Saint Hild and Hartlepool Abbey

15 January 2020

Saint Hilda’s Church in Hartlepool is believed to be what is left of an abbey that once stood on the headland. It is named so after the Abbess who managed the site during the 7th Century.

Saint Hilda at Hartlepool by James Clark, 1925. Image courtesy of Hartlepool Museums and Heritage Service and Art UK.

According to the Venerable Bede, Hild was born in 614 AD into the Deiran royal household. She was the second daughter of Hereric, nephew of Edwin, the King of Deira, as Yorkshire used to be known.

She had been born around a time of great religious upheaval, as the Romans sought to convert Pagan England to Catholicism. She was baptised alongside King Edwin in 627 AD when she was 13.

Hild fled to Kent in 633 AD when Northumbria was overrun by the neighbouring Kingdom of Mercia (what is now the Midlands) and King Edwin fell in battle to King Penda, who had been keen to retain the county’s Pagan beliefs.

Hild’s elder sister, Hereswith became a nun at Chelles Abbey in Gaul, France, and Hild considered joining her. Instead she returned to Northumbria 13 years later to answer the call of Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne to become a Nun. She joined a convent on the north bank of the River Wear, where she learned the traditions of Celtic Monasticism and after a year she was appointed the Abbess of Heretu (Hartlepool) Abbey.

Hartlepool Abbey had been the first Northumbrian monastery to be founded in 640 AD by Hieu, a 7th Century Irish Abbess. She had been selected by Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne to found and run it, until she decided to leave in 649 AD. Hild was the second Abbess to be appointed by Bishop Aidan.

Hild remained at the Abbey until 657/658 AD, at which point she founded Whitby Abbey, or Streoneshalh as it was known, taking with her eleven nuns, including Aelfflaed, the daughter of King Oswiu. She continued to be Abbess of both Hartlepool and Whitby, while remaining at Whitby until her death in 680 AD.

Five of Hild’s monks became bishops – Bosa, Aetla, Oftfor, John of Beverley and Wilfrid – thanks to her tutelage and guidance.

Hild also took part in the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD, a meeting called to resolve the date of Easter, since it was being celebrated at different times by the Celtic and Roman Christians. She sided with the Celtic Christians, although King Oswiu ruled in favour of the Roman Christians.

Before her death she managed to set up another Abbey in Hackness, fourteen miles from Whitby.

No one knows what happened to Hartlepool Abbey after Hild left. The Abbey was either sacked or destroyed around 800 AD by the Vikings, or it was simply abandoned.