Open main menu

HILDA (or more properly HILD), Saint (614–680), abbess of Whitby, was of the royal Northumbrian line. Her father, Hereric, was nephew of Edwin, king of Northumbria. Her mother's name was Bregswid or Beorthswith (Flor. Wig. Mon. Hist. Brit. p. 632). Her elder sister, Hereswid, became wife to Ethelhere, brother and successor of Anna, king of the East-Angles (Bæda, Hist. Eccl. iv. 23). Hilda's parents were driven in her childhood from their home by Ethelfrith the Fierce, and took refuge in the British district of Elmete in the West Riding of Yorkshire, where Hereric was poisoned by the petty king Cerdic. Edwin, to avenge his nephew's death, deposed Cerdic and annexed his territory. Hilda thereupon became an inmate of her great-uncle's court. Together with him and his nobles she was baptised at the age of thirteen by Paulinus at York on Easter even, 11 April 627, ‘the birthday of the Northumbrian church.’ Before 647 Hilda's sister Hereswid became a nun in the convent of Chelles, near Paris. About that date Hilda, who was then thirty-three years old, went to East Anglia with a view to joining her sister in France. At the end of a year, however, she was recalled to Northumbria by St. Aidan, bishop of Lindisfarne, and established by him with a small band of companions, under monastic discipline, on the north bank of the Wear. Here she passed another year. In 649 she was appointed by Aidan to succeed Heiu as abbess of the religious house which Heiu had founded at Hartlepool. Here, Bæda tells us, she ‘took pains to rule her house according to such maxims of monastic discipline as she could learn from wise men.’ Aidan and other holy men who ‘held her in high regard often visited her and gave her advice’ (ib. iv. 23). After his decisive victory over Penda of Mercia, 15 Nov. 655, Oswy, king of Northumbria, as a thankoffering, committed the care of his infant daughter Ælflæd [see under Eanflæd] to Hilda, to be brought up as a nun (ib. iii. 24). About two years later (657), on having obtained possession of an estate of ten hides on the headland of Streaneshalch—renamed Whitby by the Danes—Hilda there founded a monastery for the religious of both sexes, of which she assumed the government, taking with her the royal child Ælflæd, who subsequently succeeded her as abbess (ib.) Here, in Bæda's words, she, whom all who knew her called ‘mother,’ taught her charge ‘to practise thoroughly all virtues, but especially peace and love, so that, after the pattern of the primitive church, no one there was rich and no one was poor, but all had all things in common, for nothing seemed to be the property of any individual’ (ib. iv. 23).

Hilda's new monastery speedily became the most celebrated religious house in the north-east of England, and here in the spring of 664 was held the famous conference between the adherents of the Roman and the Scotic rule as to the celebration of Easter and other matters of ritual. Hilda, Bæda informs us, had previously observed the Scotic rule, but when that practice was condemned she hastened to adopt the Roman rule. Her reputation for practical wisdom grew so that ‘not only all ordinary folk resorted to her in their necessities, but even kings and princes sought counsel of her and found it’ (ib.) Those who had been trained under her rule to a life of unanimity and unselfishness, ‘devoting their time to the study of scripture and the practice of works of justice,’ formed a school from which bishops gladly sought their candidates for holy orders. No fewer than five of the brethren (Bosa, Aetla, Oftfor, John, and Wilfrid—second of the name) became bishops, of whom three filled the see of York, and one of these, St. John of Beverley, obtained a place among canonised saints. The Anglo-Saxon poet, Cædmon [q. v.], originally a farm labourer on the monastic estate, at the command of Hilda became a brother of the house. Hilda shared in the Northumbrian feeling which condemned Wilfrid when he appealed to Rome against the division of his diocese; and joined with Archbishop Theodore in sending to accuse him before Pope Agatho (Eddius, Vita Wilfridi, c. 52). During the last six years of her life, although suffering from a succession of feverish attacks, she pursued her pious work unremittingly. She died, after receiving the Eucharist, on the night of 17 Nov. 680, in the seventh year of her illness and the sixty-sixth of her age. With her last words she exhorted the ‘handmaids of Christ,’ who stood round her, to maintain the peace of the gospel with each other and with all. A celestial vision vouchsafed to a sister named Begu is said to have apprised the nuns of Hackness, where in the last year of her life Hilda had formed a small dependent house, of the death of their great mother. St. Hilda is commemorated in the Roman calendar on 17 Nov., the festival of another English saint, St. Hugh, bishop of Lincoln.

[Bæda, Hist. Eccles. iii. 24, 25, iv. 23, 24; Dr. William Bright's Hist. of Early English Church, pp. 113, 123, 157, 170, 184, 192, 201, 282, 331; Dict. Christ. Biog.]

E. V.