Persecutions and sorrows suffered from her earliest childhood made her soul strong and daring, but without brutality, wise, without the stain of pride; they endowed her with a heart full of charity for her people.
As we contemplate the half-ruined walls of the famous Whitby Abbey in England, we are reminded of the words that Dr. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira wrote as the epigraph of his life: “When still very young, I marvelled at the ruins of Christendom, gave them my heart, turned my back on all that I could expect, and made of that past, full of blessings, my future.”1
Indeed, the noble, lofty and silent grandeur of this building, heavily damaged by the passing of centuries, seems to whisper to us in the depth of our hearts the presence of “a past full of blessings.” And among the examples of virtue that have indelibly marked this ancient monastic centre is the powerful personality of St. Hilda.
A model of the proverbial valiant woman, full of prophetic wisdom, consulted as an oracle by the most learned and heard by the most powerful, she did justice to her name, which in various languages means “battle”, “a heroine” or “the warrior woman”.2 But she was, at the same time, mother and spiritual guide in a society where the law of brute strength prevailed in customs.
Light obscured by the shadow of persecution
From the Venerable St. Bede’s account, we know that Hilda was born in the year 614, daughter of Prince Hereric of Deira, a primitive kingdom located in the northeast of present-day England, and of his wife, Breguswith.
The noble couple were forced to flee from the ferocity of Aethelfrith, ruler of the neighbouring kingdom of Bernicia, who after usurping the throne, sought to exterminate the legitimate heirs – typical of the measures taken by those who “loved power obtained by violence.”3 As a result, Hereric took refuge in Elmet, a small kingdom located in what is now the county of Yorkshire.
The mission of providential souls often begins in the mother’s womb, and so it was with our Saint. One night, Breguswith dreamt that her husband had been suddenly snatched from her and, although she looked everywhere, she could not find the slightest trace of him. Tired and distressed after an anxious search, she found a beautiful necklace under her garments, which seemed to shine with such radiance that it illuminated the whole country.4
In fact, some time later Hereric was treacherously poisoned at Elmet’s court by Aethelfrith’s agents, and Hilda came into the world already orphaned. Her first years would be spent in the shadow of persecution, waiting for the moment when her light could illuminate the land.
Infancy in exile
Hilda’s childhood was spent in paganism. At the beginning of the seventh century, the island we know today as England was colonized by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Each of these peoples followed their own religious practices and beliefs. However, there were some recently Christianized kingdoms in the south, and neighbouring Ireland was already a “land of Saints.”
Surely she had heard about the devastation that Aethelfrith had wreaked against the heirs to the throne of Deira, the hardships and difficulties that her great uncle Edwin endured, exiled to the Kingdom of East Anglia, to flee from imminent murder. Perhaps she was also told of a certain mysterious event through which this relative had been promised an auspicious future for the family.
Pagan like all his relatives, Edwin had learned by a vision of the existence of one sole God, whom he should serve. He saw before him a man covered with wounds and crowned with thorns, but luminous, who promised to deliver him from the anguish he was suffering by fighting against his enemies; the man guaranteed him the crown that by right and justice belonged to him on this earth and another imperishable crown after death.
Aethelfrith was indeed defeated and killed against all odds by the king of East Anglia, who placed Edwin as the ruler of Northumbria, a kingdom formed by the union between Deira and Bernicia. All his relatives, including little Hilda, were then able to return from exile.
Strong without brutality, wise without pride
Some time later, Edwin married St. Ethelburga, princess of Kent. She was the instrument chosen by God to make the light of the Faith shine in those lands. The future queen was accompanied by St. Paulinus, who had been sent from Rome as part of the Gregorian missions. St. Paulinus gradually evangelized King Edwin and the nobility of Northumbria. On Easter Sunday of 627 the monarch received the Sacrament of Baptism, together with his whole court.
After six years of prosperous reign, Edwin received the crown of imperishable glory that had been promised him: two pagan rulers from other kingdoms of Britain, Cadwallon of Venedocia and Penda of Mercia, invaded Northumbria, killing the king on the battlefield and destroying the peace that Christ had made triumph in the region.
Once again fleeing for her life, Hilda took refuge in the court of Kent, accompanying St. Ethelburga. During this period, the horrors of war, persecution and the sorrows of exile were factors used by God used to shape her soul, making her strong and daring, but without brutality, wise, without the stain of pride, and endowing her with a heart so full of charity that “all who knew her were wont to call [her] Mother, in token of her piety and grace.”5
St. Aidan settles in Northumbria
In the meantime, God was working in an invisible way to prepare for himself a kingdom of Angels in the land of the Angles, as had been envisioned by the great St. Gregory: “Non angli, sed angeli si cristiani,” the Pontiff had declared when for the first time he encountered some members of this people in Rome.
Upon learning of Edwin’s death and that the northern crown had been usurped by Cadwallon, Oswald, son of King Aethelfrith, formed a small army and, relying on God’s help, marched against the invaders and defeated them. Assuming the throne as legitimate king, he brought the exiled nobles back to Northumbria. Hilda was by then twenty-one.
Years before, when Oswald fled to Scotland with his mother and brothers, the whole family had converted to the Catholic Faith and the education of the children was entrusted to the Benedictines of the Monastery of Iona, founded by St. Columba. Having become a fervent Catholic there, the first decision of the new monarch was to ask the monks of that abbey for help in evangelizing the kingdom, because the people had abandoned Christianity during pagan rule.
This is how the Irish monk St. Aidan and some companions of the famous Scottish abbey came to Northumbria and founded a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, which would be the focus of evangelization for the whole north of England. The king himself served as their interpreter, since St. Aiden knew little English, and together they travelled the great expanses of the kingdom preaching, baptizing and denouncing the vices that were rampant in that society.
St. Aidan “never taught anything that he did not himself practise.”6 With his example he drew many souls to holiness, among them Hilda, who immediately felt attracted by the strength of his personality.
New abbess of Hartlepool
After much contact with the holy man and admiring his virtue, which shone in every situation, “She then resolved to serve Him [God] alone in the religious life.”7 There was, however, no monastery in the kingdom she could enter, so she thought of imitating her sister, who lived in the convent of Chelles, France.
Tradition tells us that she spent a year preparing herself for the step she would take; however, St. Aidan sent her a message indicating that her vocation would not be fulfilled in felix Francia, but in turbulent Northumbria… Without a moment’s hesitation, Hilda renounced the intention she had cultivated for months and made herself available to her director. She was thirty-three years of age at the time.
The old adage says that “no one becomes great overnight,” and on the spiritual level this truth is eminently clear: Hilda’s religious life began so modestly that not even the name of her first monastery has gone down in history. It is only known that St. Aidan provided her with a piece of land where, in a small building, she embraced religious discipline together with some companions.
Little by little, many other young women, captivated by the perseverance and by the example of love for God that emanated from the monastery, also decided to follow the path of perfection marked out by St. Hilda. Later, St. Aidan transferred the sisters to a monastery in Hartlepool whose abbess was St. Bega.
Also of noble origin, this Irish Saint became a great friend of Hilda, who learned much about consecrated life from her. However, it soon became clear that St. Bega’s vocation was of a more contemplative and austere nature. Therefore, she left for a hermitage, leaving Hilda as abbess of the monastery.
Whitby, fruit of a promise
While Hilda progressed in holiness, wisely performing her duties as abbess, Northumbria was once again afflicted with war – this time, sadly, between Catholic kings.
With Oswald’s death the kingdom was once again divided, with his brother Oswy holding power in Bernicia, where Hilda’s monastery was located. Oswin, Edwin’s cousin, became king of Deira, where St. Aidan was developing a flourishing apostolic mission.
Now, because of a disagreement between the two sovereigns, Oswy sent emissaries to secretly kill Oswin. The news that a baptized king was the perpetrator of such a crime was too cruel for St. Aidan, who died eleven days after the monarch. Hilda lost her guide and counsellor. However, she was able to offer with resignation this sacrifice that Providence asked of her. From the holocaust of her filial love would emerge the most valuable legacy of her work.
King Oswy, being threatened by the fierce pagan Penda, offered to God twelve lands for the foundation of monasteries in reparation for his sin, and promised to consecrate to Him his young daughter, Eahlflæd. Facing an army thirty times superior to his own, Oswy emerged victorious.
Fruit of that promise was Whitby Abbey, of which St. Hilda became abbess and in which the little princess, only a year old, came to live.
Whitby soon became the hub of Christianity in Britain. The community consisted of monks and nuns, with separate facilities for the dormitories and a single common point, the church.
There was also a complete separation between the novitiate and the abbey. Maintaining community life among people of such independent and warlike character required a prior purification of the mentalities and customs of the future religious. St. Hilda achieved this in such a way that “those who went out from her monastery to serve souls were exceptionally well-balanced people.”8
A loving and obedient renunciation
In the year 664, a discrepancy regarding the feast of Easter – celebrated on different dates by Christian adherents of Celtic traditions and those who followed the customs of Rome – led King Oswy to call a synod at Whitby Abbey.
The Celtic Christian traditions, fruit of the prolific apostolate of St. Patrick and St. Columba, were brought to Northumbria by the monks of Iona. The supporters of these traditions claimed that Easter was celebrated by them on the same date that they believed St. John the Evangelist himself had done so. Others, however, considered it indispensable to adopt the calendar of the Church in Rome, since only there was found the power of the keys.
This argument in favour of the prerogative of papal power was irrefutable, and none of those present opposed the authority of the Supreme Pontiff. Thus, at the end of the synod, King Oswiu took the decision to adopt Roman customs, and this also implied changes in the ecclesiastical structure of Northumbria.
Although she loved Celtic customs to the core of her soul, St. Hilda did not oppose the new determinations, accepting them with true humility and obedience. However, she suffered from the fact that the monks of Iona, unhappy with the outcome of the synod, returned to Scotland.
Magnanimous until the hour of death
Before St. Hilda completed her long earthly journey, it pleased God to send her a last purification by which “her virtue might be perfected in weakness.”9 For six years, she was beset by an illness that produced terrible fevers. However, not for a moment did she allow herself to be overcome by her suffering, and even on her sickbed she administrated and directed the affairs of the Abbey and the newly founded monastery of Hackness with utmost diligence.
Finally, on the night of November 17, 680, after receiving Viaticum, St. Hilda passed on to eternity with the joy of duty fulfilled. Her death was witnessed only by a few, but mystically known in the premises of the novitiate, where a religious who loved her deeply heard bells ringing in the middle of the night and saw her spiritual mother entering Heaven. St. Bega also had a vision of her noble friend being carried in glory by the Angels to Paradise.10
Local piety and tradition recall several miracles worked through St. Hilda’s intercession. Among the most celebrated is the petrification of snakes that infested the vicinity of the abbey when it was founded.
One hundred years after her death, Danish barbarians invaded Northumbria and destroyed the old abbey. Only after two centuries of silence did hymns resound once again in that place, in the new Benedictine abbey erected there in honour of St. Peter.
Whitby Abbey was one of the first monastic sites closed by order of Henry VIII in 1540, and time turned it into a building in ruins. During the First World War it was bombed by the German air force, and today only a few walls remain standing. However, the name of Hilda, warrior and mother of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, is written in the Book of Life of the Lamb and will shine with Him for all eternity. ◊
1 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. Meio século de epopeia anticomunista [Half a Century of Epic Anti-communism]. São Paulo: Vera Cruz, 1980.
2 BROWN, H. E. For God Alone. Phoenix: Leonine, 2016, p.2.
3 SIMPSON, Ray. Hilda of Whitby. A spirituality for now. Abingdon: The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2014, p.9.
4 ST. BEDE THE VENERABLE. The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. Oxford-London: James Parker and co., 1870, p.345-346.
5 Idem, p.345.
6 BENEDICTINES. Virgin Saints of the Benedictine Order. London: Catholic Truth Society, 1903, p.7.
7 BROWN, op. cit., p.3.
8 ELLISON, Clare. Saint Hilda of Whitby. Farnworth: The Catholic Printing Company, 1964, p.9.
9 ST. BEDE THE VENERABLE, op. cit., p.346.
10 Cf. Idem, p.347-348.