17 November 2012

17 November - Saint Hilda of Whitby

The feast, or solemnity, or remembrance, or optional whatever… today belongs to the 7th century abbess, Saint Hilda of Whitby.

Hilda, or Hild, was born about 614 into the ruling family of Northumbria, but politics being what they were, she early learned that members of ruling families had a tendency to kill each other.  Her father was poisoned soon after her birth, and she grew up in the royal court of King Edwin (her father’s uncle) with her mother and older sister Hereswith.

Up to this point, Christianity in the northern part of England was not quite non-existent, but close enough.  The Irish monks had done great work in converting Scotland, Saint Augustine of Canterbury and his missionaries had made great inroads into the southern kingdoms, but in between, not so much.  That changed when Hilda was 11 and Uncle Edwin married Ethelburga, the Christian daughter of the king of Kent, and promised that not only would she be allowed to practice her religion freely, but that he would consider converting, if his wife’s religion seemed more acceptable to God than his own pagan religion.

How he was going to determine its acceptability to God is not mentioned, but perhaps a few curtain-lectures helped.  Two years later, Edwin converted and was baptized with his household (including Hilda).  Soon after this, older sister Hereswith married into the ruling family of East Anglia.

Life went on as usual until 632, when Uncle Edwin was killed in battle, and Aunt Ethelburga and her children were forced to flee to the safety of Kent.  It is not known for certain what action Hilda took, but it is likely that she went south with the queen, possibly heading for her sister’s court in East Anglia.  Her life for the next 15 years is open to speculation.

Meanwhile, the victory in 633 of Oswald (another relative from a rival part of the family) over the pagan king of Mercia brought a Christian king back to the throne of Northumbria.  Older sister Hereswith was widowed and, as was usual for royal widows, took the veil as a nun.  There not being any foundations nearby, she chose to go to Chelles in France.  Hilda, now 33 years of age, contemplated joining her sister in Chelles, but King Oswald’s friend Saint Aidan convinced her to return to Northumbria and take charge of a monastery there.  She did so, eventually becoming the abbess of the double monastery at Hartlepool, where Aidan continued to visit and advise her until his death in 651.

Oswald, himself later to be canonized, was killed in battle and was succeeded by his brother Oswiu.  Facing a battle of his own, the king vowed to dedicate his infant daughter to the service of God and furthermore to make 12 grants of land for religious foundations if he was victorious.  Making good on that vow, he sent the baby to Hilda to be raised at Hartlepool, and gave her one of the grants of land, which she used to found a double abbey at Streoneshalch (later called Whitby) in 657.  In a double abbey or monastery, both monks and nuns lived in small cells separated by the church – monks on one side, nuns on the other (no mixed dorms here!) – under the rule of an abbess.   Hilda’s foundation grew and prospered, and, like its founder, was far famed for learning and piety.

Hilda was still founding and building in 680, when the intermittent fever from which she had suffered for the last seven years finally caused her death at the age of 66.

In the picture here, we see Hilda holding her abbey in one hand, and a spiraled object in the other.  In the area around Whitby, ammonite fossils are common, and while we now know what they are, medieval man did not.  Therefore, they became the stuff of legend – specifically that Saint Hilda turned to stone the snakes which infested the place.  In Scott’s “Marmion”, the Whitby nuns relate:

 — how of a thousand snakes each one
Was changed into a coil of stone
When holy Hilda prayed;
Themselves within their holy bound
Their stony folds had often found.

That the ‘snakes’ had no heads was explained away – either St. Hilda or St. Cuthbert had so cursed them before they were petrified, but for those who needed help visualizing the miracle, the locals would happily (and surreptitiously) carve heads on the “snake-stones” prior to selling the same to the awe-struck pilgrims.

Hilda’s flourishing abbey of Whitby was destroyed by Norsemen in 867.   A plaintive poem from 1880 imaginatively describes the loss of the abbey bells, and relates that those who hear them ringing on New Year’s Eve will be married within the year:

by ‘Hereward’

FROM the pleasant vale of Whitby, by the German Ocean shore,
Floats the sweetness of a legend handed down from days of yore,
When that hardy North Sea Rover, Oscar Olaf, Son of Sweyn,
Swooping down on Whitby's convent, bore her Bells beyond the Main—
Far away to where the headlands on the Scandinavian shore—
With reverberating thunder—-echo Baltic's sullen roar;

And sad the night-winds o'er the Yorkshire fells

Bemoan'd the absence of St. Hilda's Bells.

But the storms of Scandinavia, (Dane and Viking's sea-girt home),
Smote the Baltic's angry breakers, lash'd them into seething foam,
Whose white-crested, heaving mountains drove the saffron-bearded Dane
(Him the Saxons feared and hated, Oscar Olaf, Son of Sweyn)
Drove him back to cloister'd Whitby, and the German Ocean wave
Rolls and breaks with ceaseless moaning o'er the North Sea Rover's grave:
Aye, rolls and breaks, as when it moaned the knells
Of Oscar Olaf and St. Hilda's Bells.

Oft the Nuns and Mother Abbess of St. Hilda's lofty fane
Sighed to hear the silver chiming of the Convent Bells again;
Oft the herdsman on the moorland, and the maiden on the lea,
Mourned the missing iron songsters borne away beyond the sea;
For it seemed as though the accents of the dear old Bells no more
Would be heard in pleasant Whitby by the German Ocean shore,
That evermore the North Sea's surging swells
Would drown the music of St. Hilda's bells.

Aves, Credos, Paternosters, pleaded at St. Hilda's shrine,
(Sacred altar where the franklin's and the villein's prayers entwine,)
These, and presents rich and goodly, to that convent old and quaint,
Touched the heart of good St. Hilda, Saxon Whitby's Patron Saint;
For 'tis writ in fisher folk-lore at her word old Ocean bore
On his crest the ravished songsters, stranding them on Whitby's shore;
And oft again o'er Whitby's woodland dells
Was heard the sweetness of St. Hilda's Bells.

Years have fled adown the ages since those nigh-forgotten times;
But each New Year's Eve the waters echo back the convent chimes,
And—'tis said—the youth who hears them, ere the coming year has fled
(Flinging single life behind him) shall have press'd the nuptial bed;
Sweet belief, and quaint old legend, wafting long-forgotten lore
From the pleasant vale of Whitby by the German Ocean shore,
Where strolls the ancient fisherman who tells
Of Oscar Olaf and St. Hilda's Bells.