History of St Hilda’s

An address by Jenny Wormald (1942-2015) Tutor and Fellow in Modern History (1985-2005), at our Founder’s Day Chapel Service, 16 November 2005.

We are very fortunate in and can be very proud of our college name; Miss Beale chose well. She did not aim quite for the top, as the founders of Jesus, Trinity and Christchurch did. And there are, of course, other colleges named after saints. But if we look at them, and more particularly the women’s - now former - women’s colleges, we can still feel good. St Anne’s and St Hugh’s may have their point, but which St Anne, which St Hugh? Somerville, of course, doesn’t have a saint at all; but it is named after the remarkable 19th century scholar and strong exponent of women’s education, Mary Somerville; and as she was a Scot, that, in my book, is just about as good. Even so, I would far rather have St Hilda than even Mary Somerville, let alone the tough-minded but dreary and humourless Lady Margaret Beaufort from whom LMH gets its name. And even among the Oxbridge saints, Hilda stands out. For she was very formidable indeed, but imbued with infinite grace, and someone who has something very particular and special to offer. And I am very grateful to my colleague Janet Howarth for telling me about just what an inspiration St Hilda was to Miss Beale.

Hilda was born in 614, great-niece of Edwin, king of the Northumbrians, and converted with him to Christianity when she was eleven. Our knowledge of her comes from the Venerable Bede, whose History of the English Church and People devotes a chapter to her life and death as well as discussing her role in the Synod of Whitby, and also in persuading Caedmon the stable-hand to become a monk at Whitby after the miracle which turned him into the earliest author of vernacular Christian poetry. She spent her first thirty-three years in the world, of which Bede says little; he simply records that she spent them ‘most nobly in secular occupations’ - which can perhaps be re-translated as ‘had a very enjoyable time’. For the second thirty-three she was a nun, beginning her monastic life in Gaul, and returning to be abbess of the monasteries first at Hartlepool and then Tadcaster before founding and presiding over the abbey of Whitby. The last six years of her life were rendered hideous with a continual burning fever which she bore with immense courage and acceptance; her death was serene and moving.

Thus far we might see her, as Bede depicts her, simply as a role-model for religious women, the archetypal holy woman, whose example brought people to God and with whom miracles were associated as evidence of her especial piety; the ammonites on our coat of arms represent the serpents she turned to stone. And of course that was in part what Bede wanted to depict, and that is what she was. But there is far more to her; this was no holy cloistered nun. Bede rightly singled her out because she was the greatest of the royal-aristocratic abbesses of her day, and her influence on the 7th-century English church was profound; she was a national religious figure of immense spiritual power. It is a telling reminder that history is not a matter of linear progress and improvement that this was a great age for well-born religious women, in a position to operate with a vigour and an impact which was theirs by right. These were no second-class citizens. Men listened to them, often, clearly, in awe; kings and bishops consulted them, male saints and leading churchmen kept up correspondence with them. It is instructive to think about the fact that Miss Beale chose St Hilda when, herself a great educationalist, she was fighting to establish her school and her Oxford Hall to open up opportunities for women in the second half of the 19th century. One feels that St Hilda would certainly have approved, even though founding institutions for women had not been an issue for her. For it was only after the seventh century that men took over and established that dominance in public, religious and educational life from which it would take more than a millennium to begin to dislodge them. Equality of the sexes, no need to feel inferior or defensive: these were alive and well in St Hilda’s England. And I dread to think what she would have to say to any member of her modern college who dared to mutter about feeling inferior, overshadowed by confident and clever men.

It was no accident, therefore, that it was at Hilda’s Whitby that the great synod called in 664 to resolve the conflict over the dating of Easter, which had divided the church in the British Isles, was held, in the presence of two kings, Oswy and Alchfrid, with kings and abbess presiding over the dispute between Colman bishop of Lindisfarne and Wilfrid abbot and later bishop of Ripon. And we may envisage Hilda not as the retiring, silent and deferential nun but as the woman in the full confidence of her power and authority, taking part in the debate along with other members of her community - and decked out in jewels (for jewels were found in the excavations at Whitby). It was not her only great public appearance. It was she, along with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who were the two accusers of the notoriously tough Wilfrid who got him dismissed from his bishopric in 678. I have already mentioned Caedmon, stable-hand turned author. And Caedmon exemplifies two other things about St Hilda and her fellow abbesses. First, Whitby was a community of highly educated women. Hilda had spent the first year of her monastic life at Chelles; and Chelles had a wonderful library. And it was not, of course, alone in that, alone in seeing the huge importance of a prestigious collection of books. Men might hunt, fish and fight. Women advanced the cause of learning; and that was what Hilda would do for the rest of her life. Second, Hilda persuaded Caedmon to become a monk in her abbey. So Whitby was not just a women’s community. Like other monasteries presided over by these impressive abbesses, it was a mixed one. Whitby’s religious and educational glory produced not only Caedmon, but no fewer than five bishops of the English church, men, Bede tells us, ‘of outstanding merit and holiness’. So Bede’s Hilda is not only the holy woman of great and enduring faith, marked out by miracles and ultimate suffering, though that is impressive enough. Bede’s Hilda is also one of the great educational forces, for women and for men, in early-medieval England. And it is that combination of her particular style of the holy woman and her particular style of the woman of and for education that marks her out as one of the great figures in English history - and more than just English history - and one whom I personally find deeply and profoundly moving. Indeed, she is one of my own female role-models with whom I would like to have dinner - and I bet that not only would I be brought into the presence of an awesome personality, but the food and wine would be good.

What a role-model and an inspiration for Bede and for the society of her day. What a role-model and an inspiration for Miss Beale, seeking to redress over a thousand years of the playing down of women’s education, and doing so, naturally, by founding her school and her college for women. And what of that college, in which I have had the privilege and pleasure of being a Fellow, in today’s circumstances, with today’s new pressures? I like to think that St Hilda might well have approved of our not simply joining the move to mix, but instead taking time, after the other women’s colleges had voted to go mixed, to think about the alternative - continuing as the remaining college for women - although as that was not her métier, she might also have wondered about it. What I am sure of is that she would not at all approve of the college which bears her name meeting its present-day challenges in a spirit of pessimism and division. She who made Whitby great would certainly expect a great deal more of us than that. Her role-model and inspiration for us should be to inspire confidence, the confidence to make St Hilda’s a notable Oxford college, particularly well-placed to make a strong input into a University now committed to opportunities for women. Who better than us? And if we do go mixed, should we not equally remember St Hilda, and the fact that admitting men held no terrors for her, because she herself was so confident in her own position as a woman of great ability and power? We do well to ponder on St Hilda and on what that remarkable life has to tell us and to offer us. We can thank Miss Beale for having the wisdom to direct us to do so. And I think that it is appropriate to say here that we can thank God for St Hilda.


St Hilda of Whitby, stained glass window image