St Hilda - Heroine and Legend: A ray of light in the Dark Ages

If you have heard of St. Hilda of Whitby then you have probably also heard of the legend of the snakestones, but you may not know much about her life or other tales. A remarkable woman, extraordinary in her day, it is no wonder that her story lives on, although I feel that there could be much about Hilda that has been lost to time, elements of her life and work that were possibly never told, little known and that we can only speculate and wonder about today.

Hilda, or Hild, born into an Anglo-Saxon royal household in 614, was the second daughter of Hereric, (the great nephew of King Edwin of Northumbria), and Breguswith. Hilda’s elder sister, Hereswith, married the King of East Anglia and whilst Hilda was still an infant their father was murdered by poisoning while in exile at the court of the British King of Elmet, what is now known as West Yorkshire, from then it is assumed that she was brought up at King Edwin’s court in Northumbria. King Edwin accepted the Christian faith and was baptised on Easter Day 12 April 627 in a small wooden church near the site where York Minster is now and Hilda was among the nobles and courtiers who were baptised with Edwin, so as a girl of 13 she would have been aware of the traditions of the Church in Rome and of monastic life. King Edwin was killed in battle in 633 and she went to live with her sister at the East Anglian court, however instead of joining her widowed sister at a convent in France, she decided to answer the call of Bishop Aiden of Lindisfarne and return to Northumbria to live as a nun on the North bank of the River Wear, the exact place is unknown. Here she learned the traditions of Celtic monasticism, brought by Aiden from Iona. The following year he appointed her as second Abbess of Hartlepool, the remains of this Abbey are no more but the cemetery has been found near St. Hilda’s Church which is still present today.

It was in 657 at the age of 43 that Hilda came to Streonshalh or Streanaeshalch, to be the founding abbess of the Christian community and new monastery of both sexes. Bede tells us that the community practiced all virtues, especially love, charity and peace. Everyone studied the Scriptures and was required to do good works. No one was rich and no one was poor, but all shared in the property communally. The monastery was in the celtic style, the members lived in small houses, usually with two to three to a house. Men and women lived separately, but worshiped together. Much later the town was renamed to Whitby by the invading Danes in 867.

One of her best known protégés was the sheepherder Caedmon, inspired by a dream in which he was visited by an angel who gave him the ability to write and sing verses in praise of God, Hilda recognised his gift and encouraged him and today we have the Caedmon Cross which stands at the top of the Church Stairs outside St. Mary’s, next to the abbey. There were five bishops that came from this new monastery governed by Hilda, two of them became saints, and along with Hilda they were instrumental in the struggle against paganism. The height of Hilda’s influence saw two strains of Catholic Christianity, there was Celtic Christianity which emanated from Ireland, and there was the opposing Roman Christianity. The Celts were less structured, independent, wandering from place to place all over Europe and relied on monasteries and abbeys where the abbot was supreme, whereas the Roman variety had the cathedral and bishop system and viewed the Celts version as ‘rural’. There was to be no reconciliation between the two and there were many minor differences. The main difference was the practice of calculating the date of Easter, generally it was agreed that it should be celebrated on the Sunday of the third week of the month in which the full moon fell on or after the vernal equinox, however, a problem arose as the Celts adopted the 25th as the date of the equinox, and the rest of Christendom adopted the 21st. The discrepancy sometimes resulted in two Easters, one month apart. Due to politics, power and heritage, Hilda was asked by her relative, King Oswiu of Northumbria, to host a conference at her community of Whitby to debate the issue of Easter and provide a conclusive answer of which strain of Christianity should be maintained. King Oswiu, though a Celt was married to the Kentish born queen, Eanflaed, and she followed the Roman dates, there were also political considerations for Oswiu. In his pursuit of power he needed the Roman Christian area’s support, but without losing the backing of the Celtic Christian parts of England and his kingdom. This meeting was not really a synod in the religious sense, though it is commonly known as that today, but it was a Witan, or Witenagemot, a political council convened by a king, attended by nobles and advisers, where the king would come to a decision and pass judgement.

The debate was long and acrimonious, Hilda who was baptized and instructed by Paulinus and later advised by Aiden, argued for the side of the Celts, but in the end it was Oswiu that declared that he must choose between the Roman teachings of St. Peter and the Celtic teachings of St. Columba. He decided to obey St. Peter to whom were given the keys to heaven by Christ and as Oswiu was the most powerful monarch in the kingdom, it was his decision that carried weight and the Roman version of Christianity was followed from this date in 664. The Bishop of Lindisfarne, withdrew first to Iona and finally to Ireland, so Northumbria was without a bishop, this vacancy was filled by one of Hilda’s protégés, Wilfred, who had forcefully argued for the Roman faction at the conference and went on to establish himself at York. Hilda gracefully accepted and adopted the changes as made in what is now known as the Synod of Whitby.

Hilda remained abbess of the monastery until her death on 17th November 680 at the age of 66. In her last year, despite ongoing sickness from fever which lasted for the last 6 years of her life, she set up another monastery, at Hackness 14 miles from Whitby. On her deathbed she was urged by the community ‘to preserve the gospel peace amongst themselves and towards all others’. The place of her burial is unknown. Bede writes of her ‘All who knew her, called her mother, because of her outstanding devotion and grace’. Most of what we know of Hilda comes from the Venerable Bede (672-735) in his ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’

Bede tells us there were wonders and visions seen at her death by the nuns at Whitby and at her independent community in Hackness. Oswiu’s daughter, Aelflaed, taught by Hilda to succeed her did take over as abbess. The Danes completely destroyed the religious community at Whitby and nothing remains of its records or foundations. In the attack, the community was dispersed, the Abbott Titus fled to Glastonbury, taking Hilda’s relics with him and there was no attempt to replace the monastery until after the Norman Conquest when William de Percy, a Norman knight, re-founded Whitby. Although nothing much of her monastery remains, Hilda’s greatness as a scholar and a mentor has lived on in the town above the sea. Bede’s enduring admiration hails her exemplary life as a beacon of light.

It comes as no surprise that there is so much written and spoken lore of St. Hilda. Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, told the story of Breguswith, Hilda’s mother. It said that while pregnant with Hild she dreamt that she found a jewel under her garments, which emitted such a brilliant light that all of Britain was lit by its splendour. Hilda’s death was as remarkable as her birth and life, the nun Begu, living at the monastery in Hackness, dreamt that she heard the bell that was used to call the sisters to prayer when one of the sisters died. Opening her eyes, she saw the roof open and a great light pour in from above and the soul of Hilda borne up to heaven accompanied by angels.

A local legend, which I’d not heard before, tells that when sea birds fly over the abbey they dip their wings in honour of the saint, but my favourite piece of folklore is the story of the snakestones, still symbolised today in many emblems at many centres of study and practice. The story is of Hilda ridding snakes from the infested site of the monastery on the headland, casting them down the cliff and onto the Scar below where they turned to stone. The fossilised ammonite species Hildoceras was named in her memory as they are found in this area, but the part of the story which is much less commonly heard is that Hilda used a wand made of Whitby jet for this purpose. Jet is said to repel snakes in many cultures across many continents from prehistory. Greek philosophers tell us that jet was burnt to purify and cleanse, and it is still maintained and used as a shamanic material for banishing, purification, cleansing and divination by Amazonian tribes today.

I would like to quote a verse that was written in C4th and attributed to Orpheus:

‘…when Jet in rising clouds consumes,

The nose provoking with its pungent fumes.

Black as a coal, but yet of lustrous shine,

It blases up like torch of driest pine…’

Jet is widely known as an important and powerful amulet in the protection of both the person and the dwelling place against the potential threat of witchcraft. Here in Whitby and North Yorkshire there are many cottages that have witch posts by the fire and jet charms are known to have been nailed to beams to prevent a witch crossing the threshold, there is one of these charms at Whitby Museum, the Egton Cross which was in a C14th dwelling. A fascinating material, with low thermal conductivity, low specific gravity that always feels warm, a lithophone that rings like a bell and combusts with a puff of green smoke, there is much evidence here that Jet would have been of great value to Hilda in what she intended to achieve in her new home.

I became increasingly interested in Hilda’s mother, Breguswith, and wondered about their Anglo-Saxon ancestry, the tales told and looked for evidence of any pagan beliefs or Old English practices that may have remained and been passed down which could support these stories told of Hilda, particularly as it was said that she cast such light. Celts often made offerings in watery areas and it crossed my mind that the snakes cast into the sea, particularly with the told use of jet, could possibly have been a ritual. Hilda is the patron saint of learning and culture and very highly thought of as being one to include all people with grace, maybe I could speculate that she was asking the help of the ancient gods in harmony with her current spiritual path in order to guide her further in her new role in a new monastery by every means at her disposal. Sadly I think that so much will have been lost to time, if it was ever written at all, that we’ll never know.

My search for information about Breguswith also led me to discover Old English remedies such as those in Bald’s Leechbook, although believed to have been written in the ninth century I expect they will have been well known to Hild and her mother. In my research I found that Nottingham University have tested and studied a remedy from this book, for an eye salve to treat infection. This research by Nottingham University has also featured as an article in the New Scientist magasine and has shown great promise in combating the bacterium MRSA. It isn’t surprising to us that Old English remedies were believed to be effective medicinal treatments at the time, but it certainly is quite a discovery for a remedy such as this to withstand the rigours of modern testing in scientific laboratories by major research and teaching universities and, to me, food for thought and wonder at what else from early writings and folklore could withstand modern investigation, should we uncover them and get the chance to prove their worth.

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