"All who knew her called her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace" The Venerable Bede
One of Whitby’s most famous sights is the crumbling abbey atop the east cliff. For many tourists, counting their way up the famous 199 steps to get to the ruins is a must-do during a visit to the seaside town.
Whitby Abbey's history has been very tumultuous, having been ransacked during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540 and then bombed during World War One. Even though the grade I listed ruins may not be in great shape today, it was once one of the most religious sites in the Christian world, largely thanks to the efforts of St. Hilda, the founding abbess. The original monastery, then known as Streonshalh, was replaced by a Romanesque-style Benedictine abbey in the early 1100s, which are the ruins we see today.
St. Hilda’s Life
Hilda was born into the royal family of the Kingdom of Deira in 614 AD. Her uncle Edwin, King of Deira, overthrew the King of Bernicia, and combined the two kingdoms to create the new Kingdom of Northumberland. Hilda enjoyed a privileged childhood in the Northumbrian court and, when King Edwin was baptised at Easter in 627 AD, she, alongside his other courtiers and noblemen, converted to Christianity. This communal baptism took place in a chapel close to the modern-day site of York Minster.
Regardless of this introduction to a religious way of life, Hilda remained a very secular person. It wasn't until the age of thirty-three that she decided to dedicate her life to religion, and became a nun under the appointment of Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne at a convent by the River Wear. After Hilda had been in Aidan's service for a year, he then appointed her the second Abbess of Hartlepool.
Hilda went on to set up the double monastery of Streonshalh and it quickly built up a reputation as a place of great learning. The monastery even produced five bishops under Hilda, an unprecedented number for a monestary of its time. Even though the last few years of her life were blighted by illness, she remained the Abbess of Streonshalh until her death on 17th November 680 AD at the age of sixty-six.
St. Hilda & The Ammonites
As well as its religious history, Whitby and the surrounding coastal villages are known for the plentiful fossils scattered along their beaches. Legend has it that Hilda played a part in creating the town’s famous ammonite fossils. According to local folklore, Hilda rid Whitby from all its snakes by throwing them off the East Cliff and into the sea. When people in the Medieval period started to discover the ammonite fossils, they took them to be hard evidence of the story of St. Hilda and the snakes.
Having become so engrained in local folklore, the iconic ammonite fossils are now depicted on the town’s coat of arms, which is used in the logos for the Whitby Gazette and Whitby Town F.C, and can also be seen in the centre of the town’s swing bridge.
The Synod of Whitby
While Hilda was abbess of Streonshalh one of the most notable events in the history of Christianity took place at the monastery - the Synod of Whitby. King Oswiu of Northumbria called this Synod at Streonshalh to try to bring his kingdom together under one of the two strands of the Christian church that were at odds with one another throughout the Kingdom. King Oswiu and his court followed Celtic Christian traditions which had originated from the Scottish island of Iona, while his Queen, Eanflaed, and all her courtiers followed Roman Catholic traditions.
The differences between these two strands of Christianity ranged from minor distinctions such as monks’ hairstyles to vast disparities, like the differing ideas on when the feast of Easter should take place. As Christians throughout the country started to worry that their choice of Christianity might in fact be taking Jesus’ name in vain by celebrating Easter on the wrong date, Oswiu decided to consult some of the greatest thinkers on which form of Christianity was the right path for his people. He gathered together prominent religious thinkers from both traditions together at Whitby in 664 AD for a debate.
Three eminent figures from each camp took to the stage to put forward their arguments. On the Celtic side were Hilda, Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne and Bishop Cedd of the East Saxons. On the other side of the debate, Bishop Agilbert of the West Saxons, Wilfrid the Abbot of Ripon, and Oswiu’s son Alfred debated in favour of Roman catholic traditions.
Before the debate, Oswiu seemed to lean in favour of Celtic Christianity but his opinion swayed from side to side throughout the Synod. Eventually, though, King Oswiu ruled in favour of Roman Catholicism. As word spread about the Synod’s decision, some people who had been in favour of Celtic Christianity fled to the island of Iona, and the episcopal centre of Northumbria moved from Lindisfarne to York.
St. Hilda’s Legacy
Thanks to Hilda’s dedication to the arts and education, her legacy lives on in many educational institutions, and she is the patron of schools and colleges across the world including St. Hilda’s College at Oxford University, the College of St. Hilda and St. Bede at Durham University, and St. Hilda’s College at the University of Toronto. Two churches in Whitby are dedicated to St. Hilda, and a number of other international religious institutions and churches also bear her name.
St. Hilda has also been an inspiration for many authors through the ages as well, and has popped up in historical fiction. Melvyn Bragg included Hilda as a character in Credo, an epic tale of Christianity. The Yorkshire-born novelist Nicola Griffith’s book Hild is a fictionalised account of Hilda's life.
St. Hilda's story is still an important part of Whitby's history and culture to this day, and her name can be spotted throughout town, used in the names of guesthouses, churches and even the town's business centre.