Thursday, 25 February 2010

What makes a saint?

The delicate Laura raised the question today about which saint to turn to for particular help and intercession when our daily lives become over demanding. It made me think and one name bounced straight to mind.

Not St George, though he's cool for killing a dragon, but St Hilda.

Hilda of Whitby (c. 614 - 680)

Hilda was a great niece of Edwin, King of Northumbria. That's the land in northeast England which extends north of the Humber estuary, up to the border with Scotland. Hilda's father for some reason, was exiled and later poisoned and it is thought that she was raised in the court of King Edwin. At some time Edwin converted and, as the first Christian king of Northumbria, he appointed Paulinus as the first Bishop of York, thus establishing the importance of that city in the life of the church and the politics of England. King Edwin himself is considered a saint.

Times were violent. In 633 Northumbria was attacked, Edwin was killed and his lineage ended. Northumbria split back into two older kingdoms, Bernicia in the north and Diera to the south. Somehow Hilda escaped or was protected until the descendents of the long-deposed Bernician king rallied from their exile among the Celtic monks of Iona, off the coast of Scotland. Oswald became the new king of Bernicia and, asking of his old refuge at Iona, he called for a bishop to come and build a monastery. Bishop Aidan arrived and founded Lindisfarne. Both Oswald and Aidan are revered as a saints. Hilda was already a nun and returned to Northumbria to be much influenced by the teachings of Aidan. She became Abbess of Hartlepool in 649.

Over this same time Oswald had been killed in battle and his brother, Oswy (or Oswiu), was now king. King Oswy reunited Northumbria, granted land to the church and from this Hilda was able to found a monastic community at Whitby. The ruins we see today date from ~1078 onwards, but stand on the same site Hilda was given in about 657. Her abbey would have been mainly built of wood though.

It's a bleak headland, exposed to the sea and legend says it was infested by snakes. Despite efforts to clear the site, the snakes could not be moved but the indomitable Hilda refused to give up. Taking a whip she lashed them all into the sea, cut off their heads and turned them to stone. This coastline is now renowned for the fossils of ammonites, the victims of the wrath of a saint.

Hilda was actually a successful abbess and the reputation of Whitby grew. In 664 King Oswy called the first Northumbrian synod there and it was agreed that calculating the date for Easter should follow the ways of Rome. This decision firmly split Catholicism from Celtic Christianity and the Celtic monks withdrew, first back to Iona, then to Ireland.

Hilda died on November 17, 680 and it is said that the bells of nearby Hackness monastery rang in sympathy and her soul was seen ascending into heaven by the nun Begu (herself later to become a saint). Perhaps in memory of Hilda's encouragement of the first recorded English poet C├Ždmon, Hilda is considered a patron saint of learning and culture, including poetry. But just remember, if you ever have problems with snakes Hilda is the one to call.

Some people think Bram Stoker's Dracula is a great story. Give me the times of St Hilda any day.


Laura said...

She's not in my book, but I quite like Hilda of Whitby. She was clearly a woman who understood her own power and strength, with gentleness and a more aggressive side as well.
I have a childhood fear of snakes so I'll remember Hilda.

Wonderful post and delightful tie in!

Andy Holroyd said...

I was a bit worried that you might mention Hilda in your future posts. Phew...

dave hambidge said...

I vaguely knew a tadge about Hilda, thanks for a pithy overview of the lass/lady/saint...

Andy Holroyd said...

Cheers Dave. It is a bit terse, I often tend to write like that or I easily get sidetracked. Especially thinking about Hilda's time when so much was happening. I didn't mention Mercia, Cumbria, Gwynedd, the Picts or even the kingdom of Elmet, which is now West Yorkshire.