Snakestones and Sanctity: the Medieval Origins of the Cult of St Hilda of Whitby

Guest-blogger Christiane Kroebel, who is an independent researcher and volunteer curator at Whitby Museum, reflects on the origins and development of St Hilda’s cult from the middle ages to the present day.

The 1338th anniversary of St Hilda’s death, or the date of her birth in heaven, is coming up shortly on 17 November. The life of this English woman who stood up to pressure from Wilfrid to conform to Roman practices, specifically the dating of Easter and the tonsure, continues to generate a sense of pride in the present-day north. To try to understand why there is this perception of a Celtic versus Roman divide, I started a search for the saint from the twenty-first century back to the Middle Ages and for Hilda as a person from the seventh century forward.

A woman of strong character

St Aidan visits St Hilda, Gloucester Cathedral.

The person who emerges from the pages of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People is of a woman of strong character and principles. Although she was portrayed by Bede and Wilfrid’s biographer, Eddius Stephanus, as opposing the Roman dating of Easter and tonsure (correct in their view), and standing with the Irish clergy against the Romans, it should be remembered that Hilda had been baptised by Paulinus, the monk from Rome sent by Pope Gregory in 601. Paulinus also instructed her in Christian practices until she was probably 19 years old, i.e. until 633, when he returned to Kent after King Edwin’s death.

Hilda, a great-niece of Edwin, re-emerges in Bede’s narrative at the age of 33, when Aidan persuaded her to leave the South of England and return home to found a small monastery on the north side of the River Wear. The following year, she became abbess of the double monastery at Hartlepool, and eight years later, in 657, she founded the double monastery at Streanæshealh (Whitby).

The ruins of Whitby Abbey church from Lionel Charlton’s History of Whitby (1779)

It was usual in the seventh century, for women from royal families to head double houses (foundations for both nuns and monks). At Whitby, Hilda established the same rule as at Hartlepool and the Wear, teaching the virtues of justice, devotion, chastity, and the necessity of living in peace and charity. There was to be no private property: everything was held in common. In Bede’s words, ‘so great was her prudence that not only ordinary people but also kings and princes sometimes sought and received her counsel when in difficulties’ (HE iv.23).

Relief of St Hilda on Caedmon’s Cross (Victorian) at Whitby.

Hilda is likely to have founded a minimum of two schools at Whitby. One was for those wishing to study scripture; here many became priests, and six were promoted to bishoprics. The other was for novices who were educated in a remote part of the monastery. She died in 680 at the age of 66, after 23 years at Whitby, and was succeeded by another abbess from the Northumbrian royal family, Aelfflæd. It is to Aelfflæd and her mother Eanflæd, Edwin’s daughter and King Oswiu’s wife, that we should look to for the first commemorations and then memorialisation of Hilda’s life.

Northumbria’s ‘golden age’

Aelfflæd’s tenure at Whitby, until 714, coincided with Northumbria’s golden age, the time of the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Codex Amiatinus, the various Lives of Cuthbert, Wilfrid, and Pope Gregory, and Bede’s earliest works on scripture. No Life of Hilda has survived but there are indications in the ninth-century Old English Martyrology that one existed then.

Fast-forward to 2015 when I started my search for the origin of the myths associated with St Hilda: the story in which she forces the snakes at Whitby over the cliff and turns them to stone so that they become ammonites, and the story in which she banishes geese from flying over the abbey because they have eaten all the community’s corn.

‘Snakestones’ from the Whitby Museum collection

These two stories are repeated in all the popular books about Hilda but without any attribution to original sources. Three years later, I know that Hilda’s myths were included in Richard Pynson’s 1516 printing of The Kalendre of the Newe Legende of Englande in Middle English, and in Wynken de Worde’s Nova Legenda Anglie, a 1516 edition of John of Tynemouth’s fourteenth-century Sanctilogium. A fifteenth-century Latin manuscript in Durham University library additionally takes the ammonite tale back into the late medieval period.[1]

A nineteenth-century revival

Along the way, I got side-tracked by the nineteenth-century revival of church dedications to St Hilda, mostly in the North and appropriately, the dedication of two colleges to her: one in Oxford for women students, the other a women’s teacher-training college in Durham. It was not easy to find an answer to why there was renewed interest in Hilda at this time, but the medieval period and especially the early medieval seemed to have been coloured with a romantic hue in the public imagination.

South building of St Hilda’s College, Oxford.

For historians, this became a search for the values of people in the past, which took me straight back to the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century antiquarians and their Italian humanist inheritance. There is no doubt that we owe these English antiquarians a huge debt for collecting and saving the medieval documentary heritage, which enables us to research and discuss people like St Hilda, and those who became interested in her after her death.

St Hilda’s Well with view of St Hilda’s church, Hinderwell (Yorks.).

Back in the medieval period, my search took me to look for churches with medieval dedications as well as references to Hilda in church calendars and liturgies. The story of why a former soldier in William the Conqueror’s army (the Evesham monk Reinfrid) wanted to re-found a monastery in Whitby is so well-known that it does not need repeating, but some credit should be given to the Abbot of Evesham for supporting Reinfrid’s quest.

The story highlights that southern English monasteries knew their history, probably from the pages of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and valued their past. Credit is due also to William Percy, who gave Reinfrid some land on the site of Hilda’s monastery. Reinfrid was a hermit at heart, but his devotion attracted a following and, by the end of the eleventh century, after Reinfrid’s death, the Percy family asserted their interests and William Percy’s brother Serlo became prior, followed by a nephew, who became abbot in the first decade of the twelfth century.

Mysterious origins

The question of whether church dedications reflect the post-Conquest revival of interest in St Hilda or had their origins in the Anglo-Saxon period cannot be answered with certainty. The archaeology can tell us much about the early origins of church buildings, but dedications in the documentary evidence are late. References in calendars and liturgies are also late, mostly dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Whether this is a reflection of the survival of sources or of the spread of the cult is difficult to know.

When the two myths came to be added to St Hilda’s life is a mystery; although both are appropriate, neither is unique to Hilda. It is easy to imagine the ammonites as fossilised snakes, while nearby Scaling Dam is a greylag and Canada geese winter breeding site today – and it’s true that they don’t seem to fly over Whitby to get there!

Christiane Kroebel
Independent researcher and Whitby Museum volunteer curator for the Abbey collection

[1] A. I. Doyle, ‘A Miracle of St Hilda in a Migrating Manuscript’, in Crossing Boundaries, ed. by Eric Cambridge and Jane Hawkes (Oxford: Oxbow, 2017), pp. 243-47.

Richard Rolle in Japan

Project leader Professor Denis Renevey reflects on his recent trip to Japan, where he presented on the life and writings of Yorkshire hermit Richard Rolle.

Richard Rolle with a Dominican friar. Image: Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Laud Misc. 528, fol. 2v. Reproduced by permission of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford [2018].

The invitation from my colleagues Naoe Kukita-Yoshikawa and Takami Matsuda to offer a lecture on Richard Rolle at Keio University, Tokyo, in September 2017 was irresistible. I had been to Japan in 2007 and was really looking forward both to presenting Richard Rolle to graduate students from Keio University and immersing myself in Japanese culture once again.

Richard Rolle was born in c.1300 in Thornton, near Pickering, North Yorkshire. After studying in Oxford for a few years, he returned home without a university degree and began a life as a hermit. Rolle wrote a large number of treatises in Latin and English and became the most popular English author of the fifteenth century. Today, he hardly receives any notice in university classrooms in the West, so it is always a challenge for me to present aspects of his writings and spirituality to students at the University of Lausanne, my home university. I really wondered how I was going to be able to succeed doing so with students from a completely different background.

A bullet train in Tokyo. Image: Denis Renevey

My knowledge of Rolle’s circumstances and writings became the lens through which I began to explore the many facets of Japanese culture. Following our arrival we immediately boarded a bullet train to Shizuoka where the first part of my academic visit was taking place. Once comfortably seated, I had leisure to look out at the densely populated stretch of coastal land between Tokyo and Shizuoka, on Honshu Island – the largest and most densely populated of the 3,000 islands that make the Japanese archipelago.


Richard Rolle, as depicted in BL MS Additional 37049, fol. 52v. Image: courtesy of the British Library

Thinking of the solitary life of Rolle in the North of England, I thought there could not be a more drastic contrast, spatially speaking, between his life conditions and the often hectic life that Japanese citizens lead in many of the country’s megalopolises. Rolle lived a solitary life away from the bustle and turbulence of medieval urban centres, and I wondered how one could possibly understand today, in very densely populated Japan, his passion for solitude as the best condition for the spiritual life.

My journey brought me to Nara and Kyoto, both of them former capitals of Japan, but also major centres of zen Buddhism. If I was impressed by the magnificence of the buddhist temples of Kofuku-ji and Todai-ji in Nara, and Nanzen-ji and Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto, my search for meditative space found its fulfilment in slightly less frequently visited temples and gardens in the suburbs of Kyoto.

The Tenryu-ji Zen Temple and its garden, as well as the Jojakko-Ji Temple, offer an environment that naturally leads one to sit and meditate. As I did so, I remembered the sitting posture that Rolle recommends for meditation, which is unusual in the West but the favoured position (called zazen) in zen Buddhism. Rolle recommends the sitting posture in several of his treatises. He even turns the advice into poetic form in the lyric called Cantus amoris, which is part of his epistle Ego dormio: ‘I sytt and syng of luf langyng that in in my breste es bredde.’¹

Jojakko-ji Temple. Image: Denis Renevey

The more I thought about what is considered a rather idiosyncratic form of mysticism on the part of Rolle, the more I realised that there are interesting similarities between Western and Eastern practices. I reflected then on the way in which our northern hermit gives prominence to the repetition of the name of Jesus as a meditative practice, which can be compared with the repetition of one-word mantras in Buddhist meditation.

The Great Buddha at Todai-ji Temple. Image: Denis Renevey

Of course the repetition of the Name of Jesus, name above all other names, creates a different set of experiences and images from the use of ‘aum’, the mantra of mantras. Also, I pondered the differences between meditating on the fully awakened state as represented in the figure of the Buddha, and meditating on the concept of sacrifice and salvation that the representation of the suffering Jesus on the cross offers to Christians. These were fascinating moments in the dialogic exchange between Christian and Buddhist practices that was taking place in my mind.

My lecture on Rolle and northern English eremitism took place in the later stage of my Japanese visit. The time spent in Japan, although far too brief, nevertheless gave me some insights about how to bring Rolle to the attention of Japanese students unfamiliar with his writings. Despite the differences as well as similarities between the cultures and their respective spiritual practices, it was nevertheless possible to engage in a dialogue that turned to be very enriching for all of us.

Denis Renevey with students and staff at Shizuoka University. Image: Denis Renevey

And when at times students remained silent following some of my questions, I remembered both Rolle’s search for silence and the characteristic polite and humble reserve of Japanese people. Sharing the life and works of a northern English medieval hermit with my Japanese audience turned out to be a fascinating exercise in cultural and human discovery.

Denis Renevey
Professor of Medieval English Language and Literature
University of Lausanne

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[1] Hope Emily Allen (ed.), English Writings of Richard Rolle, Hermit of Hampole (Gloucester: Alan Sutton, repr. 1988), p. 71.