A decade ago, when my family and I lived in England for a semester, one of our most memorable trips was to the coastal town of Whitby in northeast England. The town is famous for its associations with Dracula, because Bram Stoker was inspired to write the vampire’s story while staying in Whitby in 1890. The fishing village continues to be a haunted and atmospheric place, bordered by steep cliffs and pounded by the sea.
On a windswept hill above the town stands a ruined abbey dating to the twelfth century. The structure was built on the site of an even earlier monastic community associated with Whitby’s other most famous resident, St. Hilda of Whitby.
It’s often difficult to discern much about the true character of saints, given the thick layer of hagiography that surrounds their lives. But even through the mists of fourteen centuries we can get some sense for what a remarkable woman Hilda was. Born in 614, her father was murdered by poison (a common fate for noblemen in those days) and she was brought up in the court of King Edwin’s court in Northumbria. As a teenager she converted to Christianity and eventually became a nun and then an abbess, founding several monasteries, including one at Whitby.
It was in Whitby that Hilda came into her own, leading a religious community that included both men and women. She became an advisor to kings, a skilled administrator, and a wise teacher. “All who knew her called her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace,” writes the Venerable Bede in his history of the early church in England.
At a time when commoners held little status, she encouraged a servant of the monastery named Caedmon to develop his gifts for song and verse. Because of her support, Caedmon became the first poet in the English language. She also hosted the Synod of Whitby, a gathering of church leaders that led to the ascendancy of Roman-style Christianity over a more Celtic-flavored version. Hilda most likely preferred the Celtic traditions in which she was raised, but she abided by the decision of the synod.
I think it’s important to remember Hilda in part because she is a reminder that while sexism is unfortunately intertwined with the history of the Christianity (as it is with all major faiths), church history is also full of strong and influential women leaders. For many centuries, nunneries were one of the very few places where women could be educated and wield power. Abbesses like Hilda built hospitals and schools, advised kings and popes, advocated for the poor, and founded religious orders. Too often we hear only of the negative side of women’s history in the church. Hilda is one of the many who testify to the other side of the story.
Today St. Hilda’s legacy lives on in the many schools and churches named after her around the world. She is honored for her support of education for women, in particular. And you can feel her spirit at Whitby, too, especially in that ruined monastery that sits atop the cliff overlooking the sea.
There’s a charming legend that says that when sea birds fly over the abbey they dip their wings in honor of St. Hilda. Wise woman that she was, I think she would appreciate the continued homage she receives.