Almost all of our knowledge of St. Hilda (Hild) is derived from the writings of the Venerable Bede. Her correct name, Hild, means "battle." She was born in Northumbria in 614, the daughter of Hereric, the nephew of King Edwin of Northumbria, making her King Edwin's grandniece. She, like her great-uncle, was brought to Christ through the preaching of St. Paulinus, who baptized her in 627 at the age of 13 when King Edwin and his entire household became Christians.
She lived the life of a noblewoman until 20 years later when she was moved by the example of her sister Saint Hereswitha who became a nun at the Chelles Monastery in France. Hilda intended to follow her sister abroad, but St. Aidan persuaded her to return to Northumbria in 649. She was initially put in charge of a small group of women who were also aspiring to the religious life at a small house on the River Wear, but Bishop Aidan soon realized she was ready for wider responsibilities. There was a much larger and fully established religious house of women at Hartlepool whose Foundress, Bega (St. Bee), was founding a new house at Tadcaster. Hilda was called to take her place as Superior. St. Hilda ruled at Hartlepool for some years with great success before being called to found a monastery at Streaneshalch, a place to which the Danes a century or two later gave the name of Whitby.
St. Hilda governed the monastery at Whitby for the rest of her life. Under Abbess Hilda, Whitby gained a great reputation, becoming a burial place for kings, and a place of pilgrimage. The fame of St. Hilda's wisdom was so great that from far and near monks and royal personages came to consult her. Whitby was also a double monastery: a community of men and another of women, with the chapel in between, and Hilda as the governor of both. It was a great center of learning, especially the study of sacred scripture. Whitby was known as a place where clergy, monks and nuns could receive a rigorous and thorough religious education. The arts and sciences were so well established by her that it was regarded as one of the best seminaries for learning in the then known world. No less than five of her subject monks later became bishops, including Saint John of Beverly, and Saint Wilfrid of York.
St. Hilda was especially revered for her ability to recognize spiritual gifts in both men and women. Her kindheartedness can be seen from the story of Caedmon, one of her herdsmen, whose poetic gift was discovered and nurtured by Hilda. She encouraged him with the same zeal and care she would use toward a member of the nobility, urging him to use his gifts as a means of bringing the knowledge of the Gospel Truth to common folk. St. Caedmon later composed the first hymns in the English language.
Whitby Abbey stands at the very crossroads of Celtic and Roman Christianity. Roman and Celtic traditions differed, not in basic doctrine, but on such questions as the proper way of calculating the date of Easter, and the proper style of haircut and dress for a monk. It was highly desirable that Christians in the same area should celebrate Easter at the same time; and eventually the Church had to choose between the Celtic customs it had inherited from before 300, and the customs that missionaries had brought from continental Europe and Rome. It was at Whitby Abbey in 663 when King Oswy, persuaded by the arguments of St. Wilfrid, convened a synod to decide once and for all the date of the observance of Easter, and resolve other differences between Celtic and Roman ecclesiastical practices. Saint Hilda was a strong supporter of the Celtic party, nevertheless, once the Synod of Whitby decided to observe the Roman rule and customs, Hilda used her moderating influence in favor of its peaceful acceptance. This period of conflict over the Easter observance was a time of great discord in the religious communities. Hilda's influence, persuading her followers to adhere to the decision, was one of the key factors in securing unity in the Church.
The Venerable Bede is enthusiastic in his praise of Abbess Hilda, one of the greatest women of all time: She was the adviser of rulers as well as of ordinary folk; she insisted on the study of Holy Scripture and proper preparation for the priesthood; the influence of her example of peace and charity extended well beyond the walls of her monastery; and "all who knew her called her Mother, such were her wonderful godliness and grace." Saint Hilda is often represented in art holding Whitby Abbey in her hands with a crown on her head or at her feet. Sometimes she is shown turning serpents into stone; stopping the wild birds from ravaging corn at her command; or as a soul being carried to heaven by the angels. Frequent historic place-name references to Shields are probably sites named after her, Shields being thought to be a corruption of St. Hilda.
Seven years before her death St. Hilda was stricken down with a fever which never left her till she breathed her last. In spite of this, she neglected none of her duties to God or to her subjects. She passed away most peacefully after receiving the Holy Communion and Anointing, and the tolling of the Whitby monastery bell was heard miraculously thirteen miles away, where Saint Bee saw the soul of St. Hilda borne to heaven by angels. Hilda remained a peacemaker to the very end-her greatest concern was that her monastic family should be one in the Lord, and her last recorded words were: "Have evangelical peace among yourselves." She died on November 17, 680.
A Collect for St. Hilda's Day: 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 grace to respect and love our fellow Christians with whom we disagree, that our common life may be enriched and your gracious will be done, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.