Hild was a noblewoman closely related to the kings of Northumbria. Not much is known about her early years, beyond the fact she was baptized at the age of thirteen on this day, April 11, 627. This was part of a mass baptism, common to the Middle Ages. Up to that time, King Edwin and the court of Northumbria had been pagans. Following the king's conversion, Paulinus baptized him and most of his court, including the girl Hild. Hild became a nun twenty years later at the age of 33 and spent a year in France with a sister who also had donned the religious habit.
St. Aiden, an apostle to Northumbria, urged her to return to her native land and placed her in charge of a small community of men and women at Hartlepool, which she ruled with such vigor and commonsense that she was awarded with a more important double monastery. This was at Streanaeshalch (which the Danes renamed Whitby 200 years later; hence she is known as Hild of Whitby).
Anglo-Saxon historian Bede wrote, "she obliged those who were under her direction to attend so much to reading of the Holy Scriptures, and to exercise themselves so much in works of justice, that many might be there found fit for ecclesiastical duties, and to serve at the altar.
"In short, we afterwards saw five bishops taken out Of that monastery, and all of them men of singular merit and sanctity, whose names were Bosa, Hedda, Oftfor, John, and Wilfrid."
Hild became renowned for her wise advice. Kings and commoners called on her; she was the most influential woman of her time in Britain. Little wonder, then, that king Oswiu asked her to make arrangements for the most significant council in English history.
The king ruled a divided church. Some of his subjects wanted to follow the Roman rite, others the old Celtic forms in which they had grown up. Champion of the Roman cause was Wilfred. On the Celtic side stood Bishop Finan and many others. King Oswiu decided to call a synod (local council) to decide whether the Roman or Celtic tradition would be followed. He placed all of the arrangements in the hands of the capable abbess, Hild. Hild herself preferred the Celtic forms and argued for them with Bishop Colman at the synod.
But Oswiu decided in favor of Wilfred and the Roman church. Like a loyal team player, Hild accepted the decision and no doubt encouraged others to do the same.
An enthusiast for learning, Hild encouraged the poet Caedmon to sing his religious compositions, which retold the Bible stories in the Anglo-Saxon tongue. He is considered the first vernacular English poet.
After her death on November 17, 680, Hild was recognized as a saint. Her feast is marked on November 18 in the American Book of Common Prayer.
- Bede. Ecclesiastical History. Chapter XXIII. Various Editions.
- "Hild." Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. edited by Cross, F. L. and Livingstone, E. A. editors. Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Thurston, Herbert. "St. Hilda." Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- Various web and encyclopedia articles.
Last updated June, 2007