Hilda of Whitby

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Hilda of Whitby
St. Hilda as depicted in a stained glass window in Chester Cathedral
Bornc. 614
Kingdom of Deira
Died17 November 680
Whitby Abbey
Venerated inCatholic Church
Anglican Communion
Eastern Orthodox Church
17 November
18 November
19 November
In the Anglican Use of Rome, her feast is on 23 June.
AttributesCrozier of an abbess, model of Whitby Abbey

Hilda of Whitby (or Hild of Whitby) (c. 614 – 680) was a saint of the early Church in Britain. She was the founder and first abbess of the monastery at Whitby which was chosen as the venue for the Synod of Whitby in 664. An important figure in the Christianisation of Anglo-Saxon England, she was abbess in several convents and recognised for the wisdom that drew kings to her for advice.

The source of information about Hilda is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede in 731, who was born approximately eight years before her death. He documented much of the Christian conversion of the English.

Early life[edit]

According to Bede, Hilda was born in 614 into the Deiran royal household. She was the second daughter of Hereric, nephew of Edwin, King of Deira and his wife, Breguswīþ.[1] When Hilda was still an infant, her father was poisoned while in exile at the court of the Brittonic king of Elmet in what is now West Yorkshire. In 616, Edwin defeated Æthelfrith, the son of Æthelric of Bernicia, in battle. He created the Kingdom of Northumbria and took its throne. Hilda was brought up at King Edwin's court.

In 625, the widowed Edwin married the Christian princess Æthelburh of Kent, daughter of King Æthelberht of Kent and the Merovingian princess Bertha of Kent. As part of the marriage contract, Aethelburh was allowed to continue her Roman Christian worship and was accompanied to Northumbria with her chaplain, Paulinus of York, a Roman monk sent to England in 601 to assist Augustine of Canterbury. Augustine's mission in England was based in Kent, and is referred to as the Gregorian mission after the pope who sent him.[2] As queen, Æthelburh continued to practise her Christianity and no doubt influenced her husband's thinking as her mother Bertha had influenced her father.

In 627, King Edwin was baptised on Easter Day, 12 April, along with his entire court, which included the 13-year-old Hilda,[2] in a small wooden church hastily constructed for the occasion near the site of the present York Minster.

In 633, Northumbria was overrun by the neighbouring pagan King of Mercia, at which time King Edwin fell in battle. Paulinus accompanied Hilda and Queen Æthelburh and her companions to the Queen's home in Kent. Queen Æthelburh founded a convent at Lyminge and it is assumed that Hilda remained with the Queen-Abbess.[3]

Hilda's elder sister, Hereswith, married Ethelric, brother of King Anna of East Anglia, who with all of his daughters became renowned for their Christian virtues. Later, Hereswith became a nun at Chelles Abbey in Gaul (modern France). Bede resumes Hilda's story at a point when she was about to join her widowed sister at Chelles Abbey. At the age of 33, Hilda decided instead to answer the call of Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne and returned to Northumbria to live as a nun.[4]


Saint Hilda at Hartlepool by James Clark (oil painting)

Hilda's original convent is not known except that it was on the north bank of the River Wear. Here, with a few companions, she learned the traditions of Celtic monasticism, which Bishop Aidan brought from Iona. After a year Aidan appointed Hilda as the second abbess of Hartlepool Abbey.[5] No trace remains of this abbey, but its monastic cemetery has been found near the present St Hilda's Church, Hartlepool.

In 657 Hilda became the founding abbess of Whitby Abbey, then known as Streoneshalh; she remained there until her death.[6] Archaeological evidence shows that her monastery was in the Celtic style, with its members living in small houses, each for two or three people. The tradition in double monasteries, such as Hartlepool and Whitby, was that men and women lived separately but worshipped together in church. The exact location and size of the church associated with this monastery is unknown.

Bede states that the original ideals of monasticism were maintained strictly in Hilda's abbey. All property and goods were held in common; Christian virtues were exercised, especially peace and charity.[7] Everyone had to study the Bible and do good works.

Five men from this monastery later became bishops.[5] Two, John of Beverley, Bishop of Hexham and Wilfrid, Bishop of York, were canonized for their service to the Christian church at a critical period in its fight against paganism.


Aidan of Lindisfarne visits Hild. Gloucester Cathedral, by Christopher Whall.

Bede describes Hilda as a woman of great energy, who was a skilled administrator and teacher. As a landowner she had many in her employ to care for sheep and cattle, farming, and woodcutting. She gained such a reputation for wisdom that kings and princes sought her advice.[5] However, she also had a concern for ordinary folk such as Cædmon. He was a herder at the monastery, who was inspired in a dream to sing verses in praise of God. Hilda recognized his gift and encouraged him to develop it. Bede writes, "All who knew her called her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace".[6]

Synod of Whitby[edit]

The prestige of Whitby is reflected in the fact that King Oswiu of Northumberland chose Hilda's monastery as the venue for the Synod of Whitby,[2] the first synod of the Church in his kingdom. He invited churchmen from as far away as Wessex to attend the synod. Most of those present, including Hilda, accepted the King's decision to adopt the method of calculating Easter currently used in Rome, establishing Roman practice as the norm in Northumbria. The monks from Lindisfarne, who would not accept this, withdrew to Iona, and later to Ireland.[citation needed]

Illness and death[edit]

Hilda suffered from a fever for the last seven years of her life, but she continued to work until her death on 17 November 680 AD, at what was then the advanced age of sixty-six. In her last year she set up another monastery, fourteen miles from Whitby, at Hackness. She died after receiving viaticum, and her legend holds that at the moment of her death the bells of the monastery of Hackness tolled. A nun there named Begu claimed to have witnessed Hilda's soul being borne to heaven by angels.[8]


St. Hilda monument detail in Whitby. Note ammonites at feet.

A local legend says that when sea birds fly over the abbey they dip their wings in honour of Saint Hilda. Another legend tells of a plague of snakes which Hilda turned to stone, supposedly explaining the presence of ammonite fossils on the shore. It was not unknown for local "artisans" to carve snakes' heads onto ammonites, and sell these "relics" as proof of her miracle.[9]

In fact, the ammonite genus Hildoceras takes its scientific name from St. Hilda. The coat of arms of nearby Whitby includes three such 'snakestones', and depictions of ammonites appear in the shield of the University of Durham's College of St Hild and St Bede.[10]

A carved ammonite stone is set into the wall by the entrance to the former chapel of St Hild's College, Durham, which later became part of the College of St Hild and St Bede. The coat of arms of St. Hilda's College, Oxford, includes a curled snake, and the ammonite is used by the college as a symbol.


The veneration of Hilda from an early period is attested by the inclusion of her name in the calendar of Saint Willibrord, written at the beginning of the 8th century. According to one tradition, her relics were translated to Glastonbury by King Edmund; another tradition holds that Saint Edmund brought her relics to Gloucester.[11]

In the Roman Catholic Church, the feast day of Saint Hilda is 17 November. In some parts of the Anglican Communion, her feast (Lesser Festival) is on 18 November, while in some others, such as the Anglican Church of Australia, it is on 17 November.

In the Church of England however, it is kept on 19 November.[12] In the calendar approved for formerly Anglican Personal Ordinariate and Pastoral Provision parishes in the Roman Catholic Church, the feast day of Saint Hilda is celebrated on 23 June, together with those of Saint Ethelreda, Abbess of Ely (died 679), and Saint Mildred, Abbess of Minster-in-Thanet (died ca. 700).


Hilda is considered one of the patron saints of learning and culture, including poetry, due to her patronage of Cædmon. Saint Hilda is the patron saint of the National Cathedral School for Girls in Washington, D.C.

In addition, St Hilda's College, Oxford, established in 1893 for female students, remained with that status for more than 100 years, before turning co-educational when it was deemed that the percentage of women studying at Oxford had risen to near 50 per cent. The symbol of the college is the ammonite of St Hilda and during the centenary, 100 silver ammonites were created; now proudly owned by alumnae of the college in honour of St. Hilda's achievements - and those of the first 100 years of female students at the college.[13]


St Hilda is generally depicted with a pastoral staff and carrying an abbey church. Often, there are ammonites at her feet.[6]


Whitby Abbey

Whitby Abbey[edit]

Hilda was succeeded as abbess by Eanflæd, widow of King Oswiu, and their daughter, Ælfflæd. From then onward we know nothing about the abbey at Whitby until it was destroyed by the Danish invaders in 867. After the Norman conquest that began in 1066 AD, monks from Evesham re-founded the abbey as a Benedictine house for men. Thus it continued until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII in 1539.

There is said to be the wraith of St Hilda, who appears in the ruins wrapped in a shroud, and the bells of the abbey can be heard ringing under the water, where they sank with the ship taking them to London after the abbey was dismantled.[14]


Two churches in Whitby (Roman Catholic[15] and Anglican), have been dedicated under her patronage and another, in Bilsborrow, Lancashire.

Other Anglican Churches dedicated to St Hilda in Northern England include St Hilda's Church, South Shields, one in the Cross Green area of Leeds, and another in Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne. It was opened in September 1882. There is a statue of St Hilda in the nave, depicting her as the Mother of her Abbey at Whitby. She also appears in a stained glass window at the east end of the church. The church still is active and a sung mass is held there every Sunday. Several small streets in the immediate area are named after the church -- St Hilda's Mount, St Hilda's Road, among them.

Religious communities[edit]

A community of Anglican sisters, the Order of the Holy Paraclete was founded in 1915 at St Hilda's Priory,[16] on the western edge of Whitby town. More recently, the Community of St Aidan and St Hilda has been founded on Lindisfarne.

A group of Anglo-Catholic deaconesses founded in 1910 by Fr Frederick Burgess lived on the grounds of Christ Church, New Haven, Connecticut, in a house they called St Hilda's House. The deaconesses of St Hilda's House served the church, the children of the church school, and the poor and orphaned of New Haven until the early 1970s operating a free medicine clinic, soup kitchen and many other ministries. Today, St Hilda's House-Episcopal Service Corps program at Christ Church New Haven has retained the name, and part of the legacy of the St Hilda's deaconesses.[17]

Educational institutions[edit]

St Hilda has become the patron of many schools and colleges all over the world. The College of St Hild and St Bede, Durham, St Hild's Church of England School, Hartlepool, St Hilda's College, Oxford and St Hilda's Collegiate School, Dunedin are named after Saint Hilda. A stone from the 13th century ruins of Whitby Abbey where St Hilda founded the Monastery of Streoneshalh c. 657AD was donated to St Hilda's College (University of Melbourne) by the Whitby Urban Council. This stone is located at the college entrance.[14]

St. Hilda's College, University of Toronto is the women's college of University of Trinity College. Saint Hilda is honoured as co-patron (with Our Lady). Daily services are held in the Lady Chapel by Trinity's Faculty of Divinity.

St Hilda's Diocesan High School is an Anglican boarding school for girls in Brown's Town, St. Ann, Jamaica, founded by Canon James Philip Hall, Rector of St. Mark's Anglican Church in Brown's Town 1906-07. St. Hilda's College in Buenos Aires, Argentina was founded in 1912.

There are two schools situated in Australia in recognition of St. Hilda. They are both 'St. Hilda's Anglican School for Girls' which is an independent, girls' school in Southport,[18] Queensland and Mosman Park, Western Australia.[19]

On the upper west side of Manhattan in New York City is St Hilda's and St Hugh's School, an independent Episcopal day school that opened its doors in 1950. The school is coeducational and includes toddlers to grade eight.

St Hilda is honoured in Singapore in the St. Hilda's primary and secondary schools.

During the British Empire in India, Anglican missionaries have built "St Hilda Boarding School" at Miri-Maka.

St Hilda's School, Ootacamund, southern India was established by Church of England sisters in 1895.


Hilda appears as a main character in the 1994 novel Absolution for Murder, the first book in Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma mysteries.

Hilda appears as a main character in Melvyn Bragg's 1996 novel, Credo.[20]

The 2013 novel Hild by Nicola Griffith is based on the life of Hilda.[21]

Jill Dalladay's 2015 novel The Abbess of Whitby combines historical record and fiction to imagine Hilda's life before she became a nun.[22]

Maureen Duffy's play The Choice premiered at the Jermyn Street Theatre in 2018. This monologue sees Hilda recount two episodes of her life that are recorded by Bede: the 'miracle' of the poet-cowherd Caedmon, and the role Hilda played in the transition from Irish to Roman Catholicism in the English church.[23]

Vibeke Vasbo's Danish novel Hildas sang (Gyldendal, 1991) was translated into English by Gaye Kynoch and published in 2018 as The Song of Hild by Sacristy Press.[24]



  1. ^ Kiefer 1999.
  2. ^ a b c "St. Hilda". Parish Church of St. Wilfrid, Bognor. Archived from the original on 16 July 2011.
  3. ^ "St Hilda - Abbess of Whitby (c. 614 -680)". St. Hilda's Anglican Church, Katoomba. Archived from the original on 7 April 2014.
  4. ^ Lindemann 2014.
  5. ^ a b c Thurston 1910.
  6. ^ a b c "St. Hilda of Whitby". The Order of the Holy Paraclete. Archived from the original on 23 June 2014. Retrieved 8 May 2013.
  7. ^ "Northern Saints", 'This is Durham', Durham County Council
  8. ^ "St. Hilda of Whitby". St. Hilda of Whitby Anglican Catholic Church, Atlanta, Georgia.
  9. ^ Lovett 1905, pp. 333–334.
  10. ^ "University Calendar: Arms and mottos". University of Durham.
  11. ^ "The Venerable Hilda, Abbess of Whitby", Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries
  12. ^ "The Calendar". The Church of England. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  13. ^ "College History". St Hilda’s College, Oxford. 2 March 2020. Retrieved 4 October 2020.
  14. ^ a b "About St. Hilda's College". University of Melbourne.
  15. ^ "St. Hilda's RC Parish, Whitby". Archived from the original on 1 August 2011.
  16. ^ "Sneaton Castle". Archived from the original on 29 July 2005.
  17. ^ Saint Hilda's House, New Haven, Connecticut
  18. ^ St Hilda's, Southport
  19. ^ St Hilda's, Mosman Park
  20. ^ Bragg 1996.
  21. ^ Bond 2013.
  22. ^ "Review: The Abbess of Whitby".
  23. ^ Williams, Holly. "Review: Hilda and Virginia".
  24. ^ Vasbo, Vibeke. The Song of Hild. Sacristy Press. Retrieved 16 July 2018.


Further reading[edit]

  • Bede (1996) The Ecclesiastical History of the English Church and People, Oxford University Press, World classics series.
  • Bradley, Ian (1999) Celtic Christianity, Edinburgh University Press.
  • Cavill, Paul (1999) Anglo-Saxon Christianity: exploring the earliest roots of Christian spirituality in England, London: Collins, Fount paperback.
  • Hume, Basil (1996) Footprints of the Northern Saints, London: Darton, Longman & Todd.
  • Simpson, Ray (2014) Hilda of Whitby: A spirituality for now, BRF
  • Warin, Anne (1989) Hilda, Lamp Press.
  • Watling, Barbara (2005). "St Hilda of Hartlepool and Whitby". Catholic Life Magazine. Archived from the original (Article) on 17 July 2011.

External links[edit]

Religious titles
New title Abbess of Whitby
AD 657 - 680
Succeeded by
Succeeded by