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Eckenstein, Lina, d. 1931 / Woman under monasticism: chapters on saint-lore and convent life between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500 (1896)


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[section 2.]

  [p. 88]  

The Monastery at Whitby[1*]

A temporary collapse of the Christian faith had followed the death of King Eadwin of Northumbria, but the restoration of King Oswald, who was not so strong as his predecessor in administrative power but whose religious fervour was greater, had given it a new impulse and a new direction.

Oswald had passed some time of his life in Iona or Hii, the great Scottish religious settlement and the stronghold of British Christianity in the Hebrides. Here he had made friends with the ecclesiastic Aidan, who became his staunch supporter. Soon after his accession Oswald summoned a monk from Iona 'to minister the word of the faith to himself and to his people,' and when it was found that the monk made no progress, Aidan was moved to go among the Angles himself. In preference to York he chose the island Lindisfarne for his headquarters, but he spent much of his time with Oswald, helping him to set the practice and teaching of religion on a firmer footing.

It was during this part of Aidan's career that he consecrated Heiu[2*] , according to Bede 'the first woman who took the vow and the habit of a nun in the province of Northumbria.' Hem presided over a congregation of women at Hartlepool in Durham, from which she removed to Calcaria of the Romans, which is perhaps identical with Healaugh near Tadcaster, where apparently Heiu's name is retained. Further details of her career are wanting.

Aidan's labours were interrupted for a time. Again the fierce and impetuous King Penda of Mercia invaded Northumbria, and again the Christian Angles fled before the midland heathens. King Oswald fell in battle (642) and Aidan retired to his rocky island, from which he watched the fires kindled all over the country first by the raids of Penda, and afterwards by civil strife between the two provinces of Northumbria, Deira and Bernicia. This arose through the rival claims to the throne of Oswin, Oswald's brother, and Oswin, who was King Eadwin's relative.

An understanding was at length effected between them by which Oswin accepted Bernicia, while Oswin took possession of Deira, and Aidan, who found a patron in Oswin, returned to his work.

  [p. 89]  

He now persuaded Hild[3*] , who was waiting in Anglia for an opportunity to cross over to France, where she purposed joining her sister, to give up this plan and to return to the north to share in the work in which he was engaged. Hild came and settled down to a monastic life with a few companions on the river Wear. A year later, when Heiu retired to Calcaria, Hild became abbess at Hartlepool. She settled there only a few years before the close of Aidan's career. He died in 651 shortly after his patron Oswin, whose murder remains the great stain on the life of his rival Oswin.

A 12th century monk, an inmate of the monastery of St Beeves in Cumberland, has written a life of St Bega, the patron saint of his monastery, whom he identifies on the one hand with the abbess Heiu, consecrated by Aidan, and on the other with Begu, a nun who had a vision of Hild's death at the monastery of Hackness in the year 680. His narrative is further embellished with local traditions about a woman Bega, who came from Ireland and received as a gift from the Lady Egermont the extensive parish and promontory of St Beeves, which to this day bear her name.[4*]

There has been much speculation concerning this holy woman Bega, but it is probable that the writer of her life combined myths which seem to be Keltic with accounts of two historical persons whom Bede keeps quite distinct. There is no reason to doubt Bede's statements in this matter or in others concerning affairs in the north, for he expressly affirms that he 'was able to gain information not from one author only but from the faithful assertion of innumerable witnesses who were in a position to know and remember these things; besides those things,' he adds, 'which I could ascertain myself.' He passed his whole life studying and writing in the monasteries of SS. Peter and Paul, two settlements spoken of as one, near the mouth of the river Wear, close to where Hild had first settled. He went there during the lifetime of Bennet Biscop († 690), the contemporary of Hild and a shining representative of the culture the Anglo-Saxons attained in the 7th century.

Hild settled at Hartlepool about the year 647. Eight years later Oswin finally routed the army of Penda, whose attacks had been for so many years like a battering ram to the greatness of Northumbria. And in fulfilment of a vow he had made that the   [p. 90]   Christian religion should profit if God granted him victory, he gave Hild the charge of his daughter Aelflaed 'who had scarcely completed the age of one year, to be consecrated to God in perpetual virginity, besides bestowing on the Church twelve estates.' Extensive property came with the child into the care of Hild, perhaps including the site of Streaneshalch[5*] , which is better known as Whitby, a name given to it at a later date by the Danes. Bede says that Hild here undertook to construct and arrange a monastery.

Bede thus expresses himself on the subject of Hild's life and influence during the term of over thirty years which she spent first as abbess of Hartlepool and then as abbess of Whitby:[6*]

'Moreover, Hild, the handmaid of Christ, having been appointed to govern that monastery (at Hartlepool), presently took care to order it in the regular way of life, in all respects, according as she could gain information from learned men. For Bishop Aidan, also, and all the religious men who knew her, were wont to visit her constantly, to love her devotedly, and to instruct her diligently, on account of her innate wisdom, and her delight in the service of God.

'When, then, she had presided over this monastery for some years, being very intent on establishing the regular discipline, according as she could learn it from learned men, it happened that she undertook also to construct and arrange a monastery in the place which is called Streanshalch; and this work being enjoined on her, she was not remiss in accomplishing it. For she established this also in the same discipline of regular life in which she established the former monastery; and, indeed, taught there also the strict observance of justice, piety, and chastity, and of the other virtues, but mostly of peace and charity, so that, after the example of the primitive Church, there was therein no one rich, no one poor; all things were common to all, since nothing seemed to be the private property of any one. Moreover, her prudence was so great that not only did ordinary persons, but even sometimes kings and princes, seek and receive counsel of her in their necessities. She made those who were under her direction give so much time to the reading of the Divine Scriptures and exercise themselves so much in works of righteousness, that very many, it appeared, could readily be found there,   [p. 91]   who could worthily enter upon the ecclesiastical grade, that is the service of the altar.'

In point of fact five men who had studied in Hild's monastery were promoted to the episcopate. Foremost among them is John, bishop of Hexham (687--705) and afterwards of York († 721), the famous St John of Beverley, a canonised saint of the Church, of whose doings Bede has left an account. In this[7*] we hear of the existence of another monastery for women at Watton (Vetadun) not far from Whitby, where Bishop John went to visit the abbess Heriburg, who was living there with her 'daughter in the flesh' Cwenburg, whom she designed to make abbess in her stead. We hear no more about Watton till centuries later, but Bede's remark is interesting as showing how natural he felt it to be that the rule of a settlement should pass from mother to daughter.

Cwenburg was suffering from a swollen arm which John tells us was very serious, 'since she had been bled on the fourth day of the moon,' 'when both the light of the moon and the tide of the ocean were on their increase. And what can I do for the girl if she is at death's door?' he exclaims. However his combined prayers and remedies, which were so often efficacious, helped to restore her.

Aetla, another of Mild's scholarly disciples, held the see of Dorchester, though perhaps only temporarily during the absence of Aegilberht. A third, Bosa, was archbishop of York between 678 and 686; Bede speaks of him as a monk of Whitby, a man of great holiness and humility. Oftfor, another of Mild's monks, went from Whitby to Canterbury, to study 'a more perfect' system of discipline under Archbishop Theodore († 690), and subsequently became bishop of Worcester.

The career of these men shows that the system of discipline and education under Mild at Whitby compared favourably with that of other settlements. At the outset she had followed the usages of the Scottish Church, with which she was familiar through her intercourse with Aidan, but when the claims for an independent British Church were defeated at Whitby, she accepted the change and adopted the Roman usage.

The antagonism which had existed from the first appearance of Augustine in England between Roman Christianity and British Christianity as upheld by the Scottish and Welsh clergy took the form of open disagreement in Northumbria. On one side was the craving for ritual, for refinement and for union with Rome;   [p. 92]   on the other insistence by the Scottish clergy on their right to independence.

Aidan had been succeeded at Lindisfarne by Finnan, owing to whose influence discussion was checked for the time being. But after his death (661) the latent antagonism came to a head over the practical difficulty due to the different dates at which King Oswin and Queen Eanflaed kept Easter. Thus the way was cleared for the Whitby synod (664), a 'gathering of all orders of the Church system,' at which the respective claims of Roman and of British Christianity were discussed.

The British interest was represented among others by Colman, Finnan's successor at Lindisfarne, who temporarily held the see at York, and by Aegilberht, bishop of Dorchester. The opposite side was taken by the protégé of Queen Eanflaed, Wilfrith, abbot of Ripon, whose ardour in the cause of Rome had been greatly augmented by going abroad with Bennet Biscop about the year 653. Besides these and other prelates, King Oswin and his son and co-regent Ealhfrith were present at the synod. The abbess Hild was also there, but she took no part in the discussion.

The questions raised were not of doctrine but of practice. The computation of Easter, the form of the tonsure, matters not of belief but of apparently trivial externals, were the points round which the discussion turned. Owing chiefly to Wilfrith's influence the decision was in favour of Rome, and a strong rebuff was given for a time to the claim for an independent British Church in the north.

The choice of Whitby as the site of the synod marks the importance which this settlement had attained within ten years of its foundation. Those who have stood on the height of the cliff overlooking the North Sea and have let their gaze wander over the winding river course and the strand below can realize the lordly situation of the settlement which occupies such a distinguished place among the great houses and nurseries of culture at Hexham, Wearmouth, Jarrow, Ripon and York.

The property which the monastery held in overlordship extended along the coast for many miles, and the settlement itself consisted of a large group of buildings; for there are references to the dwellings for the men, for the women, and to an outlying house for the sick. These dwellings were gathered round the ancient British Church of St Peter, which was situated under the shelter of the brow of the cliff where King Eadwin lay buried, and which continued to be the burial-place of the Northumbrian kings. Isolated chapels   [p. 93]   and churches with separate bands of religious votaries belonging to them lay in other parts of the monastic property, and were subject to the abbess of Whitby. We hear of a minor monastery at Easington (Osingadun)[8*] during the rule of Aelflaed, Hild's successor, and at Hackness (Hacanos) on the limit of the monastic property, thirteen miles south of Whitby, a monastery of some importance had been founded by Hild.[9*] Bands of men and of women dwelt here under the government of Frigith, and it was here that the nun Begu had a vision of Hild on the night of her death, when she saw her borne aloft by attendant angels.[10*]

The name of Hild and the monastery at Whitby are further endeared to posterity through their connection with Caedmon, the most celebrated of the vernacular poets of Northumbria and the reputed author of the Anglo-Saxon metrical paraphrases of the Old Testament.[11*] It was his great reputation as a singer that made Hild seek Caedmon and persuade him to join her community. Here the practice of reading Holy Scripture made him familiar with the stories of Hebrew literature in their grand and simple setting, and he drank of the waters of that well to which so many centuries of creative and representative art have gone for inspiration.

Caedmon's power of song had been noticed outside the monastery.

'And all concluded that a celestial gift had been granted him by the Lord. And they interpreted to him a certain passage of sacred history or doctrine, and ordered him to turn it if he could into poetical rhythm. And he, having undertaken it, departed, and returning in the morning brought back what he was ordered to do, composed in most excellent verse. Whereupon presently the abbess, embracing heartily the grace of God in the man, directed him to leave the secular habit, and to take the monastic vow; and having together with all her people received him into the monastery associated him with the company of the brethren, and ordered him to be instructed in the whole course of sacred history. And he converted into most sweet song whatever he could learn from hearing, by thinking it over by himself and,   [p. 94]   as though a clean animal, by ruminating; and by making it resound more sweetly, made his teachers in turn his hearers.'[12*]

These passages are curious as showing that a singer of national strains was persuaded to adapt his art to the purposes of religion. The development of Church music is usually held to have been distinct from that of folk-music, but in exceptional cases such as this, there seems to have been a relation between the two.

Excavations recently made on several of the sites of ancient northern monasteries have laid bare curious and interesting remains which add touches of reality to what is known about the houses of the north during this early period.[13*] In a field called Cross Close at Hartlepool near Durham skeletons of men and women were found, and a number of monumental stones of peculiar shape, some with runic inscriptions of women's names. Some of these names are among those of the abbesses inscribed in the so-called 'Book of Life of Durham,' a manuscript written in gold and silver lettering in the early part of the 9th century.[14*] Again, an ancient tombstone of peculiar design was found at Healaugh; and at Hackness several memorial crosses are preserved, one of which bears the inscription of the name Aethelburg, who no doubt is the abbess of that name with whom Aelfiaed, Hild's successor at Whitby, in 705 travelled to the death-bed of King Ealdfrith.[15*]

Finally on the Whitby coast on the south side of the abbey a huge kitchen-midden was discovered. A short slope here leads to the edge of the cliff, and excavations on this slope and at its foot, which was once washed by the tide, have revealed the facts that the denizens of the original monastery were wont to throw the refuse of their kitchen over the cliff, and that the lighter material remained on the upper ledges, the heavier rolling to the bottom.

Among the lighter deposits were found bones of birds, oyster, whelk and periwinkle shells, and two combs, one of which bears a runic inscription. Among the heavier deposits were bones of oxen, a few of sheep, and a large number of the bones and tusks of wild swine, besides several iron pot-hooks and other implements; a bone spindle and a divided ink-horn are among the objects specified. An inscribed leaden bulla found among the   [p. 95]   refuse is declared by experts to be earlier than the 8th century; it is therefore proof that these remains were deposited during the earlier period of the existence of Hild's monastery, possibly during her lifetime.

Hild died after an illness of several years on November 17, 680. Would that there were more data whereby to estimate her personality! The few traits of her character that have been preserved, her eagerness to acquire knowledge, her success in imparting it to others, her recognition of the need of unity in the Church, the interest she took in one who could repeat the stories of the new faith in strains which made them intelligible to the people, are indicative of a strong personality and of an understanding which appreciated the needs of her time.

Various myths, of which Bede knows nothing, have been attached to her name in course of time. According to a popular legend she transformed the snakes of the district into the ammonites familiar to visitors to those parts. And it is said that at certain times of the day her form can be seen flitting across the abbey ruins.[16*]

At her death the rule of the settlement passed to Aelflaed, the princess who had been given into her care as a child. After King Oswin's death in 670 Queen Eanflaed joined her daughter in the monastery. The princess and abbess Aelflaed proved herself worthy of the influence under which she had grown up, and we shall find her among the persons of importance who took up a decided attitude in regard to the disturbances which broke out through the action of Bishop Wilfrith. The beginnings of these difficulties belong to the lifetime of Hild: we do not know that she took any interest in the matter, but judging from indirect evidence we should say that she shared in the feeling which condemned the prelate's anti-national and ultra-Roman tendencies.


[1*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Whitby,' vol. I, p. 405.

[2*] Bede, Ecci. Hist., bk 4; ch. 23 transl. Gidley, 1870. Dugdale. Monasticon, 'Hartlepool, vol. 6, p. 1618, places the foundation about the year 640.

[3*] Bede, Eccl. Hist. bk. 3, chs. 24-25; bk. 4, chs. 23-24.

[4*] A. SS. Boll., St. Bega, Sept. 6; Tomlinson, G.C., Life and Miracle of St. Bega, 1839.

[5*] Carthularium abbathiae de Whiteby, publ. Surtees Soc., 1879.

[6*] Bede, Eccles. History, bk 4, ch. 23 , translat. Gidley, 1870, with additions and alterations.

[7*] Bede, Eccles. History, bk 5, ch. 3.

[8*] Bede, Life of St Cuthbert, ch.10; Dugdale, Monasticon, vol. 1, p. 233, mentions Easington only as a manor of Durham.

[9*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Hackness,' vol. 3, p. 633.

[10*] Bede, Eccles. History, bk , ch. 23.

[11*] Dictionary of Nat. Biography, article 'Caedmon' by Henry Bradley.

[12*] Bede, Eccles. History, bk 4, ch. 24, transl. Gidley, 1870.

[13*] Haigh, D. H., 'On the monasteries of St Heiu and St Hild,' Yorksh. Archaeolog Journal,vol. 3, p. 370. I do not know on what authority Haigh designates Heiu as saint.

[14*] Gray, de Birch, Fasti Monastici Aevi Saxonici, 1872, p. 15.

[15*] Comp. below, p. 106.

[16*] Charlton, L., History of Whitby, 1779, p. 33.

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