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Almost everything that is known about Hilda, who in her own century was called "Hild", comes from the writings of The Venerable Bede. He praised her enthusiastically for her wisdom and her love of God.

She was born in 614 to Hereric, the nephew of Edwin who two years later became the king of Northumbria. Hereric was apparently poisoned shortly after his daughter's birth. Hilda's mother, Breguswith, had a dream in which she was searching for her dead husband. She failed to find him, but discovered under her robe a precious gem that shone with a light that illiminated all of Britain. This prophetic dream was fulfilled in Hilda.

Hilda grew up as part of the Northumbrian royal court. At some point, King Edwin's wife died, and in 625 he remarried. His new wife was Christian, and brought her chaplain, Paulinus, with her to the household. Paulinus had been sent from Rome to England in 601. In 627, Edwin converted to Christianity after someone attempted to assassinate him. He and Hilda, as well as several other members of the royal family, were baptized on Easter of that year.

Almost nothing is known about Hilda's life in the twenty years after her baptism. It is possible that she was married and widowed. She seems not to have had any children. She did have a sister, Hereswitha, who had been married to the king of East Anglia. When Herewsitha's husband died, she retired to a French convent near Paris. In 627, Hilda prepared to take the veil and join her sister in the convent. And so it was that, at the fairly advanced age of 33, Hilda began the interesting half of her life.

Soon after she became a nun, she was recalled to Britain by the Celtic bishop Saint Aidan. Aidan asked her to be the abbess of a large monastery at Hartlepool. Oswiu (or Oswy), a cousin of Hilda's who had become King, sent his very young daughter Elfleda to be raised by Hilda at the monastery. He also gave the Church a great deal of land on which to build more monasteries. One of these plots of land was in a place called Streonashalh, which would later be renamed Whitby by the Vikings

Hilda moved to Whitby in 657, with her royal charge Elfleda, and formed another double monastery for men and women on the east side of the mouth of the river Esk. By this time, she was 43 years old, but she approached the task with great energy and discipline. Under her leadership, the abbey at Whitby became the center of learning and of religious life in northeastern England. Five of the monks living under Hilda's care at Whitby later became bishops, and three of them were canonized as saints. A great many people, including heads of state, came to seek her advice. Bede wrote, "All who knew her called her Mother, such were her wonderful godliness and grace."

One of the more extraordinary people produced by Hilda's monastery at Whitby was Caedmon, a stable boy at the abbey who dreamed one night that he was asked to sing, and although he had little knowledge of music he began to sing in praise of God. He related this dream to Hilda, who recognized it as a gift from God. She had Caedmon schooled, and he became a great poet, composing devotional songs in the Anglo Saxon language. Until then, all religious writings had been in Latin. Now people could hear the Gospel in their own tongue, and set to music. It must have been quite inspiring.

Hilda and her houses followed the Celtic liturgy and rule, but many monasteries in Britain had begun to adopt the European Benedictine rule and the Roman liturgy liturgy that went with it. By 664, a dispute between the Roman and Celtic Churches over the computation of the date of Easter had grown to disturbing proportions, prompting Hilda and other Church leaders to convene a conference at Whitby to settle the matter. Hilda, although she had been baptised in the Roman tradition by Paulinus, was more comfortable with the Celtic tradition of her mentor, Aidan. The traditions differed not so much in doctrine, but in such things as the proper way of figuring out when Easter should be and how monks and nuns should dress.

The conference settled on the Roman and Benedictine rules, which were then adopted throughout England. Although Hilda had preferred the Celtic rules, she humbly insured the observance of Roman rules in her houses. Her influence was a decisive factor in securing unity in the English Church.

For the last six years of her life, Hilda suffered from a painful illness. But she continued to perform her duties as an abbess, and until the moment of her death she never ceased thanking God for the purifying trial of her illness. She had planned to end her days at a new priory she had built at Hackness, but in the early hours of November 17, 680, she died at Whitby.

The night that Hilda died, Begu, a nun from Hackness monastery, had a vision. She saw the roof open, revealing the soul of Hilda as it was carried off to heaven by angels. In the morning, the news of Hilda's death arrived.

Hilda's feast day is celebrated on November 17, the date of her death. In Christian art, she is often represented holding Whitby abbey in her hands, with a crown on her head or at her feet. Sometimes she is also depicted turning serpents into stone, preventing wild birds from stealing a crop, or being carried off to heaven by angels, as in Begu's vision.

Traditional prayers for St. Hilda's day:

O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we through his poverty might be rich: deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that, following the example of thy servant Hilda, we may serve thee with singleness of heart, and attain to the riches of the world to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

O God of peace, by whose grace the abbess Hilda was endowed with gifts of justice, prudence, and strength to rule as a wise mother over the nuns and monks of her household, and to become a trusted and reconciling friend to leaders of the Church: Give us the grace to respect and love our fellow Christians with whom we disagree, that our common life may be enriched and thy gracious will be done, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.


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