According to Bede, Hilda was born in 614 into the
Deiran royal household. There was much fighting between the various Royal Households of the time and by the time she was two years old Hilda had been taken to the court of King Edwin, King of the newly formed Kingdom of Northumbria.
In 625, Edwin married the daughter of King Æthelberht of Kent, princess Æthelburh. As queen, Æthelburh continued to practice her Christianity, and was accompanied to Northumbria by her chaplain, Paulinus of York.
It is believed that Æthelburh was an influence on King Edwin and in 627 he was baptised on Easter Day, 12 April, along with his entire court, which included the 13-year-old Hilda.
In 633 King Edwin fell in battle, as Northumbria was overrun by the neighbouring pagan King of Mercia. Paulinus accompanied Hilda and Queen Æthelburh to the Queen’s home in Kent,where Queen Æthelburh founded a convent at Lyminge.
Bede resumes Hilda’s story at a point when in 647, at the age of 33, Hilda decided to answer the call of Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne andreturned to Northumbria to live as a nun.
In 657 Hilda became the founding abbess of Whitby Abbey, she was 43 years old.
She remained there until her death 23 years later at the advanced age of 66. Her monastery was in the Celtic style, with its members living in small houses, each for two or three people. The tradition in double monasteries, such as Hartlepool and Whitby, was that men and women lived separately but worshipped together in church.
Bede states that the original ideals of monasticism were maintained strictly in Hilda’s abbey. All property and goods were held in common; Christian virtues were exercised, especially peace and charity. Everyone had to study the Bible and do good works.
He describes Hilda as a woman of great energy, who was a skilled administrator and teacher. As a landowner she had many in her employ caring for sheep and cattle, farming, and woodcutting. She gained such a reputation for wisdom that kings and princes sought her advice. However, she also had a concern for ordinary folk such as Cædmon, a herder at the monastery, who was inspired in a dream to sing verses in praise of God. Hilda recognized his gift and encouraged him to develop it. Bede writes, ‘All who knew her called her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace.’
The prestige of Whitby is reflected in the fact that King Oswiu of Northumberland chose Hilda’s monastery as the venue for the first synod in his Kingdom, the Synod of Whitby.
Hilda suffered from a fever for the last seven years of her life, but she continued to work until her death on 17 November 680 AD.
by Bridget Park