Hilda, Abbess of Whitby : A Ray of Light in the “Dark Ages”

Today’s liturgical calendar gives short shrift to one of the most remarkable saints in Christian history : Hilda of Whitby.


Note the crown on her head (indicating her royal heritage), her church (indicating her role as a foundress), and the bishop’s staff in her left hand (indicating her abbatial authority.)

The Roman Catholic calendar commemorates Elizabeth of Hungary, a 13th century lay Franciscan princess who lived a very charitable life (whom the Church of England celebrates optionally on the 18th.)

The Episcopal (USA) calendar commemorates Hugh of Lincoln, a 12th century monk and bishop (whom the Roman Catholics celebrate optionally on the 16th.)

The date of a saint’s “feast day” or commemoration is almost always determined by their death date. The Church’s reasoning is that, upon death, this particularly holy person entered paradise. So in a sense, while it is their date of death, it is also their date of new life. While a saint’s death day is typically their liturgical commemoration, that doesn’t always line up perfectly given the huge number of saints we remember. As a result, feast days are sometimes moved around or “translated.” Rules of translation vary by the denomination and the local community. For example, monastic saints almost always take precedent in monastic houses and a community’s patron saint would certainly precedence.

But this is not a commentary on liturgical dating, however interesting it may be (and I do, indeed, find it interesting…and acknowledge that most likely don’t.) This is about Hilda, whom I have come to love.

Hilda of Whitby, a 7th century abbess, princess, and major ecclesiastical figure died on November 17th, 680 AD — 1,336 years ago today. The Episcopal Church’s calendar remembers Hilda on the 18th. Given my monastic predilection and my particular love of Hilda, I’m choosing to celebrate her today.

Christianity in the 7th century was a significantly different creature than it is today. The most notable difference, I think, is the lack of centrality. Even ecumenically, we recognize a centrality in our churches. The Church of England holds the Archbishop of Canterbury as a central authority; the Roman Catholic Church holds the Bishop of Rome (the pope) as a central authority; the Eastern Orthodox Churches hold the Archbishop of Constantinople (called the Ecumenical Patriarch) as a central authority. The Church in the 7th century did not quite have that level of centrality. Things in Europe were moving steadily toward the Bishop of Rome being central, a vestige of the now-fallen Roman Empire which stretched all across the world. That said, Rome’s primacy was not universe, not even in the West.

That primacy was even more hotly contested in what is now the United Kingdom, but was then a collection of often-feuding kingdoms. The church in that part of the world operated on very different paradigm. Rather than the authority of the bishop and the bishop’s See (that is, diocese), the Celtic (or sometimes British) Church gathered its authority in the monastic household with the Abbess (almost always) or Abbot (occasionally) serving as the territorial head.

Besides the abbess/abbot vs. bishop issue, the Celtic and Latin churches differed in some noticeable ways, namely the dating of Easter. This would not be a problem in a de-centralized Church, of course, since the Church does not claim that Jesus rose from the dead on that particular day in history. Rather, Easter is the day we commemorate the resurrection. The controversy occurred, however, in the household of the High King Oswy, who kept the Celtic dating of Easter and his wife the the Queen Eanflæd who kept the Latin dating. Given the difference in dating, the King’s household was keeping the Lenten fast while his Queen  was celebrating the Easter feast.

I’d like to say that living into the difference should work in situations like this — Oswy with his truth and Eanflæd with hers — but alas, that is not the way things worked out. (One might also suggest a little marital counseling, but one would likely have been executed for that lip.) As it turns out, however, Oswy decided to host a Synod, a gathering of bishops and abbesses and abbots and kings and other important people. The Synod would decide (by which he meant the Synod would argue and the High King would decide) which dating, and therefore which model, would be universally implemented in the British kingdoms.

Here’s where dear Hilda comes into the picture. Hilda had a reputation. She was related to various royalty and was apparently quite learned. Hilda and her abbey were well regarded in the kingdoms. Whitby was a center of culture and learning, where the monks and nuns (you read that right! double houses of women and men were common at the time, almost always headed by an abbess) worked tirelessly in the name of Christ and the Gospel. The High King selected Whitby as the host of the Synod. Although our scant historical records do not indicate Hilda participating in the Synod, it would be very reasonable to assume that, as learned host, Hilda no doubt functioned as something of a moderator to the debate. We also know that Hilda herself sided with the Celtic tradition, but eventually agreed to abide by the Synod’s findings which were not (SPOILER ALERT) in favor of the Celtic tradition.


The ruins of the church standing at the site of Hilda’s abbey

The little we know definitively about Hilda comes to use from the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, an epic work of historical prose detailing the major figures and movements of early English Christianity. Bede speaks glowingly of Hilda. Indeed, it might be argued that Bede does not speak as highly about anybody as he does about Hilda. I think that the most dear thing he has to say about the abbess is that all who knew her called her mother. We also know that no fewer than five bishops received their education under Hilda and that she founded multiple communities. Hilda is said to have turned the snakes plaguing the land near her abbey into fossils and so, to this day, her crest has three fossilized ammonites. Hilda also encouraged the poetry of Caedmon, a young, uneducated lay shepherd who served her community. History regards Caedmon as the first English poet (whose name is known.)


From Saint Hilda’s College, Oxford. (Note the snake under her foot and the fossilized snake in her right hand.)

My devotion to Hilda comes largely from two sources: 1) my great-grandmother, with whom I was exceptionally close prior to her death, was name Hilda and 2) the community I lived and served in after college graduation was dedicated to Hilda of Whitby.

Like Hilda of Whitby, my great-grandmother Hilda (of Boyd) was a fierce woman who managed capably an entire household of very fitful personalities (namely her children and grandchildren and certain great-grandsons.) Although she was not a learned woman, she was very wise and dispensed that wisdom freely. All who knew her called her “Granny,” which seems like it might be a suitable equivalent to the “Mother” of late antiquity.

Saint Hilda’s House, though now home to young adults, was founded by Episcopal deaconesses. The deaconess is a strange hybrid of nun and priest, available to Episcopal women prior to the ordination of women to the diaconate and priesthood. Various opinions exist about whether deaconesses were ordained or consecrated. In the end, the ontology matters less than the witness. The deaconesses of Saint Hilda’s House were placed in charge of the children, the sacristy, and the poor of the parish (that is, Christ Church in New Haven.) They wore habits and were social ministers, ably operating a parish school and soup kitchen. The young adults who live for a year (or two or three or…) in Saint Hilda’s House carry out their legacy. While we did not wear habits of any sort and we were neither ordained nor consecrated, we were commissioned to carry the parish’s mission of inclusion into the neighborhood. Several of us worked in schools, some with refugees, others with the homeless and destitute.

While Hugh of Lincoln and Elizabeth of Hungary (and neighboring Gertrude and Margaret of Scotland) are all excellent, holy people, their legends pale in comparison of the venerable Abbess of Whitby. And so, while I believe very firmly in the importance of common prayer and liturgical unity, I’m choosing to remember Hilda today (and hell! probably tomorrow also.)

Below is Caedmon’s first poem, known appropriately as Caedmon’s Hymn. I can just imagine the scene: Caedmon bursting out in song during the liturgy, all eyes turning to the Abbess Hilda expecting reprimand, Hilda closing her eyes and smiling in appreciation for the simple beauty of Caedmon’s praise:

Now [we] must honour the guardian of heaven,
the might of the architect, and his purpose,
the work of the father of glory as he,
the eternal lord,
established the beginning of wonders;
he first created for the children of [humanity] heaven as a roof,
the holy creator
Then the guardian of [human]kind,the eternal lord,
afterwards appointed the middle earth, the lands for [humans],  the Lord almighty.

Here is the liturgical collect for Hilda from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer:

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 the leaders of the Church: Give us the grace to recognize and accept the varied gifts you bestow on men and women, 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, Amen.




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