Zeigler, Michelle. Hild


Author: Michelle Ziegler

Date: December 2000

Hild was born in 614 while her parents were in exile. Her father was assassinated before her birth in British Elmet. She returned to Deira when her great uncle Edwin became king in 616. Hild was baptized with King Edwin and his household in 627 at approximately age 13. She does not reappear in the records until 646/7 when she journeys to East Anglia to arrange transport to join her sister Hereswitha at the monastery of Chelles in France. It is likely that she was a new widow at the time. Bishop Aidan probably with the support of King Oswine of Deira, the head of Hild's dynasty at the time, recalled Hild to Deira to enter the church there. She returned and was educated under the personal direction of Bishop Aidan. Bishop Aidan gave her a hide of land on the north side of the River Wear where she lived with a few companions for a year while presumably being educated. In 648/9, she became Abbess of Hartlepool in Deira when its current abbess Heiu "retired" to Tadcaster and disappeared from the record. In 655, she was entrusted with the one year old oblate princess Ælfflæd of Bernicia by her parents King Oswiu of Bernicia (and overking of Deira) and Hild's cousin Queen Eanflæd. Two years later, Abbess Hild and Ælfflæd moved to Whitby which was to become her main foundation, a double monastery.

In 664, Whitby was chosen as the site of the most important synod in Northumbrian (Bernician and Deiran) history. The synod pitted King Oswiu (of Bernicia/Northumbria), Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne, Abbess Hild, and Bishop Cedd arguing for retaining Irish church practices (and loyalty to Iona) against King Alhfrith of Deira, Queen Eanflæd of Bernicia, Bishop Agilbert and the priests Wilfrid, Agatho, Romanus and James who successfully argued for the adoption of Roman practices (and loyalty to Rome via Canterbury). Abbess Hild accepted the defeat and changed Whitby to Roman practices but remained a fierce opponent of the Roman chief negotiator Wilfrid, who was chosen to become the new Bishop after the synod. (Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne resigned and returned to Ireland.)

The rapid succession of bishops in Northumbria after 664 leaves the period somewhat in administrative chaos but we can be assured that Hild was involved in the new order in Northumbria. She was one of the few major administrative position holders to remain constant throughout the period. In 670, Queen Eanflæd joined the monastery of Whitby as a nun after King Oswiu's death. This must have been a difficult arrangement for both Hild and Eanflæd after their positions at the synod and Eanflæd's former high social standing. In 678, King Ecgfrith (son of Oswiu and Eanflaed) and Archbishop Theodore deposed Bishop Wilfrid. He promptly appealed his deposition to Rome. A papal letter included in the Life of Wilfrith claims that his opponents arguing before the Pope were sent by Abbess Hild and Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury. It should be noted that one of the Bishops who replaced Wilfrid was Bosa, a monk from Hild's Whitby. That the Pope recognized Abbess Hild as the leader of the Northumbrian opponents of Wilfrid must indicate that her position in the church of Northumbria was extremely high. It is possible that by the time her representatives were arguing on her behalf in Rome she had already died at Whitby. According to Bede, she died after a seven year illness in 680. In the last year of her life, she continued to build her monastic family founding the monastery of Hackness in 679. Her cousins Eanflaed and Ælfflæd (Eanflaed's daughter) succeeded her as joint abbesses. See Karkov for an argument of how they manipulated the memory of Hild to their own advantage.