The Wise Woman of Whitby

We visited Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire the other day and I promised that I would revisit an article I wrote a few years ago on Hilda of Whitby.  It orginally appeared in Tui Motu magazine, an independent Catholic magazine published in New Zealand ( ) but I have made a few changes to suit this format.

The abbey was first established in 657 and the ruins today are not the church or monastry that Hilda lived and worked in. As with many churches it has been re-built and re-built and destroyed and destroyed, most famously during the Dissolution of Monastries (Henry VIII) in 1540. Weather has also taken its toll on this building as did the bombing during in 1914 from a German battle cruiser. The ruin now stands proudly on the hill above Whitby and it is quite a sight! The Abbey is now care for by English Heritage.

Hilda seems in a number of ways to be a woman of our times, I certainly would have liked to have known her. She is acknowledged by both Catholic and Anglican traditions. Her feast day is generally acknowledged as being on November 17th (my mother’s birthday) and for some people it is June 23rd (my sister’s birthday) and she is recognised as a teacher (my occupation).

St Hilda was born in Northumbria in 614. Her name was actually Hild which means battle (really? Had they had one, were they anticipating one?) Hilda comes from a period in time where I struggle with some of the language, her father was called Hereric and her mother Breguswith, her sister Hereswith was  married to Æthelric whose brother was King Anna of East Anglia, try saying some of those names! And do you know any man called Anna?

Most of what we know about Hilda comes from the Venerable Bede, he writes very positively about her.  She became a nun at the age of 33, quite an age in 647, her faith was Celtic and she was strongly influenced by St Aiden of Lindesfarne. Within two years of joining the convent she was asked to be the Abbess of a double monastery in Hartlepool. Double monasteries were not uncommon at this time, women and men lived in separate accommodation but came together for worship. Later Hilda was asked to lead the congregation at Whitby, at this time it was known as Streoneshalh (another interesting word to say!)  She stayed here until she died in 680.

Hilda regarded the study of scripture as very important and she was influential in the solid training of priests. She also established the study of the arts and science in the seminary. She held to the ideals of monasticism, all possessions were held in common and peace and charity, specifically love in action (caritas) were practiced. So good was the academic and pastoral training that five of the priests that trained at Whitby became bishops. Hilda was held in high regard by all and people often came to her for advice. She was influential with kings and princes, members of her congregation and people from the local community. She welcomed all people and was commonly referred to as ‘mother’. Hilda always encouraged people to find their true vocation; one well know story is about one of her herdsmen named Caedmon, she encouraged his musical talent and he is believed to have composed one of the first hymns in English. Hilda saw him as being as important in God’s eyes as any member of the nobility.

In 663 a synod was held at Whitby due to conflict between elements of Celtic tradition  and Roman tradition. Issues ranged from what was the proper haircut and dress for a monk, to how to calculate the date for Easter. This was a big issue and the source of great conflict within some communities.  It was seen as desirable that all people in the same area celebrate Easter at the same time, Hilda wanted to follow the Celtic tradition but when the decision was made to go with the Roman practice Hilda used her influence to bring about a peaceful acceptance. This was incredibly important in creating unity within the English Church at this time. Prudence is one the gifts recognised in Hilda, not a word many of us use today. This situation at the synod was an excellent example of her prudence: Hilda showed great insight into this situation and used her knowledge and wisdom to work towards a peaceful outcome.

Today Hilda is the patron of learning and culture, many schools are named after her.

What can we learn from Hilda today? For me as a teacher it is the idea of being a mother to those I teach, to encourage all people to find out what God is calling them to be and do, and especially the concept of caritas ‘love in action’, that we put into practice what we learn about our faith. Hilda can also remind us that all people are loved by God….not just those we like or help us achieve our goals.

And how about a potentially controversial idea of considering the value of a wise woman? We have many wise women in our Church whose voices need to be heard. It has been truly interesting to read about a woman whose value was acknowledged and treasured.


One thought on “The Wise Woman of Whitby

  1. Rachel Pitcaithly

    Hi Susan – great to see you enjoying life! I hope your ears were burning over the weekend – can you believe we met for the fourth and penultimate time as our group of ‘Developing Leaders in Marist Schools’?? One to go in Nov. Loved the blog about Whitby.

    Keeping staying safe and enjoying



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