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Saint Hilda

St Hilda of Whitby Abbey


Hild - Hilde - Hilda is a significant figure in the history of English Christianity and the town of Whitby in Yorkshire, England.. As the abbess of Whitby, a monastery for both men and women, she led one of the most important religious centres in the Anglo Saxon world.

  • Lived: 614 - 680

  • Field: Abbess

  • Top fact: In 664 Hilda`s monastery hosted the Synod of Whitby, which set the course for the future of Christianity in England.

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, 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.

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, Breguswjb. 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 killed Aethefrith, the son of AEthelric of Bernicia, in battle. He created the Kingdom of Northumbria and took its throne. Hilda was brought up at King Edwin's court.

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. However, she also had a concern for ordinary folk such as Caedmon 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."

In 625, the widowed Edwin married the Christian princess AEthelburh of Kent, daughter of King AEthelberht 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. As queen, AEthelburh continued to practice 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, 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 AEthelburh and her companions to the Queen's home in Kent. Queen AEthelburh founded a convent at Lyminge and it is assumed that Hilda remained with the Queen-Abbess.

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.

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.



The ruins of Whitby Abbey are among the most celebrated sights of North Yorkshire. The first monastery here, founded in about 657, became one of the most important religious centres in the Anglo-Saxon world. In 664 it was the setting for the Synod of Whitby, a landmark in the history of the Church in England. The headland is now dominated by the shell of the 13th-century church of the Benedictine abbey founded after the Norman Conquest.

Recent excavations have shown that the Whitby headland was settled during the late Bronze Age. A round house within a ditched enclosure was found near the cliff edge, and a number of objects dating to this period have been recovered.

The Whitby headland may have been occupied by a Roman signal station in the 3rd century AD, as it is midway between known stations at Goldsborough and Ravenscar, and is in a strategic position at the mouth of the river Esk. If so, the site of the signal station has probably long since fallen into the sea as the cliffs here have eroded steadily.

Following the collapse of Roman rule Britain fragmented into a number of small kingdoms, and by the 7th century Northumbria, roughly covering what is now Northumberland and Yorkshire,  was the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In the 7th and 8th centuries the headland at Whitby was occupied by a large Anglian community, together with a celebrated monastery for both monks and nuns. Excavations here have revealed much evidence of Anglian life, including large quantities of pottery, household goods and fine metal objects.

There are two main sources for the history of Streaneshalch (probably meaning "Streane`s headland"), as it was then known. These are the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed about 731 by the Venerable Bede, a monk from St Paul`s Monastery at Jarrow on the Tyne and a life of Pope Gregory the Great (d.604), by an anonymous monk of Streaneshalch.

In 627 the Anglian King of Northumbria, Edwin, converted to Christianity and was baptised by the Roman missionary St Paulinus. The monastery at Streaneshalch was founded in about 657 by Hild (614 - 80), daughter of an Anglian nobleman, with the support of Oswiu (d.670), then ruler of Anglian Northumbria. Streaneshalch seems to have been of particular importance to the Northumbrian royal family, as a number of its members were buried there. It was during Hild`s rule that the layman Caedmon lived at Streaneshalch, the first named poet in the English language.

After the Suppression Sir Richard Cholmley (d.1578) bought the abbey`s buildings and the core of its estates. The Cholmley family adapted part of the abbot's lodgings into a house.

This was only one of the Cholmleys residences. Originally from Cheshire, they had already become major landowners in Yorkshire. Sir Hugh Cholmley I (1600 - 57) played a notable part in the Civil War (1642 - 51), defending Scarborough Castle for the king before surrendering it in 1645, after which Parliamentarian troops captured and looted the Abbey House at Whitby.

After the war Sir Hugh Cholmley II (1632 - 89) did much to restore the family estates and added a grand new wing
(c 1672), known locally as the Banqueting House, to the Abbey House. He laid out a new entrance courtyard to provide a formal approach and setting.

In the 18th century the Cholmleys moved away, abandoning the Abbey House. The roof of the 1670s wing is said to have been removed after storm damage in the late 18th century.