What We Share with Hild of Whitby

by Sarah Lindsay | March 18, 2020

March is Women’s History Month, which means it’s time for my fellow history nerds to get excited about some of our favorite women of the past. One of my (many) favorites is Hild (or Hilda) of Whitby, an abbess in seventh-century England whose reputation for wisdom and piety still shines through the centuries.

Hild was born in 614 in the court of her great-uncle, Edwin, who ruled the kingdom of Northumbria (in modern-day northern England and southern Scotland). In 625, when Hild was about eleven, Edwin married Æthelburh, a Christian princess from Kent (southeast England). Northumbria was as yet unconverted to Christianity, but Æthelburh was allowed to keep her faith and bring along her chaplain, a man named Paulinus.

Paulinus, no doubt aided by Æthelburh, set out to convert the Northumbrians; in 627, Edwin and all of his court—including the young Hild—were baptized. We know little about Hild’s life in the following twenty years, although after Edwin’s death in 633 she moved with Æthelburh and other women of the court back to Kent. Bede, the eighth-century English historian, provides our main record of Hild’s life. He picks up her story when she is thirty-three years old and contemplating moving to Chelles Abbey (in France) with her widowed sister.

Rather than go with her sister, however, Hild returned to Northumbria where she was trained in Celtic monasticism by Aidan of Lindisfarne, an Irish monk and missionary. Aidan then appointed Hild as the abbess at a small monastery. Hild remained there until 657, when she founded the double monastery of Whitby.

Double monasteries housed both men and women; they seem to have been common in England and in some parts of northern Europe in the early Middle Ages, although they slowly disappeared. Some women became abbesses of these monasteries, overseeing the lives of both men and women monastics and providing leadership in the region of their abbey. Hild was particularly renowned: rulers and nobles traveled to hear her wisdom, and her monastery produced five English bishops.

Hild was so well known and respected that her abbey at Whitby was chosen to host the Synod of Whitby. At this gathering, church leaders from England and the continent were deciding whether the church in Northumbria would use the Roman or the Celtic date for Easter. While this seems like a relatively minor theological point, the decision to adopt the Roman dating in Northumbria was an important step in establishing and maintaining unity between the church in England and the rest of the western Roman church.

Although Bede does not record Hild as participating in the Synod of Whitby, it seems likely that her reputation for piety and wisdom made her an ideal host for a potentially contentious meeting. And her connections to royal families in both northern and southern England undoubtedly meant that she had the political acumen necessary to help the Celtic and Roman factions come to an agreement.

Hild was not only wise and politically savvy, she was also a significant patron of literary arts. Bede tells the story of Caedmon, a laborer at Whitby who received a miraculous gift of song. Only one of Caedmon’s poems survives (“Caedmon’s Hymn,” also the earliest recorded example of Old English poetry), but Bede situates Caedmon as the founder of English poetry. Although Bede doesn’t emphasize this point, Hild was the one who made it possible for Caedmon to produce his poetry by encouraging him to leave his manual labor and become a monk in her abbey.

Why does Hild matter to us today? It can be interesting to just learn about the women of the past and what they accomplished. And it’s always good to recognize the important, if often obscured or diminished, roles that women have played at every level of society throughout history. But how does a woman like Hild connect to women’s lives today? Why should we care about her story?

Like many women today, and especially women in the church, Hild operated in a society where significantly fewer women than men had positions of power and influence. And in addition to her social limitations, Hild faced a very solid stained-glass ceiling: she could run an abbey for men and women, nurture future bishops, and moderate a charged theological debate. But she could never be even a priest, let alone a bishop, with direct spiritual and theological authority.

Additionally, as again is all too familiar to many women, her accomplishments were recorded and interpreted by men. Bede’s account of Hild is the primary source on her life, and his record emphasizes her deference to men: she may have nurtured bishops and offered wise advice, but Bede notes this after he emphasizes the advice she herself receives from men.

And more, Bede significantly downplays Hild’s role in the miracle of Caedmon’s vision and subsequent career as the first Christian Anglo-Saxon poet. Bede places the story of Caedmon after he writes of Hild’s death—although Hild was still the abbess when Caedmon received his vision and began writing poetry. In fact, as abbess, Hild must have had direct involvement: not only did this miracle occur in the community she ran, but she was the one with the authority to free Caedmon from his duties as a laborer and support his life as a poet.

Despite all this, however, Hild is one of any number of women who remind us that women have always played a role in leading the church. That role may be constrained or downplayed, but it nevertheless cannot be hidden. Hild’s contemporaries respected her peacemaking abilities (a quality expected of noble Anglo-Saxon women) and her political acumen. And it’s surely not an accident that her monastery produced five bishops; she must have been the kind of leader who fosters the leadership skills of others.

Since we don’t have anything in Hild’s own voice, we can’t know the mix of religious devotion, political aspiration, and desire for autonomy that guided her leadership. Life as a nun gave Hild significantly more control over her own life—and likely a longer lifespan—than life as a royal woman, married off and expected to produce heirs for her husband. But we do see the results of her work and leadership. Hild fostered leaders and poets. She advised kings and nobles. She hosted a synod that brought unity to a church teetering on division. Even though the faction she supported lost their argument, she surely played a role in guiding the two sides to reach a peaceful agreement.

Hild reminds us that even as some men hesitate to acknowledge women’s skills and wisdom in and out of the church, a hesitation we see running underneath Bede’s account of her life, many others are willing to be guided and influenced by a clearly gifted woman. This remains true today. For every man who tells a woman leader in the church to go home, there are others who happily learn from the women around them and support their authority. And in the end, the accomplishments of the women who lead and serve will reveal the great debt that the church as a whole owes to the faithful leadership of countless women.