St Hilda (614-680) is one of the towering figures of early British Christianity, who played a decisive role in establishing Saxon England as a Christian society. Her feast day is kept in the Orthodox Church on November 17.
The Monastery at Werhale
Of noble family, brought up in the court of King Edwin of Northumbria, in 647 at the age of 33 Hilda sought the monastic life.
Originally intending to go to Gaul, with the encouragement of St Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne (see St Bede’s account of her life) she retired instead to a tiny community located ‘north of the River Wear’ at a place then called Werhale or Wyrale, where she remained for a year.
Though Werhale is no longer known, British History Online offers persistent Mediaeval lore that the monastery lay in South Shields, north of the Wear and south of the Tyne. Bede himself tells of a monastery there in 651, only two years after Hilda left Werhale for Hartlepool, as successor to the saintly Abbess Hieu.
The Monastery at Hartlepool
AFTER this she was made abbess in the monastery called Heruteu, (Hartlepool) which monastery had been founded, not long before, by the pious handmaid of Christ, Heiu, who is said to have been the first woman in the province of the Northumbrians who took upon her the vows and habit of a nun, being consecrated by Bishop Aidan.
It was here in Hartlepool that in 655 St Hilda was also entrusted with Edwin’s infant daughter Elfleda, who remained with her for the rest of her life. She quickly re-affirmed the principles of monastic life which Hieu had learnt from Bishop Aidan,
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 one there was rich, and none poor, for they had all things common, and none had any private property.
The Monastery at Whitby
In 657 St Aidan moved Hilda to Whitby (Streonæshalch) as founding Abbess, bringing these same principles with her. There Hilda remained to the end of her life, to be succeeded by Elfleda.
The monastery at Whitby brought together both monks and nuns, living separately (an arrangement still found today in e.g. the Monastery of St John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex). St Hilda was closely guided in all this by St Aidan,
for Bishop Aidan, and others of the religious that knew her, frequently visited her and loved her heartily, and diligently instructed her, because of her innate wisdom and love of the service of God.
Under Aidan’s direction it followed the Celtic tradition, being composed of a series of small cottages, each designed for two or three monastics, with a common monastery church where all would attend divine service together. This is still common in the Orthodox Church today, and known as a ‘skete’.
Bede also indicates that the monastery was run partly with the purpose of training men for the priesthood across the kingdom.
HER prudence was so great, that not only meaner men in their need, but sometimes even kings and princes, sought and received her counsel; she obliged those who were under her direction to give so much time to reading of the Holy Scriptures, and to exercise themselves so much in works of justice, that many might readily be found there fit for the priesthood and the service of the altar.
And he lists some distinguished former brethren, including the bishops Bosa, Aetla, Oftfor, John, and most famous of all St Wilfrid of York.
The Synod of Whitby
Hilda is perhaps most famous for the part she played in the Synod of Whitby (664), which was convened in her monastery and conducted under her authority.
THE question being raised there concerning Easter and the tonsure and other ecclesiastical matters, it was arranged, that a synod should be held in the monastery of Streanaeshalch, which signifies the Bay of the Lighthouse, where the Abbess Hilda, a woman devoted to the service of God, then ruled; and that there this question should be decided.
The Celtic Church calculated the date of Easter in their own idiosyncratic fashion, and their typical monastic rule (based on the Rule of St Columbanus, not to be confused with the Rule of St Columba) was extremely severe, requiring corporal punishment for monks who merely mangled the chant, and long years of unbroken fasting and excommunication for laymen who confessed the graver sins.
St Hilda favoured the Celtic practices, but the Synod went against her, following the Orthodox date of Easter, and the gentler Rule of St Benedict.
Caedmon the Hymnographer
It was also at Whitby under St Hilda’s care that Caedmon, a lay brother tasked with looking after the animals, suddenly displayed a divine gift of composing hymns and chants.
The Abbess recommended the brothers and sisters of the house to instruct Caedmon in sacred doctrine and history, which he then turned into scintillating chanted verse.
“All that knew her called Mother”
In many ways, her true legacy is her establishment of the monastic life in Northumbria, and the loving care she had for her spiritual children.
THUS this handmaid of Christ, the Abbess Hilda, whom all that knew her called 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 blessed fame was brought of her industry and virtue.
Without such ‘lighthouses’ (as the Orthodox love to call their monasteries) the storms of paganism would surely have shipwrecked Edwin’s kingdom, at a decisive period in the history of Christianity in Britain.
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 infirmity of the flesh, to the end that, according to the Apostle’s example, her virtue might be made perfect in weakness.
Struck down with a fever, she suffered from a burning heat, and was afflicted with the same trouble 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 taught by her own experience she admonished all men to serve the Lord dutifully, when health of body is granted to them, and always to return thanks faithfully to Him in adversity, or bodily infirmity.
In the seventh year of her sickness, when the disease turned inwards, her last day came, and about cockcrow, having received the voyage provision of Holy Housel, and called together the handmaids of Christ that were within the same monastery, she admonished them to preserve the peace of the Gospel among themselves, and with all others; and even as she spoke her words of exhortation, she joyfully saw death come, or, in the words of our Lord, passed from death unto life.