Bede describes Hilda as a woman of great energy, who was a skilled
administrator and teacher. She gained such a reputation for wisdom that
even kings and princes sought her advice, but she also had a concern for
ordinary folk like Caedmon. He was a cowherd at the monastery, who was
inspired in a dream to sing verses in praise of God. Hilda recognised
his gift and encouraged him to develop it. Although Hilda must have had a
strong character, she inspired affection. As Bede writes, "All who knew
her, called her mother, because of her outstanding devotion and grace."
St Hilda is generally depicted with a pastoral staff and carrying an abbey church. Often, there are ammonites at her feet.
Legend tells of a plague of snakes which St. Hilda turned to stone supposedly explaining the presence of ammonite fossils on the shore at Whitby.
St Hilda's Life History
It is not known where Hilda was born, but we learn from Bede that her birth took place in the year 614. She was the second daughter of Hereric, great nephew of King Edwin of Northumbria, and his wife Breguswith. Her elder sister Hereswith, married the King of East Anglia. Hilda’s noble status is important in understanding her, but it did not mean she had an easy life.
When she was still an infant, her father was murdered by poisoning while in exile at the court of the British King of Elmet, (in what is now West Yorkshire). It is generally assumed that she was brought up at King Edwin’s court in Northumbria.
In 627 King Edwin took the momentous step of accepting the Christian faith. He was baptised on Easter Day 12 April, in a small wooden church, hastily constructed for the occasion, near the site of the present York Minster. The ceremony was performed by the monk-bishop Paulinus, who had come from Rome with Augustine. He accompanied Ethelburga, a Christian princess, when she came North from Kent to marry King Edwin. As Queen, she continued to practise her Christianity and, no doubt, influenced her husband’s thinking.
Hilda was among the nobles and courtiers who were baptised with Edwin. This means that as a girl she must have been aware of the traditions of the Church in Rome and of the existence of monastic life.
From 627 to 647 there is nothing documented about Hilda. It seems likely that when King Edwin was killed in battle in 633 she went to live with her sister at the East Anglian court. Bede resumes her story at a point where she is about to join her widowed sister at a convent in France. She decided instead to answer the call of Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne to return to Northumbria to live as a nun. This was the turning point in her life.
The exact place where Hilda began her life as a nun is not known, except that it was on the North bank of the River Wear. Here with a few companions, she learned the traditions of Celtic monasticism which Aidan brought from Iona. After a year, Aidan appointed Hilda second Abbess of Hartlepool. No trace remains of this abbey, but the monastic cemetery has been found near the present St. Hilda’s Church. In 657 Hilda became the founding abbess of a new monastery at Whitby (then known as Streonshalh); she remained there until her death in 680.
Hilda suffered from fever for the last six years of her life, but she continued to work until her death on 17th November 680, at what was then the advanced age of sixty-six. In her last year she set up another monastery, fourteen miles from Whitby, at Hackness. On her deathbed, as Bede reports, she urged her community "to preserve the gospel peace amongst themselves and towards all others," then, "in the words of our Lord, she passed from death to life". The place of her burial is unknown.