Mingling of traditions

Daily Reading for November 18 • Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, 680

Why some of the Irish and also some of the English differed from the new Roman missionaries about [the date of Easter] was not a matter of alternative symbolism or theology or biblical study, but of calendric calculation. . . . When we look at who said what and why, it was all more mixed-up than at first appears. It was not a matter of the arrogant men from Rome baring their teeth at the simple Irish at all. At the Council of Whitby, who supported which side? There was no clear-cut division in terms of nationalism. An epitome of the mingling of traditions is seen in Hilda, the hostess on this occasion.

Hilda was an Anglo-Saxon princess (614-680). . . [and] was thus by birth one of the Saxon invaders, and her first experience of Christianity was of that brought by the Roman missionaries. In 647, when she was 33, Hilda decided to be a nun and went to her nephew in East Anglia for a year, planning to go to join her sister in the Gaulish convent at Chelles. But she came to know and revere the missionary from Iona, Aidan, and he persuaded her to stay in England, first as part of a new group at Hartlepool. Then, when the abbess Heiu left for a life of greater seclusion, Hilda became abbess.

She was given charge of Aelfflaed, one-year-old daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria, after his success at the battle of the Winwead. Two years later Oswiu gave her more land at Whitby, where she ruled a new monastery. She was greatly revered and loved: ‘All who knew her called her mother.’ She made the royal monastery of Whitby, the place of the burial of the rulers of Northumbria, a place of serious Christian education, where she trained five bishops including the saintly John of Beverley. There also the first English poet, Caedmon, became a monk and there the earliest Life of Pope Gregory the Great was written. Hilda was hostess to the Council of Whitby where, under the influence of Aidan and Colman, she inclined at first towards the Irish side. . . . Hilda died in 680, the year in which Bede entered Wearmouth. In her life there is a mixture of Anglo-Saxon, Roman and Irish elements which blended together imperceptibly. . . . Almost everyone at Whitby had close and friendly contact with both Roman and Irish missionaries; it was not a clash of opposites, but an argument between friends on a matter the importance of which united them far more than the details divided.

From High King of Heaven: Aspects of Early English Spirituality by Benedicta Ward SLG (Mowbray, 1999).

Past Posts