St Hilda is one of those names that, much like Caedmon, is seen all over Whitby and the surrounding areas. Anyone who lives in Whitby will know who St Hilda is, but for those who don’t know the famous saint, read on…
St Hilda was a Christian saint that founded the monastery of Whitby and became the founding abbess in 657 AD, which was then known as Streoneshalh, and remained in that position until she died. At the time the Abbey was a double monastery and was the worshipping place of monks and nuns, though they would have had separate living quarters.
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The famous 8th-century historian Bede gave a description of Hilda as an energetic woman who was a skilled teacher, he also said; “All who knew her called her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace”. It was noted that Hilda was incredibly kind-hearted, and would always look out for the ordinary folk. During St Hilda’s rule, the monastery became world renowned for its learning and teachings, so much so that those in the highest power sought St Hilda for advice.
Local folklore suggests that St Hilda rid Whitby of the evil snakes the plagued the village, it is said that she would throw them from the top of the Abbey cliff and that her anger would turn the snakes into stone. It was so well believed that in medieval times it was thought that we even had hard evidence of the fable; Ammonites that were found around the cliffs were supposedly the snakes. In the Victorian era, when Ammonites were eventually recognised, a species was named after St Hilda; Ammonite Hildroceras. In fact, the story of St Hilda and the snakes is so important to Whitby history we even have three of St Hilda’s serpents on the Whitby coat of arms.
Unfortunately, in the last seven years of her life, Hilda was struck down with a terrible fever, but despite this, she worked until her death on 17 November 680 AD. A nun named Begu claimed to have even seen St Hilda’s soul leave her body and depart for heaven.
Her name is forever known throughout the world as one of the patron saints of learning culture, but to Whitby she is the saviour from the serpents, a kind and gentle soul who brought so much to Whitby.
Suggested reading; Who Was Caedmon?