The Founding of Whitby

Whether you go to taste the finest fish and chips in the land or to walk the legendary cobbles. Whitby is a place to escape to a mythical age of explorers, smugglers, and saints. Here we discuss how Whitby was founded.

As far back as the 6th century, Whitby may have been known as Streonaeshalch; which could mean ‘fort bay’ or tower bay’; it could also be that it meant ‘Streonas settlement’. Many B&Bs and private properties boast this name and those with a good handle on geography will know that the famous military base north of York is called Strenshall.

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Whitby comes from an Old Norse word: Hwitebi, which means ‘white settlement’. The name Whitby came into use in the 12th century.

The story of how Whitby came to be known as Whitby is perhaps best told through the tales of the Venerable Bede, a 7th-century Benedictine monk. According to the chronicles of Bede, the story goes that Northumbria was divided into two kingdoms: Deira and Bernicia.

In AD 604 the two kingdoms were united by Aethelfrith and as such enjoyed a great period of peace – an impressive achievement for the first King of Northumbria. It was only in the mid-7th century that things became chaotic when Deira was ruled by individual kings: Oswui of Bernicia and Oswine of Deira.

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An important milestone that shaped Whitby is a bloody tale of battle, betrayal, and bribery. King Oswui had King Oswine killed to place his own man, Aethelwald, on the throne, a ‘puppet’ monarch that would act on behalf of the power-crazed Oswui. Just usual business for a bloodthirsty ruler of the 7th century. Except the plan failed.

First, Aethelwald defected to join King Penda and the Mercians, a great rival of King Oswui. Penda and thirty warlords advanced on the army of Oswui at Urbs Iudeu. In an attempt to divert a huge battle and probable defeat, in exchange for peace, Oswui offered Penda treasure – he declined. Penda remained determined to exterminate Oswui’s people ‘from the highest to the lowest’.

What happens next is uncertain but it seems that a deal is struck whereby Oswui surrenders his son, Ecgfrith, as a hostage, and Penda and his army retreat to Mercia. The Venerable Bede writes that at River Winwaed, Penda’s army was ambushed by Oswui and his army. The Battle of Winwaed saw Penda decapitated and his army defeated in a smart tactical move by Oswui to press a geographical advantage at the river which saw ‘many more drowned in the flight than destroyed by the sword’.

Aethelwald the traitor stood aside ready to realign his loyalties after the battle. Cadafael ap Cynfeddw of Gwynedd deserted Penda and became forever known as ‘Cadomedd’ meaning ‘Battle-Shirker’. Oswui’s victory over the Mercian King marked the end of Anglo-Saxon paganism, opening the door for what came next and defining moment for what would become Whitby.

According to legend, before the battle, Oswui prayed to God for victory and promised his daughter would become a nun and to grant twelve estates to the construction of monasteries in the event of his success. Victorious, true to his word, his gifted six estates in Bernicia and six in Deira. His daughter joined the Abbess Hilda at Heruteu monastery (Hartlepool). Two years later, in AD 657, St Hilda founded another monastery at Streonaeshalch.

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This was the birth of Whitby and the founding of the iconic Abbey on the East Cliff.

Read more about the history of Whitby.

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