light, filling Britain with its splendour. Shortly after she found out her husband had been poisoned and she was left to bring up the young Hilda.
Edwin was a heathen king and, several years before Aidan came to England, another missionary, Paulinus, had arrived at Edwin’s court and the powerful king was converted. Hilda, thirteen at the time, was also converted and baptised. However, the times were stormy and when she was only nineteen, Edwin was killed in battle and the new-found faith was driven underground.
We know little about Hilda’s life from when she was nineteen to thirty-three. Then we hear of her living in East Anglia and planning to sail to France to become a nun.
Aidan was an opportunist. Having persuaded Hilda to stay he acquired some land for her on the north of the River Wear where she lived a communal life with a small band of companions. After a year or so Aidan made her abbess of a double (mixed- sex) monastery at Hartlepool. With the characteristic energy, industry and visionary zeal which was to mark her life she began establishing a Rule of Life and Bede records that Aidan and ‘other devout men’ visited her frequently to instruct and help her and they loved her heartily for her wisdom and devotion.
So successful was Hilda that after several years a greater task was assigned to her. She was commissioned, this time by King Oswy of Northumberland, to go to Whitby to either establish or set in order an existing monastery (Bede was unclear about this). She set up the same Rule of Life as at Hartlepool, teaching, Bede tells us, those in her care to concentrate on justice, goodness and the strength of chastity (including celibacy) – and, most important, to live steadfastly in peace and love.
Whitby Abbey quickly gained a reputation as a place of spiritual vitality and Hilda vigorously insisted that it should be based on the lines of the early church where none was rich and no one was in need for they had all things in common.
Hilda was present at the Synod of Whitby in 664 which was called to resolve differences between the Celtic and Roman church in England. The Synod of Whitby established Roman rather than Celtic practices for Northumbria churches. Although Hilda preferred the Celtic customs, she used her influence to ensure the synod’s decision was favourably accepted.
Bede writes that all who knew Hilda’s used to call her ‘mother’ because of her outstanding ‘devotion and grace’. Indeed her great wisdom became so renowned that not only ordinary people but kings and princes trekked to Whitby for her counsel and many in the land came to faith through her far-reaching influence. As Aidan had trained her, she trained others well, helping both men and women find their place in the rapidly expanding church. Several of England’s most influential church leaders of that time were trained under her.
Towards the end of her life Hilda, although afflicted by a very painful disease, showed the same unremitting vision and determination that marked her earlier life. In the year of her death she founded a monastery at Hackness and, about to die, she summoned the sisters of the Abbey and urged them to live at peace with each other and all men’ and ‘even while she was still exhorting them, she joyfully saw death approach’.
As Bede writes, “This dream (of her mother’s) was truly fulfilled in her daughter Hilda; for her life was an example of the works of light, blessed not only to herself but to many who desired to live uprightly..’
Hilda was succeeded in her role by two more abbesses at Whitby – Eanfled and Elfleda.
*Double monasteries were common in eighth century England. In 787AD the Second Council of Nice forbade them.