Hild – or Hilda as she is often called, was born in the year 614 into a royal family. It’s important to understand, however, that her noble status did not mean she had an easy life. Her father was murdered by poisoning, and it is generally assumed she was brought up at the court of her uncle, King Edwin, in Northumbria. It was there that she was exposed to the Roman model of Christianity at a very early age. After Edwin’s death, she decided to go to France to join her widowed sister at a convent; however, instead answered the call of Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne to return to Northumbria to live as a nun there, among her people. This was the turning point in her life.
The exact place where Hilda began her life as a nun is not known, except that it was on the North bank of the River Wear. Here with a few companions, she learned the traditions of Celtic monasticism, which Aidan brought from Iona. In 657, Hilda became the founding Abbess of her own “double monastery” (one including both men and women) at Whitby, in Northumbria. She made Whitby Abbey a center of learning, and was a patroness of the arts.
Hild’s monastery was of such renown that it was chosen as the place where the Synod of Whitby was held in 664. It was here that the decision of the Synod was to place northern England and its Celtic Christians under the authority of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope). With the conclusion of the Synod of Whitby, Hild’s creative Celtic rule and her contributions to the development of Christian religious life were lost.
Hilda attempted unsuccessfully to reconcile the Roman practices of the Church with the Celtic beliefs and practices of those around her …beliefs she personally favored, but had the grace and wisdom to hold with equality alongside an orthodoxy that wasn’t amenable to change. She became known as a peacemaker, a leader in justice and fairness, and one who welcomed all to find a common good in the midst of diverse opinions and beliefs. Hilda died on 17th November, 680 at the age of sixty-six. The place of her burial is unknown.