A wise woman in a murderous time
Evening sun setting over the North Sea between Whitby and Sandsend
What Hilda learned would change the future of England.
Her father had been poisoned by enemies. Her great-uncle, King Edwin, frequently waged war against neighbours to capture land and to sell captured men and women as slaves. Into this turbulent and gangster-torn life came a woman and an unpopular missionary priest.
The woman was Aethelburg, the daughter of the first Christian king of Kent. She came to marry Edwin. The priest who came to marry her also baptized Edwin and Hilda, who was still a teenager. The king's actions do not appear to have been changed by baptism, and the priest did not stay, but Hilda's life was changed, though not at first.
Edwin died a violent death on a battlefield when Hilda was 19 or 20. The record is silent about how she spent the next thirteen years.
A new purpose in lifeAt the end of them, Hilda decided to enter a monastery in France, a sanctuary for women, but at the last moment, Aidan changed her mind. Aidan had founded a monastery on nearby Lindisfarne - Holy Island. He urged her to found her own community. It's easy to overlook how difficult and dangerous this advice must have seemed.
Who would protect the community? Where would it be? How would it survive? Who would join her?
All we know is that Hilda was thirty-three and past ready to begin her life's work. Somehow she managed to build a double monastery for men and women at Streaneshalh, now called Whitby.
Streaneshalh lay in the ancient English kingdom of Northumbria. To the north ran the country called Caledonia. To the east lay the North Sea. Winters could be severe; springs were late; summers were cool. The mountains and moors were wild, and raked by easterly winds. The pastures, grazed by sheep, had never known the plough. Gazing across the rough land with its rocky outcrops to the fast-travelling clouds above the wind-bent grass is to feel you stood near the beginning of time.
Hilda’s monastery was built on a cliff above the mouth of the River Esk, close to the sea. Holy Island lay farther to the north, unseen but always in mind.
Rooted in love
The double Celtic monastery at Streaneshalh flourished. Hilda was a brilliant administrator at a time when good management meant the difference between life and death and she was also - this must have been key - respected and loved. The Venerable Bede, who became her biographer, wrote that the rule of her house was "rooted in love". The community was self-supporting and cared for orphans.
Hilda recognized the gifts of the first English poet, Caedmon, who came to her as an illiterate a cow boy suddenly gifted with words by a dream. Their first meeting, described by Bede, always makes me smile, because it's wonderful to see Hilda look beyond the tattered, muddy boy with the strange story and test the evidence.
Hilda helped to found other communities of faith, peace and education. Kings came to her to ask her advice. She raised six men who became bishops. What she did was quite simple, but it had its effect - she modeled a new way of life, founded in faith, peace, community and education.
And for generations, there was peace, the development of the arts of agriculture, education, travel and plenty. But again this peace was lost. Alfred the Great wrote that learning and wisdom were forgotten, and after this loss came Viking attacks. But with his memories of what had been built and lost, Alfred restored England.
The famous Synod of Whitby, at Hilda's monastery, confirmed Roman customs of worship, though she preferred Celtic. Her own feast day is a little uncertain, being variously celebrated on November 17th, 18th and 19th. There are women's schools and colleges named after her in Britain, Canada, Australia, America and Singapore. Recently, at a time of new dangers, the community of St Aidan and St Hilda has been founded on Lindisfarne.