I’m writing a novel about Hild of Whitby, also known as St. Hilda, who lived in seventh century Britain. For about ten years I’ve been researching, on and off, the basics: language, the politics of conversion, food, arms and armour, textile production, etc. The more I learn the more I realise I don’t know. So I started fossicking about online and came across a few early medieval blogs (where I suspect I’ve made a bit of a nuisance of myself). One of the bloggers, Michelle at Heavenfield, has tagged me for a blog game. One is supposed to
- Link to the person who tagged you.
- List 7 random/weird things about your favorite historical figure.
- Tag seven more people at the end of your blog and link to theirs.
- Let the person know they have been tagged by leaving a note on their blog.
But in order to play, one has to have a blog. So after some thought, I’m building this one. I hope lots of people come and offer friendly advice, ask interesting questions, or just nod and say hello.
So, obviously, the subject of my game will be Hild. Not much is known about this fascinating woman, and all of it from Bede. (From here on, everything in this post in parentheses is speculative, i.e., I made it up.) Hild was born c. 614, after her mother had had a dream about her bringing light to the land (this sounds like a good ploy from a homeless, widowed pregnant woman: don’t hurt me, what I carry is important!). Father Hereric, of the royal house of Deira (possibly son of Æthelric, king of Deira 599-604 when Æthelfrith killed him), who was killed at the court of Ceredig, king of Elmet just before Hild’s birth. Mother Breguswith, family unknown (but I’m thinking possibly–per a conversation on Heavenfield–she was a sister of Rædwald, king of East Anglia). Older sister, Hereswith, who married Athilric, son of Eni–who was brother of King Rædwald–and brother to King Anna; Athilric was briefly co-king, with Sigiberht, before Anna took the throne. Hild, along with many of Edwin’s household, was baptised by Paulinus c. 627 in York. She then disappears from the record until 647, when after a year in East Anglia she’s about to take ship for Gaul to join the widowed Hereswith in an abbey (Bede says Chelles–but Chelles wasn’t founded until Balthild took the veil, so I think probably Faramoutiers). It’s at this point Aidan, bishop of Lindisfarne (essentially the go-to God Guy for Northumbria), invited from Iona at the behest of Oswald, who is currently king, recruits her to his church, and Hild heads back north. There she spends a year on a plot of land on the Wear (I’ve never been wholly convinced of this location, but I don’t have alternative suggestions, where she is essentially being deprogrammed–stripped of worldliness–and retrained as an abbess). Then she is sent to Hartlepool to restore order (Heiu, the previous boss, goes off and founds another house–in/near Tadcaster?). At Hackness Hild does a cracking job and is given a bigger, better abbey, Whitby/Streanæshalch (which she may or may not have founded). Oswald’s brother, Oswiu, now king, sends his infant oblate daughter, Æfflæd, to Whitby. After Oswiu’s death, his widow Eanflæd (Æfflæd’s mother) joins the abbey. At Whitby, Hild trains five bishops, and hosts the Synod where Oswiu rules in favour of Roman practise. She is known as ‘mother’ and is a consultant to kings and princes. She persuades Cædmon, a cowherd, to write the first vernacular poem. She dies November 17 680, attended by the usual hagiographic visions of her soul ascending to heaven, and is declared a saint almost immediately. (She was probably buried at Whitby, and then had her remains translated to Glastonbury some time later.)
Everybody who has read Bede knows all this. So writing seven weird/interesting/obscure facts seems rather pointless. Instead, I’ll write seven things no one knows about Hild (because I made them up–some informed guesses, some wildly speculative, some naked fictionalisation for dramatic purposes).
1) Hild’s real name. Hild is half a name. Her full name could have been almost anything, but I think the two most likely are Hildeburh and Hildeswith. They follow the alliterative H (Hereric, Hereswith). The -with suffix is extremely likely, given Breguswith and Hereswith, but for some reason I don’t like the notion of Hild being Hildeswith. It just doesn’t sound strong enough. So I’m thinking–per Christine Fell–that -burh is better. ‘Hild’ means battle, and I think she lived up to it.
2) The murderer of Hild’s father. I think Edwin did it. He wanted to be king, and was busy forming alliances all over the country (they all went wrong, with a vengeance; clearly, he wasn’t a likeable man)–but so was/did Hereric. So Edwin paid Ceredig of Elmet to remove him (or it could have been an early move by Cadwallon in the kill-the-foster-brother game those two played over decades), and then used the murder as an excuse to drive Ceredig from the forest and annexe Elmet.
3) Hild’s husband. Much as I’d rather, for dramatic reasons, she didn’t marry, Hild would have definitely have done so. Firstly, all women did. Secondly, she was a valuable game piece in the endless politicking and alliance-forming/breaking of the 7th C. Thirdly, Bede never refers to her as ‘virgin’. But I can’t decide who Edwin–the man ultimately in charge of her life–would have wanted to hook into his web of allegiance/obligation/hegemony. He already had Mercia (via his wife, Cwenburh–though, again, it went disastrously wrong) and East Anglia (Hereswith) so maybe he tried for a British alliance e.g. Alt Clut. The fact that Bede doesn’t mention Hild’s husband means she married someone beyond the pale–either a pagan, or a British or Irish royal. But who? I’m utterly stumped here. If anyone is willing to speculate, please help.
4) Why Hild preferred the Ionian to the Roman way of doing things. She was baptised by Paulinus (Roman) and recruited by Aidan (Ionian) while waiting, supposedly, to take ship to Faramoutiers (or some other Gaulish abbey) which would have been more Roman than anything. She was hooked into the Gaulish church six ways from Sunday (probably related in some distant way–through her mother, maybe, or at the very least though Hereswith’s marriage–to Balthild) so why didn’t she go over there and run something Roman? Instead, she ran Hackness and Whitby under the aegis of Lindisfarne. And she hosted the Synod of Whitby where the vote (okay, Oswiu didn’t exactly vote, being, y’know, king) went to Rome.
5) What Hild’s role in the early church really was. I think she was a facilitator–my guess is that although Bede doesn’t say so, it was Hild’s influence and presence in the room at Whitby that kept things civilised, that engineered the appointment of an acceptable compromise candidate to Lindisfarne upon Colman’s departure.
6) How well she got on with her family. Hereric died (could have been poisoning–deliberate or accidental–could have been appendicitis, no way to tell) and that death left Hild and her mother and her sister at the mercy of the world. I imagine there was a bit of irrational blame there: you bastard, you left us alone! And then the three women would have to have stuck together to face the world. But mothers and daughters don’t often get along so well after puberty. And Hereswith got the good marriage (at least insofar as we know). There again, Hild was the one who got the from-mummy prophecy about being a light of the world. Also, for dramatic purposes, I’ve decided Hild has a half-brother, Cian (son of Hereric by a British woman, Onnen), who is raised with her but unacknowledged.
7) Why she chose Whitby/Steanæshalch. It has a great harbour, yes, and a high cliff–always good for contemplative-while-seeing-trouble-coming purposes–and there were plenty of Roman roads and old tracks leading to and from busy places. But, still. It’s a long way from York, and Bebbanburg, and Dùn Èideann etc.
So here are the seven things I’d most like to know about Hild:
1) why did she spend a year in East Anglia? Did she?
2) who did she marry, and why? What killed her children–plague? War? Malaria?
3) why did she choose Whitby/Streanæshalch? Was there already a small church there?
4) what did Whitby look like? Built of wood, yes, but dormitories or huts? How many people lived there? (When will the latest excavation be published?)
5) what was her favourite colour? Yep, sounds trivial, but it’s not. I mean, women of those times would spend about 65% of their days on textile production (cf Penelope Walton Rogers), and when you’re that intimately involved in your own clothes, colour choice is a big deal. Plus there would have been rules–at least customs–about who was allowed to wear what. So what does the granddaughter of a deposed king get to wear? And what colours were possible? (How deep a blue could you get?)
6) what time of year was she born? I think autumn. Why? Well, Old English poetry reeks of elegy, and the most elegaic season is autumn, so I like the notion of making the end of Sept/beg of Oct her particular time.
7) what made her tick? Bede tells us Hild ran her abbeys in orderly fashion, and that everyone called her mother. It makes sense, then, that this was possible because she was reasonable, calm, competent, flexible, able to adjust to the evidence i.e. she’s like a disciplined scientist who sees an odd result and thinks, huh, that’s weird, let’s find out why… I bet she loved the Easter calculus. I bet she loved the inherent mathematics (though she wouldn’t have know that what it was) of the soaring music James the Deacon brough north. I bet she loved Isidore’s attempt to explain and codify the known world in his etymologies (though it’s pretty unlikely she had access to this book; but it’s not impossible, so I think I’ll take some licence). I bet she encountered an abacus at Gipswic when she accompanied Edwin to East Anglia to sort out Hereswith’s marriage. She was probably an accomplished linguist, speaking British, Anglisc, Irish, and Latin. How else could she be held in such high regard by so many people? She talked to them. She listened. She let them know they had been heard.
- Cloth and Clothing in Early Anglo-Saxon, Penelope Walton Rogers (CBA, 2007)
- A History of the English Church and People (don’t remember which translation I used or who published it but, y’know, it’s Bede–go look it up)
- Women in Anglo-Saxon England, Christine Fell (Blackwell, 1987)
So here’s the tricky question, who do I tag? I don’t really know anyone in medieval blog world who hasn’t already been tagged/played. And the few historians I know don’t have blogs. So I’ll have to go for other writers: L. Timmel Duchamp, Colleen Mondor, Mark Tiedemann, Gwenda Bond, Gwyneth Jones and Jenny D.