Hild: The Power of One Woman in 7th-Century Britain

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With all this talk of famous men being moneymakers and policy-shakers, it is easy to overlook famous women in British history. Such will not happen here.

The talk for the past several weeks has been of the Christianization of Britain, with emphasis on the conflict between Celtic and Roman Christianity, culminating at the historic Synod of Whitby. A silent figure is behind the decision to have this conference at Whitby, in Northumbria. Her name was Hild.

The year was 657. With a grant from King Oswiu of Northumbria in hand, Hild founded a double monastery. That’s right, a double monastery–one for men and one for women. Oswiu had promised a grant of land to the church if he won a battle over Penda, the Mercian king at the time. Oswui was victorious, and the church got its land. (Any questions of direct causal relationships between the events must be examined elsewhere.)

The struggle between Oswiu and Penda was a protracted affair, carrying over from the bad blood spilled Penda and Oswiu’s brother, Oswald. While this was going on, Hild was growing up.

She was a secular child and indeed a secular woman for half her life. It is believed that she even was married at one time. She was not, however, married when she came to Whitby.

Once the monasteries were founded, they found their stride almost immediately. This was a great time of teaching and learning in Northumbria, and Whitby was no different. A mere seven years later, the largest conference in the history of the British Christian Church chose Whitby as the site for the historic meetings. And the power behind Whitby was Hild, a woman.

In this instance, at least, an English woman made a very big difference at a time when such differences by women were very rare. It is a pity that we know so little about Hild herself.