Saint Hilda and Her Times

detail of stained glass window of Saint Hilda at the cloister of the cathedral of Chester, England; date and artist unknown; photographed on 31 July 2014 by Mum's taxi; swiped from Wikimedia Commons(614680)

The extensive ruins of ancient abbeys still to be seen in Yorkshire mark it out to us as a very nursery of monasticism in this country. The names of Fountains, Bolton, Rievuulx, and Whitby are familiar to every scholar, while the relics which survive of those great monasteries, many of whose inmates played so prominent a part in our history, are eagerly visited year after year by hundreds of admiring tourists. Yet, as we gaze spell-bound at those vast monuments of Christian art, our thoughts go back to the time when those cloisters were peopled with happy, busy inmates; when from the great church now re-echoing with the cry of the rooks there rose daily to God that mighty song of praise, that strong cry for mercy on a sinful world, those transports of love and adoration which found expression in the unbounded riches of the monastic Liturgy. Of the many thousands who for centuries peopled these cloisters, by far the greater number have passed from the memory of man; they have gone to form the living stones of the heavenly Jerusalem, after being fashioned and polished by the Divine Architect with the chisel of mortification and the refining influence of religious life. Yet, as we stand in those hallowed scenes, there are many whose names recur to our minds with a sense of pride and gratitude “our fathers in their generation, men of renown, whose goodly deeds have not failed.” That a bishop like Aidan, or a reformer like Wilfrid, or even a simple monk like Bede, with the wondrous influence of his pen, should have left their mark in history and endeared themselves to us is, after all, not so strange. But it is certainly very remarkable that the name of a woman who never ruled a kingdom, or wrote books, or did anything particularly striking, should have survived all these centuries. God surely means that Saint Hilda should be a pattern to us, in these days of “progress,” of what a strong woman ought to be in the Christian sense of the word. The Anglo-Saxon Saints of her period stand out before us very forcibly as perfect types of the valiant woman who “put forth her hand to strong things.” They were never masculine, nor forgetful that the chief ornament of a woman is womanliness; yet at the same time we find in them no trace of feminine weakness, pusillanimity or sentiment. They had a work to do, and they did it with a strength of purpose and a determination which carried all before it. “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.”

Saint Hilda was of the royal race of Aella, and was born in stormy times. Aella was that king of the Northumbrians to whom Saint Gregory had at first intended to carry the light of faith on seeing the Saxon slaves in the market. He had inquired the name of their king, and, making a play on the word, he exclaimed, “Alleluia shall soon be sung in Aella’s kingdom.” Dying in 589, Aella left a little son three years old, named Edwin. Ethelfred the Cruel, who had so savagely murdered the monks of Bangor, usurped the throne of his defenceless nephew. Though he hated Edwin, he dared not murder him outright, fearing a revolution, for the Northumbrians loved the child; but after he had grown to man’s estate, not being able any longer to bear the sight of him, Ethelfred exiled him, on pretense of a crime imputed to him, hoping that he would die of poverty and want. At the same time Hereric, probably Edwin’s younger brother (the exact relationship is disputed), also took to flight, fearing Ethelfred’s vengeance, he being next heir to the throne in case of Edwin’s demise. Hereric took with him in his flight his beautiful young wife, the Lady Breguswith, and their only child, Hereswida, who was Hilda’s elder sister. While her parents were in exile Hilda was born; and Venerable Bede tells us how, before her birth, her mother had a wonderful dream, in which it seemed to her that she had lost her husband, and as she was seeking everywhere for him she lifted her garment and there found so precious a jewel that the beams which issued from it shone throughout Britain. This dream was truly fulfilled, for her husband, pursued by Ethelfred’s spies, was by them cruelly murdered; but to console her for her loss God gave to her a daughter whose life afforded an example of light and holiness to so many of her fellow-countrymen. It was probably on account of this prophetic dream that the name Hilda, which means light, was bestowed on the child.

Meantime Edwin had been more fortunate than his brother; and after many adventures, and disguised as a peasant, he at length reached the court of Red \vald, king of Essex, of whom he implored an asylum from the pursuit of his cruel uncle. Redwald received him with all the honour due to a dethroned prince, and treated him with royal hospitality. Edwin endeared himself to all by his rare qualities and his talents in literary pursuits and martial exercises. However, Ethelfred soon discovered his retreat, and sent ambassadors to Redwald with a great sum of money to buy the fugitive, and when the bribe was generously rejected threatened to make war upon him. This threat shook Redwald’s courage for the moment, and he began to negotiate with the tyrant, choosing rather to expose the life of a stranger than to lose his whole kingdom. These negotiations came to Edwin’s ear, and he was advised by his friends to take to flight again; but he was tired of wandering like a homeless vagabond, and he said that after experiencing Redwald’s generosity for so long he would not be the first to suspect so mean a treachery in so great a king. Yet he was naturally much disturbed by the rumour, and was far too anxious to think of sleep that night. He therefore went out into the cool of the evening, and there abandoning himself to his thoughts, considered rather how he could die nobly than how he could save his life. As he mused, a stranger accosted him and entered into conversation with him. Bede thinks he was an angel, but at least he was a messenger endowed with the spirit of prophecy. “My son,” he began, “you have indeed great cause to be grieved and to stand in fear of Redwald, who is resolved on your ruin. But what reward would you give to one who restored you to your former place in this king’s friendship?” Edwin answered that any adequate recompense would be beyond his power. “What reward,” continued the other, “would you give to him who should, moreover, make you stronger than your enemy and possessor of his crown?” To which Edwin replied that he could only promise a grateful heart. “But what,” concluded the messenger, “would you do for him who will not only make you happy and glorious in this world, but after this life will procure for you immortal glory? Will you not at least afford him your attention and submission when he shall propose to you holy and good counsels?” This Edwin readily promised, and the stranger, laying his hand on his head, said to him, “When hereafter you shall see a man’s hand thus laid upon your head, and all the things which I have foretold accomplished, then be sure to remember the promise you have made.” Saying this, he vanished, leaving Edwin in an uncertainty between hope and fear.

Two of the prophecies were speedily fulfilled, for Redwald, urged by the entreaties of his wife, broke off the negotiations, repenting of his treachery. War was declared, and a decisive battle was fought, in which the tyrant, being too confident of his own powers, rushed blindly upon his foes, and, being separated from his followers, was slain; an end, says the chronicler, which his ambition richly deserved.

Edwin was now hailed as the rightful king of Northumbria. He was then twenty-seven years old. On his restoration he recalled his exiled relatives, and among them his niece, Saint Hilda. In the course of his wanderings he had seen the princess Ethelburga, daughter of Ethelbert, king of Kent, who had been converted by Saint Augustine. Being “ravished by her beauty,” he bethought himself of her when safely seated on his throne, and sent ambassadors to seek her hand. But the royal maiden had Saint Augustine for her spiritual father, who, says Bede, had instilled into her a deep sense of Christianity; therefore she refused to hearken to the proposals of a pagan king, and answered that it was not lawful for a Christian maiden to be married to a pagan, for fear lest the faith and Sacraments of the celestial King should be profaned by so near an association with a monarch who was ignorant of the worship due to the true God.

Edwin, however, nothing daunted, replied that he would never do the least thing contrary to the Christian faith, and would allow Ethelburga and all her retinue the free exercise of their religion. He further declared that if, after due examination, he found the Christian religion more holy and more beseeming the majesty of God than that in which he had been brought up, he would himself embrace it. So favourable an offer could not be refused, and Ethelburga saw that she might be the means of converting the North umbrian nation to the true faith. She therefore set out, accompanied by Saint Paulinus, one of the monks sent by Saint ( Gregory to England, a man well fitted to be her spiritual guide and adviser in her difficult mission. In order to give him more power and authority he was consecrated first Bishop of York, previous to his departure. Paulinus blessed the marriage of Edwin and Ethelburga amid great rejoicing, and Pope Boniface sent letters of congratulation and exhortation to the bride and bridegroom, together with a silver mirror and an ivory and gold comb as tokens of good-will to the bride. These last were discovered at Whitby in 1872, having most likely been given by Ethelburga to the Abbess Hilda, her niece. Hilda, who lived with her uncle and aunt, was thus thrown into contact with Saint Paulinus, and was by him gradually won over to the Christian faith. In the year 627 she was solemnly baptised with the king and a great number of nobles, the ceremony taking place on the holy feast of Easter, with all possible pomp and splendour.

King Edwin had hesitated some time before submitting his neck to the sweet yoke of Christ. Venerable Bede says of him, that he was a “man of a piercing, sagacious spirit, who would oftentimes sit alone, revolving in his mind many doubtful thoughts as to what resolution he should take and what religion he should adopt.” He was dissatisfied with his own superstition, yet his principal objection to the Catholic faith was that he thought it unbecoming a great king to submit to be the follower of one who had been crucified. However, one day as he was thus musing, the third prophecy formerly made to him was suddenly fulfilled, for Saint Paulinus, breaking in on his reveries, laid his hand on his head as the stranger had foretold, and asked him whether he remembered the promise he had made as an exile in danger of death, and whether he did not fear to continue longer in opposition to the God who had so exalted him and could as easily confound him. Edwin was convinced and, acknowledging his want of trust in his deliverer, promised to do whatever Saint Paulinus should command him. His doubts and objections vanished, and he promised not only to become a follower of Christ him self, but to use all means to bring the people of his nation to the knowledge of the truth. This he succeeded in doing by means of a great national council summoned for the purpose, Coifi, the chief of the idolatrous priests, being the first to declare himself a Christian.

In 633, six years after Edwin’s baptism, he went to receive the eternal crown promised to him by the divine oracle. He was killed in a holy war against the pagan king Penda and his ally, Cadwallon, who, in their hatred of Christianity had put to death so many innocent victims. The queen Ethelburga fled, under Paulinus’s protection, to her home in Kent, Hilda probably accompanying her; and under an idolatrous ruler, Christianity, which was but just beginning to take root in Northumbria, was almost entirely destroyed. James the Deacon alone, tried to keep alive a feeble spark until the day when Aidan was to come and again fan it into a flame; a flame never more to be extinguished, for even in the darkest days of persecution the faith was always kept alive in the North, and in at least one chapel the sanctuary lamp has ever remained burning to testify to the belief of the faithful few in the real presence of their God in the Sacrament of His love.

The year that intervened between Saint Edwin’s death and the accession of Saint Oswald was called by the Northum brians the “accursed year,” such chaos prevailed under a pagan government. However, at length Saint Oswald, a nephew of Edwin, who had taken refuge in Scotland, trusting in God’s help, attacked and overthrew the tyrant and became king of Northumbria. Peace was restored and the exiles returned once more to their homes in the North, Hilda being then twenty-one years old.

Oswald’s first care was to apply to the Scottish monks of lona, with whom he had become acquainted during his banishment, for missionaries to re-enkindle the faith among his people. The first monk sent in answer to his appeal was somewhat harsh and severe, and could not adapt him self to the Saxons, whom he considered a hopeless race, and he therefore returned to his monastery. Then the gentle Aidan, whose heart bled for the lost sheep wandering shepherdless over the wilds of Northumbria, begged to go in his stead to endeavour to tame their rough natures and to win them to Christ. His mission was wholly successful; he endeared himself to all, especially to the king, who accompanied him everywhere, acting as his interpreter, for at first Aidan knew but little English. It was during his frequent sojourns at the Northumbrian court that Saint Aidan formed a friendship with Saint Hilda, whom he began to lead to God along the strait and difficult paths of perfection. Venerable Bede describes him as a man of piety, meekness and moderation a rare quality in those days yet with an unbounded zeal for God’s glory. He adds that the two points which most appealed to those whom he sought to convert were that he never taught anything that he did not himself practise, and that he had no affection for the honours and pleasures of the world. Whether in his cell or at court, he was always the same simple monk. The influence which he won over others by his unobtrusive virtue was very great, and numbers put themselves under his direction. As an instance of the power of his example we read that, in imitation of him, many religious men and women prolonged their fast until three o clock in the afternoon on Wednesdays and Fridays. Yet, notwithstanding the natural sweetness and gentleness of his character, Aidan was no respecter of persons, nor did he shrink from speaking out boldly against the deplorable vices then prevalent among the Saxon nobility. By this he would have won the admiration of Hilda, whose strong and unflinching nature was capable of appreciating the fearless courage of the Scottish monk in telling the truth to those fierce northern chieftains. Although she was thirty-three years old before she finally consecrated her self to God, her resolution to become a nun had been fixed long before, but the unsettled state of the country and the many troubles through which her relations had to pass prevented her from sooner carrying out her purpose.

Father Faber says: “To be a princess in England in the seventh century was only to be the more liable to a disturbed life than the humbler ranks of the people, and that exile, deposition and murder were the foremost retinue of a king and his family; that of all the members of the royal household the princesses were in the most un favourable position, for they were looked upon as a means of extending and consolidating power by being given in marriage to other princes. Thus, if a royal maiden wished to dedicate herself to holy virginity, she became at once useless to her family.” But Hilda, sought in marriage as she must have been, not only on account of her position, but also of her extraordinary beauty and talents, remained firm in her resolve awaiting God’s own time, having deter mined, as soon as opportunity offered, to cross to France and take the veil in the Abbey of Chelles, where her widowed sister had already retired, to devote the remainder of her life to God. Of Hereswida we have the following testimony in the Gallican Martyrology: “In the monastery of Chelles in the territory of Paris, on September 20th, is celebrated the memory of Saint Hereswida. She, being a queen in England, out of love to Christ forsook her sceptre and kingdom, and betook herself to the said famous monastery, where, after she had afforded admirable examples of piety, humility, and regular observance, she was consummated with a happy end and obtained the reward of a heavenly crown.”

Meantime there had been sad doings at the Northumbrian court; the good and great king Oswald had been slain by that arch-enemy of the Christian faith, Penda. Some time previous to his death a terrible pestilence had ravaged the kingdom, which must have given ample scope to the Princess Hilda to exercise many works of mercy. The chronicler quaintly remarks that king Oswald was pierced to the soul at seeing such a world of funerals, and that he earnestly prayed God, as king David had done, to spare his people, and to turn the scourge against himself and his family. This prayer was granted, for soon after Oswald was seized with the plague and brought to the point of death. As he lay on what seemed to be his death-bed, rejoicing to die as a victim for the salvation of his nation, three angels appeared to him and addressed him, saying: “O king, thy prayers and resignation are acceptable to God. Thou art one of ours, for shortly thou shall receive an immortal crown for thy faith, piety, and charity. But that time is not yet come, for God at present gives thee both thy own life and that of thy subjects. Now thou art willing to die for them, shortly thou shalt die far more happily, a martyr for God.” This prediction was verified on 5 August 642, when the holy king was slain, praying for his people with his dying breath.

After the death of Oswald, his brother Oswy succeeded him, a young man of about thirty, who reigned twenty-eight years. He divided his kingdom with Oswin, a descendant of the royal race of Aella, and a kinsman of Hilda, giving him the kingdom of Deira. It is probable that Hilda remained at Oswin’s court during the last five years spent by her in the world. In 647, all obstacles having been surmounted, she left the court and waited on the coast for a vessel to carry her to France to join her sister. In thus forsaking her country, as well as her family and friends, she sought to make her sacrifice the more complete. However, Aidan had formed other plans for her, and when he heard of her departure he sent to urge her to return to him, for he had destined her to foster the little seed of religious life which, by means of another holy soul, he had already planted at Hartlepool.

Hilda, moved by his entreaties, consented to forego her long-cherished plan, and, returning to Northumbria, Aidan gave her a small estate, just sufficient to support herself and a few companions, on the banks of the river Wear. One cannot but be struck at the literal way in which Hilda took our Lord’s words about leaving all things, since it is evident from the fact that Saint Aidan gave her this estate to support her, that she must have left the court dowerless, and this by her own desire. This little side-light which we get of her character speaks volumes for the whole-heartedness of her sacrifice and the thoroughness of her resolve. Not far from Saint Hilda’s small convent was that established by Saint Bees, at Hartlepool, on the coast of Durham, the first convent ever seen in Northumbria. Tradition says that she was an Irish princess who had vowed her virginity to God, and, as a pledge of her vow, had received from an angel a bracelet marked with a cross; as he gave it to her he said: “Receive this blessed gift, sent to you by God, by which you may know that you are dedicated to His service, and that He is your Spouse.” Being considered the most beautiful maiden in the land, she was sought in marriage by the king of Norway, who came in person to fetch her. The night before the wedding there was a great feast, and while all were drinking and making merry, she seized the opportunity to escape, and, embarking on a ship she chanced to find ready to set sail, she passed over to Northumbria, where for many years she lived in solitude not far from Whitehaven, doing good to the poor people around, nursing and tending them in sickness, and teaching them the healing arts.

After a time the place was infested by pirates, and Saint Bees was obliged again to take to flight, this time settling at Hartlepool. Here she was found by Saint Aidan in the course of his apostolic labours, and at once placed herself under his direction. By his advice she adopted a fixed rule, which he gave her, together with the veil and habit of a consecrated virgin. Other young maidens, attracted by her example and holy life, sought to share her retreat, and Aidan urged her to undertake their training. For this it was necessary to have some sort of convent built, in which they could live and keep regular observance. As she was not herself able to lift the stones and set them up, she got men from the neighbourhood to do the work, she meanwhile helping them by every means in her power, carrying the mortar for them, cooking their dinner, and ministering to all their little wants. Thus the building grew apace, and soon was filled with fervent souls eager to imitate the virtues of one who had so long schooled herself in their practice, and who had learnt to tame and subdue those strong passions which they felt so unruly in their own hearts. Still, Saint Bees was only known to a few; none guessed her origin, for the humble virgin would have been the last to spread abroad the fact that she was of royal blood. With Hilda the case was very different, she was well known in Northumbria, and when people heard that she had retired to a remote village with a few other maidens in order to dedicate IK -rself to religious life, they were lavish of criticism, and not a little curious about the matter. Religious life for women was absolutely new to the Northumbrians, so we can easily imagine the sinister prophecies made as to the outcome of Hilda’s venture. In truth, it did seem a bold step for a princess, who had always lived in luxury, to go to a wild spot, unprotected, with scant provision and a poor shelter. Would she not soon grow weary of her hard life, of its monotony, its poverty, most of all, of its society? Would her health stand the test? These and similar queries would naturally have been uppermost, then as now, in the minds of the onlookers; yet days, weeks, and months, nay years, rolled by, and Hilda still remained unmoved in her purpose, and proved by her living example that a heart on fire with love for God can surmount every difficulty, whether of body or mind.. And as she had proved herself superior to the allurements of the world and the claims of nature, others began to ask themselves whether they could not do what she had done; and so many came to join her and emulate her example.

There is an old proverb which says that “Small beginnings make great ends,” and perhaps in no case is this more true than in the spiritual life. Hilda’s beginnings were very small, her convent was so insignificant that not even its name has survived; but the seed soon matured, and in a short time Hilda began to exercise that extraordinary influence which made itself felt on all classes throughout the kingdom. As was but natural, Hilda and Bees soon became fast friends; Hilda learnt much from the long experience of Bees, while Bees saw in the strength of character of the Deiran Princess one who was born to rule and lead, and she therefore spared no pains in instilling into her a true religious spirit. Meanwhile Saint Bees had secretly formed a plan which she now unfolded to Saint Aidan. At his word, she had been willing to renounce the solitude which she loved in order to train up others in virtue and holy living; she had undertaken without a murmur all the difficulties incumbent on a new foundation in a country where conventual life was unknown; she had trained the wild Northumbrian maidens, and had succeeded in introducing regular observance into her convent. Now that she had made a difficult way easy, she felt that she would not be shirking her duty if she left another to reap where she had sown. She therefore begged Saint Aidan to allow her to resign the reins of government into Hilda’s hands, and to retire once more into solitude. At first Aidan would not hear of such a proposal; he knew Hilda’s worth, and appreciated her powers, yet he was by no means willing to lose Saint Bees. However, the latter had recourse to prayer, and persisting in her request, she at length gained the day as far as Saint Aidan was concerned, for he could not deny that Hilda was eminently qualified to govern, and that her position would do much to propagate religious life in the kingdom.

But what did Hilda herself think of the plan? As the first element of holiness is humility, she could not for a moment have esteemed herself fitted to take the place of one whom she regarded as her superior in every way. When the exchange was suggested to her she would not even surfer the idea to be discussed and lovingly remonstrated with Saint Bees, pleading her own inexperience and the need she still felt for her guidance. Nevertheless Saint Bees had taken her resolve, and since she could not herself persuade Hilda, she enlisted the holy Bishop’s help, and by his authority effected her purpose. When Aidan said that a thing must be, Hilda knew that she had to obey; and so with great reluctance she accepted the cross of superiority laid on her shoulders by holy obedience. All things having been finally settled Saint Bees took her departure, deeply regretted by those who had been privileged to live under her rule, and went to a village called Tailcaster, some twelve miles from York, where she lived in great holiness. She continued, however, to take a lively interest in the community she had left, and especially in her successor, the Abbess Hilda, to whom she remained much attached, leaving her solitude every year to visit her. When Hilda was struck down with her last long illness we shall find Bees again at her side bringing her comfort and consolation by her presence.

Hilda was welcomed with great respect and cordiality by the nuns of Hartlepool. They had often seen her at their convent, and had been attracted to her at the outset; while they could not but marvel at the courage and fervour of this royal lady. Venerable Bede tells us how Hilda’s nuns loved her with an intense love (” immenso amore “), and there must have been something very winning about her in order to account for the remarkable influence she exercised alike over men and women. As Abbess, she was most careful to maintain regular observance in every detail as she had been taught by Saint Aidan and other religious men. Bede goes on to tell us how she instilled into her nuns the perfect practice of piety and chastity and of all virtues, especially those of peace and charity. He lays stress on these last, for to keep peace and charity between these untrained and independent natures required almost a miracle of grace. It would have been easier to have made hermits of them and to teach them to do heroic penance, than to live together in peace and union. According to the practice of the primitive Church, Hilda exacted rigorous poverty; no distinction was made between rich and poor, all things were common to all, and no one was allowed to exercise any proprietorship. This was, perhaps, not quite so great a hardship as might appear at first sight, for in those times the households, even of the Court and nobles, were accustomed to live in common, all, masters, servants, and serfs, meeting in the large hall of the castle or manor for meals and work. The walls of these halls were of rough masonry, except at the higher end, where the nobles and their families sat, and this was hung with tapestry worked by the deft fingers of noble ladies and their maidens, who also spun and wove the garments for the entire household, nobles and peasants all sharing alike, the only difference being in the richness of the weaving.

But if this life in common was natural to them, the Christian virtues of submission, patience and charity were absent from the minds of the haughty and proud Saxon nobles who were accustomed to treat their dependants with harshness and cruelty, forgetting that God is no excepter of persons and that, whether bond or free, all are one in His sight. Hilda’s own convent was the first founded in northern England, so that those who presented themselves could not to use a homely phrase have known what they were in for, and Hilda must have exercised consummate prudence and tact to instil into such unsubdued minds a true monastic spirit and religious sentiments. The difficulties she must have encountered are confirmed by the fact that later on at Whitby she found it necessary to separate completely the novices from the professed, so that they even lived in a separate house. Not until they had been thoroughly moulded, tried and purified, were they allowed to join those who had learnt to bear the yoke of Christ in meekness and humility.

It is probable that the nuns of Hartlepool had many opportunities of showing hospitality to poor and ship wrecked mariners, as on that coast wrecks were, and still unfortunately are, very common occurrences. The fishing people who lived around would also come to them for help and comfort, both in their temporal and spiritual needs, and grew to love the Abbess and her community, and to regard them with honest pride as being in a sense their property. Hilda herself, no doubt, regarded Hartlepool as her permanent home, and had no thoughts of moving. However, God had other designs for her and destined her to possess more widespread influence for His greater glory. The change was brought about by a providential circumstance. The restless Penda saw with jealousy the peace that reigned in Northumbria and determined once again to put an end to it. “Oswy,” says Bede, who “had already received intolerable vexations from him, sought still to buy him off with bribes.” Penda, however, would listen to no terms, and Oswy had recourse to God, saying: “Since the pagan king refuses our gifts let us offer them to our Lord God, who will graciously accept them.” He therefore vowed that in the event of victory he would consecrate his daughter to God in holy religion, and give twelve estates for the foundation and endowment of a monastery. God accepted his vow, and, in spite of tremendous odds against him, Oswy obtained a victory little short of miraculous and slew the cruel tyrant. Mindful of his vow, Oswy did not forget to whom he owed the victory, and, not less faithful than Jephte, he hastened to fulfill it. His daughter Elfleda was but a babe of scarce a year old, yet, taking her as a fair blossom in all her purity and innocence, he offered her to God in the convent of Saint Hilda at Hartlepool, leaving her to be fostered and trained as a chaste bride for the celestial Spouse to whom she was vowed.

This act of sacrifice was, however, only a portion of the vow, and Oswy called a council to deliberate upon a suitable site to build the abbey, which was to serve as a perpetual memorial of thanksgiving for the signal grace received. The council unanimously agreed that Streaneshalch (the Isle of Beacon), a platform rising some three hundred feet above the sea, was a most conspicuous and fitting spot to establish such a monument; and that on no community could it be more worthily bestowed than on that of the Princess Hilda. The Isle of Beacon was afterwards called Whitby by the Danes on account of the dazzling white cliffs standing out against the great dark rocks below. It was one of the crown lands, and in 630 King Edwin had caused a church to be built there in honour of Saint Peter for the use of the fishermen. On the edge of the cliff was a watch-tower hence the name, Isle of Beacon to keep a look out for the approach of a hostile fleet and to serve as a danger signal to unwary navigators approaching the dangerous rocks by night.

Oswy signified his intentions to Hilda, who concurred in his decision, understanding that her removal would further the glory of God and the salvation of souls. The outline of a monastery was then begun on a princely scale, with a magnificent church. Hilda came constantly to the spot to superintend the building and to give the necessary directions to men, willing, no doubt, but probably unskilled in the erection of conventual establishments. At length, in 657, the buildings being sufficiently advanced, Hilda removed permanently to Whitby with ten of her nuns. It must have cost her a sharp pang to leave Hartlepool, to which she was bound by so many sacred ties. There her mother lay buried, having come to end her days in peace beneath her daughter’s rule. In 1843, while some excavations were being made in the church at Hartlepool, some graves were discovered .bearing Saxon names, among them that of the Lady Breguswith, Hilda’s mother. Hartlepool was also associated with those memories of Aidan which Hilda cherished with such true fidelity that she would never swerve one iota from the rule and customs learned from this revered guide and teacher.

Some years before, she had had the grief of losing him; he had died 31 August 651. On the night of his death Saint Cuthbert, then a shepherd, was watching his sheep on the downs near Melrose, when he saw the sky brilliantly lighted up and angels descending from heaven. As he gazed on, spell-bound, at the wondrous sight, he saw the same angel returning, bearing the soul of the holy bishop to paradise. The next morning he heard that Saint Aidan had died at that same time; and from thenceforward he determined to embrace a monastic life, all earthly things having lost their attractions for eyes which had caught a glimpse of heavenly glory.

When Hilda arrived at Whitby and settled down there with her nuns, she found some very objectionable neigh bours. The cliff, so long uninhabited, was infested by snakes and all kinds of creeping horrors. This unexpected pest was a great trial to the good nuns, who scarcely dared to go out for fear of finding a snake lurking in the long grass which grew abundantly in this dangerous spot. Saint Hilda shared the dread of her sisters for these reptiles and besought God to deliver them from them. The Divine Master had compassion on His handmaids and, acceding to their petition, drove out the snakes by His almighty power; like the swine of the Gerasenes. they went over the cliff and were turned into stones on the shore beneath. This legend is still popular among the country-folk, who point out the stones on Whitby beach, which, to all appearance, bear the form of petrified snakes. At any rate, Saint Hilda’s prayers were not less efficacious than those of Saint Patrick, for a snake was never again seen in the neighbourhood.

Her mission, however, was not only to rid the country of venomous reptiles that might injure the body but could not kill the soul, she had to expel a much older and more wily serpent, “the most subtle of all the beasts which God had made.” The princely scale upon which the monastery had been built, the rich lands with which it was endowed, the prestige given to it by the presence of the king’s little daughter, and most of all, Hilda’s extraordinary influence and power of organization and government, soon caused Whitby to become a centre of piety and learning, frequented by people of every rank and condition. Fuller says: “I behold Hilda as the most learned female before the Conquest, and I may call her the She Gamaliel, at whose feet many learned men had their education.” The surrounding peasants both loved and respected her, and it became the custom of the country to address her as “Mother,” showing how in her great heart all found a place. Her superior counsel and gift of judgement were so highly esteemed that she was consulted as an oracle, not only by her neighbours, but also by bishops, learned men, the king, and the nobles; and, as Venerable Bede significantly adds, “they did not merely ask her advice, but they also followed it.”

Whitby was not only an abbey for nuns, it was one of those great double monasteries of which several examples are found in England. Ely, Coldingham, and Wimbourne were all invariably governed by an abbess, and the reason is not difficult to conjecture. In those rough -days, when a lady of distinction founded a monastery for the weaker sex it was very necessary that they should have protectors, and if these protectors could minister to their spiritual wants as well as guard them from the violence of the times, so much the better. It must be clearly borne in mind that the monks and nuns were absolutely separate; they never saw each other, nor held any communication with one another further than was required for their spiritual ministry. The abbess, in company with an elder nun, transacted the necessary business with the prior and officials and arranged for the general well-being of all. There were two distinct choirs for monks and nuns, in some cases two separate churches; the houses in which they lived were always apart. The prior was generally chosen by the abbess, and the monks took care of the estates of the monastery, instructed the people of the neighbourhood, and exercised the various mechanical arts, these last often in a very high degree of perfection. Abbots and bishops emulated the skill of their inferiors by practising themselves in the arts of carpentering and working in metals, both iron and gold, all of which crafts they turned to the service of God, enriching their churches with the produce of their labours.

The nuns, in their turn, were not idle, though their work lay in a more retired and gentle sphere adapted to their sex. The gorgeous vestments and church hangings which they embroidered were celebrated in foreign lands, while they were not less skilled in illuminating and beautifying missals and prayer books. Lingard tells us how Saint Wilfrid ordered the four Gospels to be written in letters of gold on a purple ground; most likely this work of art was executed by the nuns of Whitby; it was afterwards presented to the church of Ripon enclosed in a golden casket enriched with precious stones. The Saxons delighted in display, and well for them, when their love for the beautiful caused them to pour forth their riches in adorning the house of God and in giving to Him all that was best and most precious. We can scarcely credit the accounts we read of the church furniture of those days; and yet we never find that the poor suffered in consequence, or were less cared for because God’s temples were sumptuously adorned. No, then as now, the same spirit of faith which makes men generous to God in His Sacramental Presence makes them equally open-handed in helping Him in the person of His poor. In Lingard’s “Antiquities” we read that the altars were plated with silver and gold and inlaid with jewels, that the walls were hung with richest tapestry and foreign paintings, while everything employed in the sacred ministry was of silver or gold.

Among its many other claims to our admiration and wonder, the Abbey of Whitby stands pre-eminent for the high standard of its intellectual culture, and for the famous men it produced even in Hilda’s lifetime. Bede tells us how “she took such care to make her subjects diligent in reading the Holy Scriptures and practising works of piety that there were many persons found there very fit to undertake the ecclesiastical degree and office of the altar.” Of Hilda’s own disciples five became bishops, the most celebrated being Saint John of Beverley, who was the most popular saint of that period. Another striking personality among Hilda’s subjects was the first Anglo-Saxon poet, the famous Caedmon, who, according to the old legend, re ceived his talent from heaven. He was but a cowherd, and it grieved him that, while his fellow-labourers sang and made merry, he perforce remained silent, having no voice to sing. One evening he slipped away from his friends, sad and disquieted, and fell asleep in the stable. As he slept he heard a voice saying, “Sing to me,” and he answered, “I cannot sing.” Still the voice persisted, and Caedmon said, “What can I sing about? I know no song.” To which the mysterious voice answered, “Sing about God and His creation, His power and His greatness.” And immediately the poor cowherd began to sing verses about the glories of God and of nature which had never entered his mind before.

The miraculous talent he had acquired was naturally much talked about, and the Abbess Hilda, recognizing in in him one gifted by God, received him into the service of the Abbey, together with all his family. Here he eventually took the habit and became a most holy monk, edifying all by the deep and tender piety which animated his songs and poems.

Of Caedmon Venerable Bede says that “he was a most religious man, who humbly subjected himself to regular discipline” (surely a rare virtue in a genius!), “and that though after him many Anglo-Saxons tried to compose verses, none equalled him, for he had received his talent from above, taught by God, not by men.” As a monk he translated into Anglo-Saxon and put into verse a great part of the Bible, and composed marvellous verses about heaven and hell, death and judgement, the fall of the angels, and those great truths calculated to make men realize the vanity of temporal things, and to aspire after something greater and better. Many, induced by his verses, left their sins and embraced a monastic life. Bede touchingly describes the poet’s simple death: “Death had no terrors for him; till the last he was making jokes with those around him in the infirmary. As his last hour approached he asked for Holy Communion, and, before receiving it, he turned to his brethren and asked them whether they had anything against him, and as they answered No, he told them that he died at peace with all men. He received his Lord, laid his head on the pillow, and, gently falling asleep, he thus in silence finished his life.”

We now come to the famous Parliament of Whitby, which caused so much feeling between those who followed Celtic traditions and those who desired union with Rome on every point. The subject of discussion was the observance of Easter, which the Celtic monks, according to their tradition, kept on the fourteenth day of the moon, when that day happened to fall on a Sunday, instead of celebrating it on the Sunday after the fourteenth day. The Romans, on the other hand, had adopted the reformed calendar, carefully drawn up by the Alexandrians, which confined the celebration of Easter between March 23rd and April 25th. It thus happened in the Northumbrian court that King Oswy was sometimes celebrating the glorious feast of Easter, while his wife and her chaplains, who followed the Roman usage, were keeping Palm Sunday in purple and mourning. Wilfrid had but now returned from his pilgrimage to Rome, and was full of youthful eagerness and fervour for the universal adoption of the Roman usage. He therefore urged the king to call a Parliament to settle the matter once for all. Saint Hilda was then fifty years of age, and an ardent advocate of the tradition received from her beloved spiritual father, Saint Aidan. The Parliament was very largely attended by all classes, and the wishes and desires of his subjects seem to have been consulted by the king, who, in the vast assembly, appealed not only to the ecclesiastics and lay men who formed his Parliament, but to all the yeomen standing round, listening to the debate. The king opened the proceedings by saying that, as they all served one Cod and hoped to go to the same heaven, it was fitting that they should all have the same observance with regard to the worship of God and the celebration of the Sacred Mysteries. It now rested, therefore, with those present to hear both sides, and determine which party held the true tradition. Bishop Colman, Aidan’s successor first spoke, and was answered by Wilfrid, who ended by saying that however great a saint Columba may have been, Christ had not entrusted to him the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Then the king arose, and clenched the whole argument by asking Bishop Colman whether our Lord had given to Saint Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and, receiving an affirmative answer, he questioned him further whether Christ had made a similar promise to Saint Columba. Here the good bishop could make no answer; whereupon the king aptly remarked that since all were agreed that the keys of heaven were held by Saint Peter, he had no mind to quarrel with the porter of heaven, but was determined in all to obey his ordinances, “lest,” he concluded, “when I come to heaven’s gate he who keeps the keys be displeased with me, and there be none to open and let me in.”

The king’s speech was much applauded by all who were unbiassed, and from that time forward the Roman obser vance of Easter was adopted in the kingdom. Unfortu nately the Celtic monks, with their Bishop Colman, and Saint Hilda and her community, still clung tenaciously to the old traditions, and conceived a great dislike for the young monk, Wilfrid, who had forced the controversy on them. Their opposition is not difficult to understand under the circumstances, and even Venerable Bede, who is an enthu siastic admirer of Saint Wilfrid and all that was Roman, allows that though the Celtic monks had doubtless immoderate esteem for their forefathers, which caused them to prefer their own traditions to the practice of the rest of the Church, yet he asserts that such was their virtue in other respects, that this, their one fault, disappears in the light of their patience, chastity, temperance, and untiring efforts after the heights of Christian perfection.

However, if in this matter Hilda had shown herself somewhat too tenacious, God now laid His hand upon her, and by long and sharp suffering the over-eagerness of her ardent nature was finally subdued and purified. For six years she was subject to a painful and wearying sickness, yet throughout she never ceased to praise God for thus purging her from all defects and exercising her in patience. Nor did she consider herself exempted, on account of her infirmities, from the duties of her exalted position. From her sick bed she continued to regulate the affairs of her community and to instruct her daughters, inciting them to fervour in praising God, as well in adversity as in pros perity. Thus, great in death as she had ever been in life, she joyfully gave up her soul to God on 15 December 680.

God vouchsafed to reveal her death to Saint Bees, who was then staying at Hackness, a priory thirteen miles from Whitby. One night Bees was awakened by the sound of the great Abbey bell tolling in the distance. She got up, and, looking out into the darkness, she saw the heavens all aglow with a wondrous light, and angels carrying Saint Hilda’s pure soul to Paradise. She felt so convinced that this vision was a reality that she went at once to tell the superior what had occurred. The next morning Bees vision was confirmed by the arrival of messengers from Whitby, who announced the happy departure of their Abbess at the very hour Saint Bees had seen her; and not only was she privileged to witness this sight, but it was likewise beheld by the Mistress of Novices, who presided over the house which was set apart for probationers and those newly converted to a more perfect life.

Hilda, the great Abbess, was laid to rest in the church at Whitby, where she remained in peace until the monastery was destroyed by the Danes; her relics were, however, rescued and transferred to Glastonbury.

In the reign of the Conqueror the ancient Abbey was restored by William Percy, an ancestor of the Earls of Northumberland, and continued a most flourishing monas tery of Benedictine monks until the Reformation.

“Who shall find a valiant woman? far and from the uttermost coasts is the price of her. She hath put out her hand to strong things. She hath opened her hand to the needy. She hath given her mouth to wisdom, and the law of clemency is on her tongue. She hath looked well to the paths of her house, and hath not eaten her bread idle. Her children rose up and called her blessed; many daughters have gathered together riches, thou hast sur passed them all. Favour is deceitful, beauty is vain: the woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.” (Proverbs 31)

– text taken from the booklet Saint Hilda and Her Times, author not listed, published by the Catholic Truth Society of London