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Whitby Abbey

St Hilde of Whitby

Whitby - St Hilda - Whitby Abbey


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 place today.

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 Leeds.

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 himself.

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...

642 AD, 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.


Whitby - Lilla Cross that marks the safe track between Whitby and the Hackness   Lilla Cross:  The stone sentinel named, perhaps by Hilda, after the gallant warrior who saved Edwins life stands on the lonely moor and marks the safe track between Whitby and the Hackness.

649AD, Hilda stayed only a short while, being appointed to Abbess of Heretu by Aidan. Heretu today is know as Hartlepool. Bishop Aidan died in the year 651AD and did not live long enough to see Hilda in Whitby. In 655AD, Oswy won a great battle over the lands of Mercia and the pagan King Penda. The battle took place in South Yorkshire, at a place called Winwaed. We know it was beside a river that was in flood and that more people drowned than were actually killed in the battle itself. Hilda`s fortunes were directly affected by this victorious battle, as Oswy had sworn to the church that if he was victorious, his virgin daughter Aelfreda, an infant of one years of age, would be given to the church and that lands would be provided to the church to build monasteries to the north and south of his kingdom. Hilda was given this charge of the child, whilst at Heretu and Oswy gave Hilda a choice of lands to have a monastery built. Hilda was granted a total of ten hides to form a monastery and Streonshalh, the Anglo Saxon name for Whitby, was chosen. Hilda therefore had approximately 1200 acres of land in Whitby. When Hilda arrived in Whitby, it was a very windy and exposed sight that had been chosen, high on the cliffs to the East of the town and the majority of the building work had been done. The monastery would have been built in wood and straw materials used for the roof. Originally, there were possibly twelve monks and the same number of nuns. Hilda was said to have carried out her appointment with great energy. From the humble lands she had been given in 657AD, Hilda had built up such a thriving and well established community, that seven years later Whitby`s monastery and Hilda had been the chosen by King Oswy as the place for a meeting to take place with the Bishops, to discuss many Christian and church affairs. The well documented first sitting of the "Synod" was about to take place in Whitby and Hilda`s monastery to St Peter. The sitting of the "Synod" still takes place annually, even today.

Whitby - Whitby Abbey   670AD, Oswy died, 58 years of age and was probably the first King of Northumbria to die naturally in his bed. He was succeeded by his son, Egfrid. During the last years of Hilda`s life, she was building up the strength and reputation of the monastery in Whitby, as peace reigned in Northumbria.

680 AD, In the year 680 AD, Hilda died and it is thought she was buried in Whitby, as were the Kings Edwin and Oswy. A twelfth century chronicle tells us that Edmund 1st in 944, had the bones of Hilda, together with those of Bishop Aidan and Ceolfrith of Wearmouth, taken to Glastonbury, where he himself was to be buried. Is this where they are all now ?

Present Day, The ruins seen today standing on or near to the original monastery built by Hilda, date back to 1078 AD and were built under the Benedictine Order. It was Henry VIII who dissolved the monasteries and Whitby Abbey fell into decay. In 1830, the central tower collapsed. On December 16th 1914, two German cruisers demolished part of the Western Arch. By the time the Crown took control of the ruins in 1920, there had been considerable damage and accumulation of rubble. Excavations at the time resulted in interesting discoveries and preservation work began.

So when you next look upon the ruins of Hilda of Whitby Abbey, now St Hilda's monasterial grounds, remember all in these passages and be aware " you are treading where Saints have trod ". This can only be experienced with a visit to Whitby, home to so many people that lived and created the history we know today in England.

The Abbey is open daily throughout the year September - Easter 10am - 4pm Closed 1 - 2pm Easter - October 10am - 6pm




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