You are here

Venerable Hilda, Abbess of Whitby

Venerable Hilda, Abbess of Whitby

 Commemorated: 17/30 November 

St Hilda is one of the most venerated female saints in England and is also known as “the Abbess of the English People”. She was born in 614 in the north of England, where her parents lived in the small kingdom of Elmet in Yorkshire. When Hilda was an infant, her mother once had a dream in which she found a necklace under her clothes that filled the whole England with glory of its brilliance. This dream was fulfilled in her daughter Hilda, who gained great holiness and became a living example for many pious people.  Hilda was baptised when she was very young. She was brought up at the royal court of Northumbria. St Hilda lived until the age of 66: she spent the first half of her life among her close relatives, and the second half – as a true maiden-servant of God.

 At the age of 33 she became a nun and entered the convent of Hartlepool near Durham. Soon Hilda was about to leave for Gaul (what is now France), but St Aidan, her mentor,  allotted her a parcel of land on the bank of the river Wear near Durham. Here the saint, together with several other nuns, was trained in monastic life. Later Hilda was appointed abbess of Hartlepool.

   In 655, before the battle with the huge pagan army King Oswiu prayed to God and vowed that if he were victorious he would bestow lands throughout the kingdom for the foundation of monasteries. The miracle did happen – the pagan army suffered a crushing defeat. Fulfilling his promise, Oswiu bestowed twelve estates for the establishment of monastic houses. Hilda obtained lands in the town of Whitby in the east of Yorkshire. Here she founded a double, or mixed,  monastery (with separate communities for monks and nuns, but all praying together in the common church) and became its abbess. The Lord granted a great future to this foundation.

These lands obtained by Hilda could not boast of picturesque scenery. Here the river Esk empties into the sea in the form of a circular bay surrounded by lofty cliffs. On the top of one of them the monastery was built. On one side of the monastery there were the vast Yorkshire marshes, while on the other side there was the endless sea whose waves constantly crashed against the cliffs that protected the monastery.

  Thanks to St Hilda, Whitby became famous as a model for monastic life, a spiritual and intellectual centre, whose glory spread all over England and far beyond. Under St Hilda's patronage, St Caedmon, an English poet of that time, who composed fine poems on Christian themes, was tonsured in the monastery. Monks and nuns of Whitby and other monastic communities of that era lived in modest tiny cells, like huts, in extremely difficult conditions, but despite everything tirelessly laboured and unceasingly glorified God.

 St Hilda was an active and energetic abbess; the most important duties of monks and nuns who were in her care were to study the Holy Scriptures thoroughly and to do good works. Hilda collected a large library, taught priests Latin and literature. The wisdom and prudence of this holy woman were held in such high esteem that even kings and bishops asked for her advice. Many Church figures, scholars, and ordinary folk greatly venerated St Hilda and considered her their spiritual preceptor. Hilda took special care of the poor and the oppressed, for which she was revered as “the mother of her country”.

 St Hilda's holy life, authority, popularity and influence played a considerable role in the unification of the Church and the spread of Christianity in the seventh-century England. The example of Hilda demonstrates that monasticism and the learning of women in early England were at a very high level; indeed England produced not only numerous holy, wise and gifted spiritual fathers, but also spiritual mothers. The fame of the monastery of Whitby and its holy abbess spread all over England.

  According to tradition, in the region of Whitby Hilda turned all the snakes into stones by her prayers - it is said that some of these stones can be seen to this day!

For the last six years of her life St Hilda suffered from a certain grave and chronic ailment. It is supposed that it was fever. However, her physical suffering by no means affected the power of her spirit or shook her zeal as abbess and mentor. Hilda reposed peacefully on 17 November 680. The repose of this great woman-saint was accompanied by miracles. At the moment when her soul left her body, bells miraculously began to ring in a neighbouring  convent and the night before a nun saw angels carrying the saint's soul to Heaven. A sister (nun) at Whitby had the same vision as well.

 Many miracles occurred at St Hilda's relics. From the year 800 on the pagan Danes began to raid the monasteries of England. In 867 the monastery at Whitby was destroyed. In 1078 the Norman, Roman Catholic abbey was built on the same site. It existed until its dissolution at the Reformation in 1539.

  St Hilda was venerated throughout England, but especially in the north. No fewer than 15 ancient churches are  dedicated to her.

Today, the small town of Whitby, standing on the North Sea coast, with the well-preserved abbey ruins and several  churches, is visited by pilgrims. The famous 199 steps which are over 600 years old lead to the “upper part” of the town where the ruins are located. There is a local belief that seabirds do not fly above the abbey ruins as a token of reverence for the holy abbess; and even if some dare to fly above the ruins, then they slow down each time - in honour of the saint! Hilda is venerated as a patroness of education, learning, culture and poetry. According to tradition, the head of St Hilda is kept at Durham Cathedral to this day. “Hilda” is still a baptismal name for girls in England and in Germany. Schools and colleges for girls are named in honour of Hilda in the USA, Australia, Singapore and Jamaica.

(c) Dmitry Lapa

Оставьте заявку на обучение

+7 (916) 206-01-41, +7 (916) 908-08-02
Москва, Рязанский просп., 30/15 (метро Рязанский проспект)