614 AD -
Hild lived in the 7th century AD. It takes some mental
effort and imagination, as well as knowing something f the history, to get back to those
days and circumstances. The ruined Whitby Abbey as seen today, climbing the 199
steps from Whitby harbour, was built over 500 years after the
death of Hild, but the strength of her personality and character still pervades this
Saint Hilda known as Hild
or Hilde to give her the correct Anglo Saxon name, meaning
"battle", was born in 614AD into the Royal house of Northumbria. Northumbria
meant what it sounds like, the lands north of the Humber. Sub divided into two Kingdoms
called Bernicia to the North, having its centre and stronghold at Bamburgh and the other
called Diera to the South, probably centred in or around Catterick.
The so called "Kings" were little more than tribal warriors, chiefs,
chieftains fighting against neighbouring tribal warriors for their Kingdoms, often feuding within
their own families. Indeed, they were expected to die honourably in battle,
but often died for succession to chief. Hilda was the great niece of Edwin, King of Northumbria at the time of her birth. She was
the second daughter of Hereric, Edwin`s nephew and Breguswith of whom we know very little.
Hereric was apparently exiled and living under the protection of the British ( as opposed
to the Anglo Saxon ), King Cerdic of Elmet, a small Kingdom near what is now known as
Breguswith, Hilda`s mother, had a prophetic dream, in which she found Hereric had been
taken away and although she searched everywhere, she could not find any trace of him. Soon
afterwards, Hereric was murdered by poisoning, though we must remember that at time of his
death, most internal pain deaths were always thought of as poisonings. Hilda and her elder
sister Hereswith, were now fatherless and left to be brought up by their mother.
625 AD, There had been many converts to Christianity in England after Pope
Gregory 1st had sent Augustine to Canterbury, to found a mission in 597AD. Edwin, then
King of Northumbria, was not one of these converts, but remained and continued to practice
his own pagan rites. Edwin married his second wife, Ethelburga, daughter of the King of
Kent and the marriage was sanctioned only on Edwin giving a pledge, that Ethelburga, who
had already been baptised by the Popes representative in the Kingdom of Kent, that being
Paulinus, should be free to carry on her faith of Christianity.
Paulinus, now a bishop,
went with the betrothed Ethelburga from Kent to Northumbria as her chaplain. Hilda was
about eleven years of age at this time, now living in the court of Edwin. Hilda must have
heard and seen many goings on in the court of Edwin, with Paulinus attempting to convert
many from their pagan rituals into the faith of Christianity and this included the King
Hilda, until she was nineteen, presumably lived in the court of Edwin, who was claimed
to be the first King of Kings to all the English. Edwin now had control and reigned over
all the lands to the north of the Humber and to the South of Scotland, as well as being
the overlord to the lands of East Anglia. We know of two Royal capitals, the first,
Yeavering in the north of Northumbria and the second was Catterick in. Hilda spent time at
both of these places, as well as Bamburgh, the ancient stronghold of all the Northumbrian
Kings. Edwin eventually became a Christian and sent Paulinus to be Bishop of York. From
this period in time, York became an important church centre.
632 AD, Penda of Mercia, not yet a King, but a member of the Royal household,
allied with Cadwalla, King of Gwynedd and together they invaded Northumbria. A great
battle took place at Hatfield Chase, where Edwin and his eldest son were killed. Edwin`s
army was totally defeated. His second son survived this battle and surrendered himself to
the mercy of Penda and Cadwalla, but was murdered at Penda`s court of Mercia. Mercia was a
Kingdom to the south west of Northumbria, known today as the " Midlands ".
During this period, what happened to Hilda we do not really know. We do know that the
Christian Bishop Paulinus, Queen Ethelburga and servants went back to the safe lands of
Kent, sending the Royal children to France to be cared for and educated, but died shortly
afterwards except for a daughter, Eanfleda. Did Hilda retreat with the Queen ? or as most
believe, she retreated to the ancient stronghold of Bamburgh, which did hold out over
Penda and Cadwalla.
As Penda carried out deliberate devastation of Northumbria, it fell back into the two
kingdoms, Bernicia and Diera. Cadwalla burnt the Royal centre at Yeavering and such was
the destruction, that it never recovered. The descendants from the previous Kings of
Bernicia had been exiled to the Celtic monks on the island of Iona, off the coast of
Scotland, whom later returned to the stronghold at Bamburgh. The eldest son was killed in
a battle fighting Cadwalla, but his brothers, Oswald and Oswy, were destined to become the
new Kings of Northumbria. A year after their return, Oswald defeated and killed Cadwalla, at the battle of
Heavenfield, near to Hadrians Wall at Hexham. Oswald, after this great victory, sent for a
bishop from the island of Iona and was duly sent Aidan. Oswald offered the Bishop Aidan
land on which to build a monastery, Aidan chose Lindisfarne, Holy Island. Aidan built this
monastery and it can still be seen today on Holy Island. Oswald reigned over Northumbria
for the next nine years...
Throughout Oswald`s reign, he had trouble with the now King of Mercia,
Penda. In one of these struggles in 642 AD, Oswald was killed at the battle of Maserfelth
and his body dismembered. His arm and hand were preserved and placed in a casket to lay in
the stronghold of Bamburgh. His head was taken to Lindisfarne and buried. Many miracles
are said to have taken place through the contact of his relics. Oswald had become regarded
as a martyr and was quickly made a Saint.
As a result of Oswald`s defeat and death,
terrible times returned to lands of the north. Oswy had succeeded his brother to be the
new king of Northumbria, but only to be King over the north, Bernicia. Control over Diera
had passed on to a relative, Oswin, a reputed man of great holiness. In order to gain
control over all the lands of Northumbria,Oswy was determined to make war on Oswin. Near
to Catterick, Oswin decided to disband his forces and to discuss terms with Oswy on a
settlement. Oswin was staying at a friend`s home throughout these talks, an Earl whom he
trusted completely. But it was in his friend`s home he was murdered and Oswy assumed the
Kingship of both realms and again Northumbria was united.
Hilda during this period, had been inspired by the teachings of Aidan and had taken to
being a nun. Hilda was to join up with her widowed sister, Hereswith, who was already at a
convent at Chellas in France. Hilda`s nephew, Adwulf, was now King of the East Angels.
Before joining up with her sister in France, Hilda had renounced all she possessed,
including her entitled homes, staying at her nephew`s court, preparing herself for the
duties of the church. Aidan urged Hilda to return to the lands of Northumbria, where he
would place holy land, one hide, to found a monastery. A hide was an indefinite measure of
land, said to be enough to support one household and estimates out today at about 120
acres. Hilda took up this offer and chose land on the north bank of the River Wear.