Sunday, March 19, 2006

Medieval Women I Adore - Installment 3: Hilda of Whitby

Back in the Merry Old England of the 7th century, we find Hilda, abbess of Whitby (c.614-c.680 CE). Hilda was the daughter of Hereric of Deira(here-foreign army & ric - leader), the nephew of King Edwin of Northumbria. Hilda's father died (with a little help from his friends) when she was a child, and she went to live with Edwin. She was probably converted by Paulinus along with Edwin, c.627 CE. Edwin's conversion is documented in Bede's Ecclesiastical History, as is much of Hilda's later success as an abbess.

Hilda's sister, Hereswith, became a nun at the abbey of Chelles in Gaul some time after marrying Ethelhere of East Anglia. I don't know why Hereswith left her husband, or how he felt about it, but many married folks at this time did enter convents.[Updated info: Hereswith was a new widow, and I'm a dork for not checking on that more carefully.] In 647, Hilda wanted to follow her sister to Gaul, but was recalled to Northumbria by Bishop Aidan (now St. Aidan) of Lindesfarne. Aidan gave Hilda land to start her own monastery at Wear, and later appointed her abbess of the convent at Hartlepool.

Edwin was slain in battle with Penda of Mercia and Cadwallan of Gwynedd in 633 CE, and there continued to be much wrangling for power over Northumbria for several decades. Eventually, Oswiu managed to become king of a united Northumbria, and in his gratitude to God for this victory dedicated his daughter Aelfflaed to the church under the supervision of Hilda, her second cousin. Oswiu had been a rather naughty boy during the fight for power, and granted land to the church to clear his conscience. On some of this land, Hilda built the most famous of her monasteries, a double-house at Whitby (then Streoneshall) in 657 CE.

Hilda's Monastery at Whitby quickly became very famous as a seat of learning, producing five bishops during Hilda's reign. Royals and holy men would often travel to Whitby, sometimes from great distances, to seek Hilda's advice. The famous poet Caedmon was presented to Hilda when his gift became clear, and she convinced him to enter the monastery (Bede again).

At this abbey, under Hilda's supervision, Oswiu called a synod in 664 to decide whether the churches in England would follow Roman or Irish rites. (The dating of easter and tonsure were at issue.) Hilda, raised in the Irish tradition brought to northern England by Aidan, her first patron, disagreed with the decision in favor of Roman rites. However, to promote peace in her country, and among her fellow Christians, decided to observe and promote the Roman rites. Her respected position in the church did much to convince other Irish-Catholic abbeys to adopt Roman Easter dates, and roman-style monastic tonsure and dress.

Hilda's Prayer:

O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we through his poverty might be rich: deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that, following the example of thy servant Hilda, we may serve thee with singleness of heart, and attain to the riches of the world to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
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 leaders of the Church: Give us the grace to respect and love our fellow Christians with whom we disagree, that our common life may be enriched and thy gracious will be done, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.


The Goldfish said...

Ah, but you missed out the bit about snakes. The snake bit is my favourite part of the story, even if it is made-up.

This stretch of coast has a wealth of fossils, including the odd dinosaur, a great deal of the semi precious stone jet and many ammonites - they're really quite easy to find, although not always in their perfect condition.

However, before the concept of a pre-historic age we didn't really know what ammonites were, so there was the local story; Hilda arrives on the cliff top at Whitby, and says, "This is where I want to build my Abbey."

Unfortunately, all the ground there was covered in serpents, but Hilda did her hocus-pocus and cast them away - they flew off the clifftop and crashed onto the beach where they each curled up and turned into stone.

So whenever one of us finds an ammonite, we are reminded of Hilda and her great works. Of course ammonites don't have heads as snakes would, but we used to carve heads into them to sell to Victorian tourists who believed the story. Much as I love Darwin, he sure put the kibosh on that one.

Carla said...

Whitby's coat of arms features three ammonites with snake-heads, in keeping with the legend. There are also three giant concrete ammonites around the harbour, but sadly those don't have heads.

HeoCwaeth said...

OOOH, thanks for the cool snake-legend information! And Goldfish and Carla, welcome!

Charibdys said...

Does anyone have any links to any pictures (on tapestries or pottery etc) of nuns at this date in history?? I would really like to see how they dressed!!

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