Medieval Whitby - Whitby Online

Medieval Whitby

St Hilda and the Early Church

There have been recorded settlements at the geographical position of Whitby since at least the Saxon period but it was the erection of the Abbey in 657AD that really marked the birth of the town and it's notable religious power and influence. Built in 657AD by Oswy (612-15 - 670AD), King of Northumberland, the abbey was the site of the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD, at which it was decided that the Northumbrian Church would adopt the Roman calendar and it's calculations of religious festivals. This decision was responsible for the separation and establishment of monks from Lindisfarne on Iona as they could not accept the Church's decision. The implementation of Oswy's granddaughter Hilda, formerly of Hartlepool Abbey, as Abbess saw the Abbey and Whitby remain at the forefront of religious politics and power shifts throughout and after her reign.

History speaks well of Hilda as an Abbess reflected in her now being recognized as St. Hilda. In her time as Abbess she had many devout followers and held a reputation of being both holy, wise and kind. Kings, business men and peasants alike are claimed to have gone to Hilda for advice and it is believe to have been she who overheard the poems and stories of Caedmon, at the time a lowly Saxon cow herd, whom she encouraged to develop his talent in religious praise.


Caedmon, arguably the earliest know English poet, began his career as a herdsman at Whitby Abbey during the time of St. Hilda (657-680 AD). According to Bede Caedmon, previously having shown no musical or artistic talent, learnt to compose one night through a dream in which God came to him. This so inspired Caedmon that he later became a devout Monk and continued his praise of God through his religious poetry. Caedmon's only surviving work is known as Caedmon's Hymn and is a poem of praise to God in honour of the dream that first inspired him. The poem is one of the earliest examples of Old English and is thought to be, along with three other examples, one of the earliest example of Old English poetry.

Caedmon's Hymn

Nu scolon herigean heofonrices Weard
Meotodes meahte and his modgethanc
Weorc Wuldor-Faedor swa he wundra gehwaes
ece Drihten, or onstealde
He aerest sceop ielda bearnum
Heofen to hrofe halig Scyppend
ece Drihten aefter teode
firum foldan Frea aelmithig

Modern English Translation

Now let me praise the keeper of Heaven's kingdom,
The might of the Creator, and his thought,
The work of the Father of glory, how each of wonders
The Eternal Lord established in the beginning.
He first created for the sons of men
Heaven as a roof, the holy Creator,
Then Middle-earth the keeper of mankind,
The Eternal Lord, afterwards made,
The earth for men, the Almighty Lord.

St Bede

Bede (672-735 AD) was a Benedictine Monk, author and scholar from the Kingdom of Northumbria. His most famous work is undoubtedly 'Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum' (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People) which has earned him his reputation as the father of English history. Not only known for his historical recordings but also for his religious career Bede is regarded as a Doctor of the Church by the Roman Catholic Church; the only English man to have ever received this theologically significant title. All that is know of Bede's own life comes from a limited amount of autobiographical details in his book Historia (Book V, Chapter 24), in which he tells us that after having being placed in a monastery in Wearmouth at the age of seven he then became a deacon at 19 and finally a priest by the age of 30. During this progression he spent his day to day life teaching and writing. After his death in 735 AD he was buried at Jarrow and then moved to Durham Cathedral at a later date. Much of the knowledge we have of St Hilda, Whitby Abbey, Caedmon and the local area of the time come from the pages of his work.

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