New book looks at the life of the Northumberland princess St Hilda

A new book argues that a 7th Century abbess born in Northumberland was one of the most important women in history. Ian Robson looks back at the life of St Hilda and talks to the author who believes she still has something to say today

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey

She’s the feisty Northumberland princess who stood up for women’s rights at a time when it was unheard of.

St Hilda was one of the most important religious figures of the 7th Century but her role, both ecclesiastical and in the wider community, has been largely eclipsed by the giant shadow of Bede and Cuthbert.

Now a modern-day fan is setting the record straight with a new book setting out what she did and what lessons society can learn from her now.

Ray Simpson has followed in her footsteps, from her birth at Bamburgh Castle, to the foundation of several monasteries, and her eventual death in AD680 at the age of 66.

His book, Hilda of Whitby, is an attempt to remember a woman known as Mother to warring factions but who stood up to the male power brokers of the church.

“I think Hilda was probably the greatest first millennium woman in the English-speaking world,” he said. “In an age of brutality she converted people to Christianity and started to have a passion for education. She was a tremendous mentor of young people.

“She was the first person to found a monastic community for both men and women and when women started to get educated in the 19th Century and 20th Century many schools, colleges, and institutions were dedicated to her all over the world because she was thought to be a frontrunner for women.

“I think in her own land, Northumbria, she has been sidelined although you have St Hild and Bede’s College in Durham and various churches named after her. I have to say many supporters of women’s ordination today were inspired by Hilda.

“She was a supporter of women in the church, she worked closely with Aidan and the community at Lindisfarne, and she stood up to people. She was not a pushover. She was a strong woman.”

According to the Venerable Bede, the main source of information about her, Hilda was born into Northumbrian royalty at a time when the country was divided into many kingdoms.

Her father Hereric was poisoned in an assassination and she was brought up by her uncle King Edwin of Northumbria whose entire court, including Hilda, was baptised into the Christian faith on the site of what is now York Minster.

At the age of 33, after Edwin was killed in battle, she chose to follow the teaching of Aidan, a bishop from Ireland on a conversion mission in the North East, and became a nun.

She rose through the ranks and formed several monasteries, including the ground-breaking twin communities for men and woman at Whitby, and took a leading role in the church politics of the day.

It was here that she hosted a synod which debated what was then the controversial method of whether to follow the Roman or Celtic traditions of dating Easter.

Ray Simpson (left) has written a book about St Hilda (right)
Ray Simpson (left) has written a book about St Hilda (right)
 

She was known to dislike the divisive figure of Wilfrid, one of the church’s leaders at the time, and attempted to stop his rise to power by directly appealing to the Pope.

It was Hilda’s ability to see both sides of the argument, says Ray, that we can learn from today.

He said she saw the value of appealing to both the Celtic and Roman factions of the church rather than trying to resolve differences by the sword as was the common male way of resolving problems.

And that, he said, is a lesson about leadership that can still be learned from today.

“The Archbishop of York has a prologue to my book and he says those who can’t agree on different issues can learn from her because she was able to work and have good relationships with people on both the celtic side and the Roman side. Some of the politicians could take a leaf out of her book.

“Those from both traditions called her Mother and they always regarded her as a wise woman they could go to and respect.”

Even Bede, the great religious scholar, had an affection for Hilda, writing: “All who knew her called her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace”.

Ray says: “She made no distinction between a peasant and a prince, a prelate and a novice; she had space in her heart for each, believed in each and loved each.

“That is why uneducated people and royals alike called her mother, as also did ‘foreigners’ from outside her own kingdom.”

Ray is a founding guardian of the Community of Aidan and Hilda based on Holy Island - a long stone’s throw from Hilda’s birthplace - and jointly named after the Bishop of Lindisfarne and his famous female follower.

The group was set up to draw inspiration from the lives of the celtic saints including the principle of lifelong learning and education endorsed by Hilda.

He said: “The community started in the 1990s and is going great guns in different countries now.

“We had to call ourselves something and we thought of Hilda because she was committed to lifelong learning and releasing the creativity of others and with Aidan we thought about people from two different languages, two different backgrounds, male and female, working together for the community.”

Ray is not a native North Easterner, having come from Norwich, but has spent the last 20 in the region and is immersed in the history and theology of the medieval world.

In his book he tells of how Hilda, also known as Hild, established monasteries across the North East, not just the famous one at Whitby.

They included her first on the north bank of the river Wear, at a site still unknown, and another near the present St Hilda’s Church in Hartlepool.

Hilda was known for her energy and mentoring of the young, particularly the shepherd-poet Caedmon, and her students took on senior positions within the church.

St Hilda's Church in Hartlepool
St Hilda's Church in Hartlepool
 

In the latter years of her life, despite illness, she founded a new monastery not far from Whitby.

Ray’s books tells how she not only coped with her pain but drew a sort of strength from it.

He said: “Hilda’s name meant ‘struggle’ or ‘battle’. In 674 she contracted a horrible condition that racked her for the rest of her life.

“Its symptoms suggest that it might have been tuberculosis, a disease once known as consumption because of the severe weight loss it can cause. Its symptoms include coughing (often producing blood), fever, night sweats and chills. Hilda’s final six years offered an unrivalled apprenticeship in the handling of suffering.”

He goes on to describe the founding of Hilda’s last new monastery in the year she died.

He said: “Despite her debilities, Hilda established a daughter monastery at Hackness for men and women, some 13 miles to the south of Whitby, in the last year of her life. In contrast to the bleak headland at Whitby, it was situated in a lush valley, and perhaps Hilda intended to spend her last days there.”

There is a legend which suggests that at the moment of her death the bells of the monastery of Hackness mysteriously rang out with no-one pulling at the ropes.

A nun there named Begu claimed to have witnessed Hilda’s soul being borne to heaven by angels.

It is said that sea birds flying over the ruins of the abbey tip their wings in honour of Hilda while the presence of ammonite fossils on the shore at Whitby is explained as the remains of a plaque of snakes which Hilda turned to stone.

The real legacy of Hilda, argues Ray, is that she was a woman centuries ahead of her time.

He said: “The double community at Whitby came to a sudden end in 867 when the Vikings invaded the area, and the monastery remained in ruins until after the Norman Conquest. When the Normans colonised England in 1066, they imposed a feudal, male-dominated society even in the church, and belittled women. Not for a thousand years would a woman again be allowed to lead as had Hilda.”

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