Her childhood was darkened by the civil wars that rent Northumbria, at this time divided into two kingdoms, each engaged in fighting the other for supremacy.
In 627, when aged thirteen, she received baptism, along with her uncle Edwin, at the hands of Saint Paulinus. She lived thirty-three years in her family, “very nobly,” says Bede, and then resolved to dedicate the rest of her life to God. Her intention was to go to Chelles, in France, for her training; and, for this purpose, she went into East Anglia to its queen, her sister.
She spent a year in preparation for her final exile; but her purpose was frustrated by a summons from Saint Aidan, the Apostle of Northumbria, to return to her own country and settle there. She obeyed at once, and was placed by Aidan as superior over a few sisters in a small monastic settlement on the north bank of the Wear. But she was there for a year only, when she was called to replace Saint Heiu, the first Abbess of Hartlepool. This was in 649.
At Hartlepool, the Saint’s care was to introduce order and discipline, which had, apparently, been relaxed under Heiu. Hither came her mother, who passed the rest of her days under the rule and care of her daughter, and there she died and was buried.
In some excavations carried on at Hartlepool on the site of the old abbey, between 1833 and 1843, among a number of Anglo-Saxon tombs that were discovered, some bore the names of Berchtgitha, Hildigitha, and other members of the sisterhood.
So great was Hilda’s reputation for spiritual wisdom, that when King Oswy, in fulfilment of his vow, consecrated his daughter, Elfleda, to Almighty God, as a thank-offering for his victory over Penda, King of the Mercians, it was to Saint Hilda’s care that he committed her.
Whether now or later is uncertain, but she had a second convent at Hackness, where some very remarkable relics of the ecclesiastical foundations of Hilda still remain.
In 658, the peace and security of Northumbria had been secured by the final victory gained by Oswy over the Mercians, at Winwaed. Hilda at once took advantage of the king’s vow to give a certain number of farms to God, to secure Streaneshalch, now Whitby, for the establishment of a new and larger monastery.
M. de Montalembert, the historian of Western Monachism, says that: “Of all sites chosen by monastic architects, after that of Monte Cassino, I know none grander and more picturesque than that of Whitby. Nothing now remains of the Saxon monastery, but more than half the Abbey-church, restored by the Percies in the time of the Normans, still stands, and enables the marvelling spectator to form for himself an idea of the solemn grandeur of the great edifice…. The beautiful colour of the stone, half-eaten away by the sea-winds, adds to the charm of these ruins. A more picturesque effect could not be imagined than that of the distant horizon of azure sea, viewed through the gaunt, hollow eyes of the ruinous arches.”
Here, for thirty years, the great Hilda ruled. She must have been a woman of commanding character, and of no mean mental power, for she exercised a really marvellous influence over bishops, kings and nobles. They came to consult her, and received her advice with respect. “All who knew her,” says Bede, “called her Mother, on account of her singular piety and grace. She was not merely an example of good life to those who lived in her monastery, but she afforded occasion of amendment and salvation to many who lived at a distance, to whom was carried the fame of her industry and virtue.”
The story went that before her birth her mother had dreamt that she had in her lap a jewel that sent forth streams of light; and it was proudly thought that this meant that she would nurse Hilda, precious as a gem, and diffusing the light of divine truth through dark Northumbria.
Under Hilda’s charge at Whitby was the little Elfleda, daughter of Oswy, who was to succeed her in the abbacy.
The monastery was a curious institution. It was double. There was a community of women and another of men. There was, however, but one church in which they met for prayer. If we may judge by the Celtic monasteries elsewhere, a wall separated the monks from the nuns, so that they could hear but not see each other.
The monastery for men under Hilda became a nursery for bishops. Thence issued Bosa, who became Bishop of York, – Hedda, Bishop of Dorchester, but afterwards translated to Winchester; Oftfor, Bishop of Worcester, and John of Hexham, – all saints; also Wilfrid II, afterwards of York.
How these double monasteries were managed one would have been glad to learn, but very few details concerning them remain.
At Whitby, where she had to govern both men and women, her powers of organisation and control were conspicuous. But she had others under her beside monks and nuns: she ruled a large number of serfs with their families, attached to the soil and tilling it.
Amongst these was an old cowherd, named Caedmon. He was, as a serf, very ignorant and uneducated, but he had rare natural gifts, long unsuspected. He attended the carouses so dear to the beer-drinking Saxons and Angles, but he was unable to take his part, whenever the harp was handed to him and it was his turn to sing a ballad. On such occasions, mortified, he had been wont to rise from his place, and retire to his own reed-thatched cottage, where he slept beside the cows in their stall.
But one evening, when he had done this, as he was lying among the straw, and the oxen were beside him chewing the cud, and the air was sweet with their breath, he fancied, half-asleep and half-awake, that he heard a voice say: “Sing me something.”
Then he replied: “How can I sing? I have left the feast because I am so ignorant that I cannot.”
“Sing, nevertheless,” he thought the vision said.
“But – what can I sing about?”
“Sing the story of the World’s Birth.”
Then, somehow, an inspiration came on him, and in the night, among the cows, out of the straw, he raised his voice, and began to throw into rude verse the story of Creation. It was very rugged, but very fresh, and it welled up from his heart; in the morning he thought over the lines he had composed, and during the day talked of his newly-acquired powers.
The Abbess Hilda heard of it, and she sent for him, and he recited his poem before her.
Whether at the time he twanged the harp we do not know; probably he drew his fingers across the strings as he finished each line, so as to give time for him to form or remember the next.
Now, in this poetry there was no rhyme, as we understand it. The musical effect was produced by alliteration – that is to say, by the repetition of some ringing consonant or broad diphthong, usually at the beginning of a word. If we understood Anglo-Saxon music, we should understand the charm to the ear of this alliteration.
Hilda at once recognised the genius of the old cow-herd; she took him into her household, and bade him devote himself to the cultivation of his talent. Thus it is due to her that Anglo-Saxon poetry took its rise – or, at all events, was recognised as literature deserving of being preserved. Caedmon’s poems are the earliest specimens we have.
But Hilda, with real genius, saw at once in the faculty of the old peasant a great means of conveying to the rude people the story of Scripture and the lessons of the Gospel. They were quite incapable of reading. Priests were few, and widely scattered. The people loved ballads; they would hearken for hours, sitting over the fire, to a singer who twanged the strings and then sang a stave or a line. They loved a long story. It could not be too long for them, having no books, nothing wherewith to relieve the tedium of the long winter evenings.
Now, thought Hilda, if we can run the Bible stories into ballad form, these will be sung in every cottage and farm wherever a gleeman can go certain of welcome; they will be eagerly listened to. So she gave to Caedmon clergy who translated the Scripture narrative from Latin into homespun Saxon. He listened, took his harp, the fire came into his grey eyes, and he sang it all in verse. Ninety-nine out of a hundred other women would have said, “This is very interesting, but the man must be snubbed; he is only a keeper of cows, and he must be taught not to presume.” Hilda, however, was above such pettiness: seeing a divine gift of song, though granted to quite a common poor man, she at once endeavoured to ripen it, and to turn it to a practical, good end. How to seize an occasion, an opportunity, and make use of it, is not given to all.
Another instance of Hilda’s clear mind and sound sense was in the settlement of the vexed question of Easter.
About that I shall have more to say when we come to the story of Saint Elfleda.
The British-Irish Church did not observe Easter on the same day as the Roman Church; and as the Mercians and Northumbrians had received their Christianity from Iona, the metropolis of the Scottish Church, they kept the festival at one time, when the men of Kent and Wessex kept it at another. This produced discord at the very season when minds should be awed and calm; and it was a constant source of bickering and religious quarrels. The situation was intolerable, and, probably at the instigation of Hilda, a parliament was convoked at Whitby in 664 to settle the difficulty. This was the Witenagemot, composed of the principal nobles and ecclesiastics of the country, and presided over by the king.
Hilda was now fifty years old, and one would have supposed at that age would have adhered with the utmost tenacity to the rule in which she had been brought up, and which had been observed by her Father-in-God, Saint Aidan, and by Saint Cuthbert, whom she revered as a saint and a prophet inspired by the Divine Spirit. But she was a woman too sensible and too forbearing to force her own likings on the Church, against what her judgment told her was right. Pope Honorius had written in 634 to the Irish, exhorting them “not to think their small number, lodged at the utmost fringe of the world, wiser than all the ancient and modern Churches throughout the earth.” Even in Iona great searchings of heart had begun. Saint Cummian had written to the abbot there, explaining how the error arose whereby the two Churches were separated, and he entreated the Celtic clergy to give way. “What,” he asked, “can be worse thought concerning the Church, our mother, than that we should say, Rome errs, Jerusalem errs, Alexandria errs, Antioch errs, the whole world errs; the Scots and Britons alone know what is right.”
Hilda’s leanings were entirely to the Scottish side, but Oswy strongly adopted the other, and the nobles and freemen, not caring much one way or the other, held up their hands to express their willingness to observe Easter at such time as pleased the king.
Hilda seems at once to have submitted, and to have introduced the observance of the Roman computation at Whitby, but the northern bishops withdrew, unconvinced and discouraged. Hilda was almost certainly alive when Caedmon died, but she was not long in following him. For the last seven years of her life she suffered greatly; then, says Bede, “the distemper turning inwards, she approached her last day, and about cock-crow, having received the Holy Communion, to further her on her journey, and having called together the servants of Christ that were in the same monastery, she admonished them to preserve evangelical peace among themselves and with all others; and as she was speaking she saw Death approaching, and – passed from death to life.” She died in 680.