When I was a little girl of 6, my family took a trip to the UK and Europe – my Dad’s first trip home since he left Sheffield in 1965. Familiar to me among the photographs of that memorable trip are pictures of the ruins of Whitby Abbey. But it wasn’t until recently that I thought about the connection between these ruins and one of the great figures of English Christian history.
If you or your ancestors are from the UK, you owe your faith in some small part (however distantly) to instrumental early figures who brought Christianity to the British Isles or helped establish the faith in its British context. Some names come readily to mind – St Patrick in Ireland, Edward the Confessor, Alfred the Great, St David of Wales, St Aidan of Lindisfarne. But there were also women who played a significant role in the development of British Christianity. One figure stands head and shoulders above the rest in England – Hilda (or Hild) of Whitby (c. 614-680).
The influence of a strong female role model
Brought up in the court of her great-uncle, King Edwin of Northumbria, Hilda was certainly influenced by the king’s second wife, Æthelburh of Kent, who demonstrated a deep commitment to the Christian faith. When Hilda was 11 years old, Æthelburh agreed to marry the pagan king Edwin, but insisted that it was on the condition that she be permitted to keep her Christian faith, rather than following the normal practice of adopting her husband’s worship practices.
By Easter Sunday of 627, not only had Edwin been converted to Christianity, but he and his whole household (including Hilda) were baptised in a wooden church hastily erected for the occasion. This chapel was located very close to the current site of York Minster. The influence of Æthelburh and her chaplain Paulinus (later Bishop of York) was certainly the cause of this conversion, which would have a pivotal role in the spread of Christianity among the pagan Anglo-Saxons in the north of England.
Hilda became a nun in 647. No shy and retiring closeted figure, she was a strong leader of great influence. Starting her monastic life in a convent she established on the northern bank of the river Wear whose exact location is now unknown, it was not long before Aidan of Lindisfarne had appointed her as Abbess of Hartlepool. She later established the influential Whitby Abbey.
Leadership, Character and Influence
What made Hilda such a significant figure in 7th century English Christianity?
Hilda developed and promoted the gifts of others. Her advice was sought by some of England’s great leaders of that time, but she noticed and had time for people at the opposite end of the social scale too. Caedmon was a cow-herd from near the abbey of Whitby. She encouraged him to develop his gift of creating songs to praise God – he is now recognised as England’s first Christian poet.
As a leader, she clearly took pains in the formation of other leaders – no less than 5 bishops came out of her abbey at Whitby, and they made their mark in the struggle against paganism.
Hilda was an undisputed religious leader of both men and women. First in Hartlepoole and then in Whitby, she led a “double house” – an abbey where both monks and nuns were admitted. Although her high social status prior to admission to a convent would have given her contacts and legitimacy, her skill and dedication were the chief keys to her success as a religious leader. The 8th century historian of British Christianity, the Venerable Bede, described her as having great energy, and as being a skilled administrator and teacher. Hilda’s character was foundational in establishing a monastic community which would become renowned for living out purity, justice, devotion, peace and love.
Hilda knew the value of learning. She strongly encouraged monks and nuns to study the Scriptures (one Catholic source describes her as a “zealous advocate” of Scripture studies) and pushed for the education of the clergy.
Hilda was a peacemaker and problem solver. On arrival at Hartlepool, she discovered many problems with the monks there. She developed an orderly monastic life in that community, following a set timetable of prayer, work and rest.
Her influence is evident in the fact that her abbey was chosen to host the Synod of Whitby, ostensibly to decide the important issue of when to celebrate Easter, but in reality, its purpose was to reach a decision on whether to continue the Celtic practice of Christianity in England or to follow the Roman ways. The Roman side won the argument. Hilda, strongly influenced by Aidan of Lindisfarne, preferred Celtic practices, and had been one of the chief leaders of the Celtic side in the Synod. When the decision had been finalised, she put aside her own preferences and supported the choice that had been made, using her influence to encourage its acceptance. 
Hilda’s reach was not just for those who wished to live a holy life, but also impacted sinners. It is said that the example of her life was so great that many sinners converted to Christ due to her influence.
However distant her life and culture may seem to us, her example of courageous leadership with a strong commitment to Scripture and the people of God remains a source of inspiration.