November 17 – Hilda of Whitby

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Hilda of Whitby, faithful servant

Whitby Abbey, in England’s North Yorkshire, is perched on top of a steep hill, exposed to the cold winds blowing in from the North Sea. Standing here amidst its ruins it is easy to appreciate the tenacity of those who lived out a call to the religious life on this site. In particular we are remembering Hilda of Whitby, who around 657 became the first Abbess of the Monastery. We remember Hilda (or “Hilde” as she was called in her day) for her strong faith and servant leadership.

Born in 614 into a Northumberland royal family, she decided to become a nun at about the age of 33. Under the leadership of St Aidan (another significant figure in Celtic Christianity) she established a number of monasteries before being invited to lead the newly-established one at Whitby in approximately 657.  It was a double monastery (then called Streonashalh), housing religious communities for men and for women. Hilda created a community with fine educational and religious formation standards. She encouraged members of the community to develop their gifts and callings, and the monastery produced five bishops. When Caedmon, a humble worker in the monastery stable, was brought before her, after receiving a song in a vision, she designated him poet and songwriter.  (Note: the Wikipedia reference to Caedmon has links to an audio recording of his most famous poem, spoken in old English.)

These were early years in the formation of Christian England, and Celtic culture and Roman influence sometimes led to disputes. Raised in Celtic Christianity, Hilda must have found it quite confronting when her monastery was chosen as the venue for the Synod of Whitby around 664. A variance in the observance of Easter had begun to emerge and the Synod of Whitby resolved to continue this in the Roman tradition, which Hilda took on board. As the reputation of Hilda and her monastery grew, bishops and kings sought her advice. She was clearly not only a wise and able leader of the daily life of her communities, but also a respected spiritual guide.

For the last seven years of her life Hilda suffered very poor health, but she remained in leadership and was not afraid to oppose church leaders when she was unhappy with decisions or directions being taken!

Hilda died in 680. One of her nuns, Begu, had a vision before she died in which she saw the roof of the monastery opening and the soul of Hilda carried to heaven by angels. The monastery she founded was destroyed by Vikings in 867. In 1078 it was re-built as a Benedictine Monastery, and destroyed in 1540 in Henry V111’s dissolution of the monasteries. It is these ruins that stand on the hilltop at Whitby today.

A beautiful series of contemporary Orthodox icons depicting scenes from Hilda’s life can be found at

Contributed by Ann Siddall