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Hilda of Whitby and Caedmon

St Hilda of Whitby.

Remembered in the church lectionary on November 19th

A few years ago one late summer I found myself on the top of Whitby’s east cliff early in the evening. It was my first visit to Whitby and I knew there was an abbey and I knew there were connections with Dracula – though I wasn’t too sure about that bit. I was on my way to stay at a retreat house called Wydale – the Diocese of York’s retreat centre – but I thought I’d stop off at Whitby on the way.

Let’s deal with Dracula first – and I’m not going to dwell on this bit. I was right about the connection with Whitby though.

Dracula was  an 1897 novel by Irish author Bram Stoker, featuring as its primary antagonist the vampire Count Dracula.

Between 1879 and 1898, Stoker was a business manager for the world-famous Lyceum Theatre in London. But he supplemented his income by writing a large number of sensational novels, his most famous being the vampire tale Dracula . Parts of it are set around the town of Whitby, where he spent summer vacations. Whether or not the churchyard around St Mary’s Church which is on the top of the cliff inspired Mr Stoker, I don’t know. But I wouldn’t choose to hang around up there on my own too much after dark.

But the cliff top is full of ancient and very important Christian history.

Whitby was founded under its Old English name of Streonshal in 656, when Oswy, the Christian king of Northumbria, founded Whitby Abbey, under its first abbess Hilda.

The Synod of Whitby was held here at the abbey in     664  and students of  early church history will know that  the synod  established the Roman date of Easter in Northumbria at the expense of the Celtic one, an important and influential decision.

But the monastery was destroyed by Viking raiders, and was only refounded in 1078. It was in this period that the town gained its current name, Whitby, (from “white settlement” in Old Norse).

So, what of Hilda, who is remembered in the church’s lectionary on 19th November?

( Note that many sources give her day of death as November 17th)

The source of information about Hilda is The Ecclesiastical History of the English by the Venerable Bede in 731, who was born approximately eight years before her death.

Hilda (known in her own century as “Hild”) was the grandniece of King Edwin of Northumbria, a kingdom of the Angles. She was born in 614 and baptized in 627 when the king and his household became Christians.

In 647 she decided to become a nun, and under the direction of Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne she  established several monasteries. Her last foundation was at Whitby. It was a double house: a community of men and another of women, with the chapel in between, and Hilda was governor of both.

It became great center of English learning, one which produced several bishops. By the time of Hilda both Roman and Celtic Christianity had formed their traditions in Britain and they differed not so much in doctrine but on such questions as the proper way of calculating the date of Easter, and the proper style of haircut and dress for a monk.

It was, in particular, highly desirable that Christians, at least in the same area, should celebrate Easter at the same time; and it became clear that the English Church would have to choose between the old Celtic customs which it had inherited from before 300, and the customs of continental Europe and in particular of Rome that missionaries from there had brought with them. In 664 the Synod of Whitby met at that monastery to consider the matter, and it was decided to follow Roman usage.

Hilda herself greatly preferred the Celtic customs in which she had been reared, but once the decision had been made she used her moderating influence in favor of its peaceful acceptance. Her influence was considerable; kings and commoners alike came to her for advice. She was urgent in promoting the study of the Scriptures and the thorough education of the clergy.

Bede describes Hilda as a woman of great energy, who was a skilled administrator and teacher. She  had a concern too  for ordinary folk too such as Cædmon. He was a herder at the monastery, who was inspired in a dream to sing verses in praise of God in the Anglo-Saxon tongue.  Hilda recognized his gift and encouraged him to develop it.

Although Hilda must have had a strong character she inspired affection. As Bede writes, “All who knew her called her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace”.

Hilda suffered from fever for the last six years of her life, but she continued to work until her death on November 17, 680, at what was then thought to be the advanced age of sixty-six. In her last year she set up another monastery, fourteen miles from Whitby, at Hackness.  Her legend holds that at the moment of her passing the bells of the monastery of Hackness tolled. A nun named Begu also claimed to have witnessed Hilda’s soul being borne to heaven by angels.

From the late nineteenth century until the present day, there has been a revival of interest in and devotion to, St. Hilda. With the development of education for modern women she has become the patron of many schools and colleges all over the world. College of St Hild and St Bede, Durham, St Hilda’s College, Oxford and St Hilda’s College (University of Melbourne) are named after Saint Hilda. Hilda is considered one of the patron saints of learning and culture, including poetry, due to her patronage of Cædmon.

The good works of Hilda live on as well  at the priory of St. Hilda at Sneaton Castle in Whitby run by the Sisters of the Holy Paraclete, an Anglican Religious Community. The following web-site :

http://www.wilfrid.com/saints/hilda.htm

has more information about Hilda’s life and shows wonderful paintings in the conference room at Sneaton Castle by  local artist Juliet MacMichael showing different facets of Hilda’s life.

Contemporary collect for St Hilda.

O God of peace, by whose grace the abbess Hilda was endowed with Gifts of justice, prudence, and strength to rule as a wise mother over the nuns and monks of her household, and to become a trusted and reconciling friend to leaders of the Church: Give us the grace to respect and love our fellow Christians with whom we disagree, that our common life may be enriched and your gracious will be done, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

  • A modern translation of Caedmon’s hymn:

Now let me praise the keeper of Heaven’s kingdom,

the might of the Creator, and his thought,

the work of the Father of glory, how each of wonders

the Eternal Lord established in the beginning.

He first created for the sons of men

Heaven as a roof, the holy Creator,

then Middle-earth the keeper of mankind,

the Eternal Lord, afterwards made,

the earth for men, the Almighty Lord.

In the beginning Cædmon sang this poem.]

To read more about Caedmon, go to:

http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/369.html its a fascinating read!

“The religious for whom Caedmon performed his song later attributed his singing as a gift by God’s grace.”

November 17, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

2 Comments »

  1. Hi I just found your blog. I love this article.

    Pax!
    Kirk

    Comment by kbpipes | November 18, 2009 | Reply

  2. my first post
    thank you for having me! 😀

    Comment by Richard | March 29, 2010 | Reply


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