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November 17 Saint of the Day – Hilda of Whitby

On this day in 1940, the Green Bay Packers became the first NFL team to travel by plane. They had a game with the Bears and had heard the Edens Expressway was backed up.

Hilda of Whitby MedallionHilda of Whitby (614 – 680) (aka “Hild”) was born into English royalty, being the great-niece of King Edwin of Northumbria. Her father was murdered while in exile, and she was brought up in Edwin’s court (tennis, not basketball). When she was thirteen, she and all Edwin’s court were baptized by Paulinus, one of the missionaries sent to England with Augustine of Canterbury by Pope Gregory the Great. (The story of Edwin’s conversion is told admirably in our number of October 12.) Bede refers to Paulinus as awe-inspiring, and as having a hooked nose. The past is a foreign country.

Hilda Cross-stitchSurrounded by all this holiness, it was only natural that almost immediately after turning 33, Hild sought a monastic life. She hung out in East Anglia for a year, intending to join her sister at her monastery in Gaul but never actually making the trip. If Bede knew why, he didn’t say. What Bede did know, and what I will pass on to you before this sentence is over, is that in 647 she answered St. Aidan’s call to a monastery somewhere in Northumbria. There she learned, and this is important and will be on the test, the Celtic monasticism of Aidan and the Ionans. After a year she was made abbess of Hartlepool Abbey, which has since gone completely missing, although its churchyard was rediscovered in 1833.

After nine years she founded Whitby Abbey, a double monastery (twice as many green stamps), which she made into a center of learning and sanctity, as well as a source of bucketsful of saints and bishops. Hild was a keen administrator, a font of boundless energy, and a repository of great wisdom — kings, princes, earls, and similar riff-raff came to her for advice and counseling. She also had time for the lowly, and was directly responsible for lifting Caedmon out of the (literal) cowshed and into history as England’s first (known) poet. Bede said all who knew her called her “mother” and honored her for her grace and devotion. This must be true as Bede was not one to talk up Celtic saints if he didn’t have to.

Hilda TapestryHild is also famous for hosting the famous Synod of Whitby™, called by King Oswieu to solve a vexing problem that threatened the peace and good order of his kingdom: how should we calculate the date of Easter? The Ionans and the monasteries and churches they founded clung to the ancient method based on the Jewish calendar. The rest of the island, and the big Irish one to the west, used the newer and far more complicated method involving solstices, full moons, and goat entrails. (Okay maybe not entrails.) Bishops came from most of England to the Synod, and argued until they were blue in the face, even though few of them were Picts. After hearing their arguments, the King decided in favor of the Roman method, and that was that. Hilda, in obedience to the Synod and despite her formation, moved the monasteries under her care to the new practice. Aidan and His Island Band rejected it, and returned to Ireland by way of Iona, one result of which was the relocation of the northern see from Lindisfarne to York.

Hild is a patron of learning and culture and poetry and stuff like that, and the patron of the National Cathedral School for Girls in Washington, D.C.

Hildoceras bifronsWe end with a story. Snakes were plaguing the countryside, and the locals called on Hild to save them. She drove them to the seashore (the snakes, not the locals), prayed their heads off, then turned them into stone where they lay. And on those beaches there still lie ammonite fossils, like little coiled, headless snakes. These are made into souvenirs by local crafters, who carve heads on them and sell them to tourists. A genus of the long-extinct mollusk, Hildoceras, is named after the great abbess.

Copyright © 2013 Alex Riggle. All Rights Reserved.

This Day in History for 17th November
Hilda of Whitby (Wikipedia) – Main source
Hilda of Whitby 614 – 680 CE (Women-Philosophers.com)
St Hilda and Legends Connected to Whitby (Endeavour Cottage)
Hartlepool Abbey (Wikipedia)
Synod of Whitby (Wikipedia)
Paulinus of York (Wikipedia)
Ammonoidea (Wikipedia)
Hildoceras bifrons (Wikipedia)
Medallion from Worcester Cathedral, from Martyriologum.Blogspot.Com. (Copyright 2009 Święci Pańscy)
Needlepoint of Hilda from Heiligeninkruissteek (copyright unknown) – You can download the pattern for free!
Photo of banner from St. Hilda’s Church, Danby, North Yorkshire, by flickr photographer Paul Walker (spratmackrel), used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license . Use does not imply approval of owner of this page or this use.
Photo of H. bifrons (detail) from Wikimedia, used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 2.0) license . Use does not imply approval of owner of this page or this use.


About Your Intrepid Blogger

I live in the Tacoma area. When not writing things some people think are funny, I teach technology to 7th and 8th graders at a local middle school.

One comment on “November 17 Saint of the Day – Hilda of Whitby

  1. As well as the date of Easter the Synod of Whitby spent a lot of time on one of the pressing concerns of Christianity of the day.

    How should a monk shave his head?

    Should he shave the front Celtic style or the crown Roman style?

    After much debate on this very important subject the result was, like everything else in Whitby, was to follow the Roman tradition. There was no compromise made. Rome, Rome, Rome all the way.

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