Exhibit: Saint’s alive as Whitby Museum tells story of abbess

One of the collages depicting the life of St Hilda.
One of the collages depicting the life of St Hilda.

The life of St Hilda is portrayed in a new exhibition which officially opened this week at Whitby Museum.

The information given about St Hilda – or Hild – by the Venerable Bede forms the backbone of the show, following her life from infancy.

Roger Dalladay looks on at the St Hilda exhibition he put together at Whitby Museum.

Roger Dalladay looks on at the St Hilda exhibition he put together at Whitby Museum.

Her mother Breguswith had a prophetic dream, in or about AD 614, through the foundation of Whitby Abbey in 657 and the Synod of Whitby in 664, which set English Christianity on a path of domination by Rome rather than the Celtic church, to her death of 680.

The life of Hild is portrayed in a series of large collage pictures specially created for the exhibition, as well as images from stained glass windows, many of them in Whitby.

Hild’s early life was at the Anglian court of King Edwin, her great uncle, and the ruler of the very large kingdom of Northumbria. The exhibition attempts to give some idea of life in an Anglo-Saxon kingdom at the time of its conversion from the worship of Woden to Christ.

The time of conversion is illustrated from the British Museum’s Franks Casket, a whale’s bone box contemporary with Hild.

It was the Celtic St Aidan who persuaded Hild at the age of 33 to become a nun and the abbess of double monasteries (for monks and nuns) at Hartlepool and Whitby.

These monasteries were simple wooden constructions, though excavation at Whitby in the 1920s showed that there was a stone-built church at their centre.

The exhibition also shows photos of stone crosses at Ruthwell and Bewcastle, which were the inspiration for Caedmon’s Cross in Whitby.

It was Hild’s Whitby Abbey that King Oswy chose to hold the Synod of Whitby that decided to follow the customs of Rome rather than Iona, so shaping Christian life in England right up to the Reformation under Henry VIII.

Roger Dalladay, who curated the exhibition – on at the museum for the rest of the year – explained how it had come about.

“I retired from doing exhibitions a couple of years ago but there was a change of keeper at the museum and the new one asked ‘could I come back?’ as they had a gap in the programme,” he said.

“As my wife Jill has written a book [The Abbess of Whitby, A Novel of Hild of Northumbria] – we have a large library of books on the period – I thought it would be easy as there isn’t any material about St Hilda apart from the texts of Bede and no pictures going back to her day of any sort.”

The exhibition features cuttings from the Whitby Gazette, including the front page of July 5 1957, when a congregation of around 10,000 Roman Catholics attended the Pontifical High Mass at Whitby Abbey. Marking the 13th centenary of the founding of the abbey, it was the first mass to be held there since the Reformation.

Mr Dalladay added: “One of the things that’s important about Hild is that she gave her name to St Hilda’s College in Oxford as she was an educator and ended up with an abbey full of people who were literate at a time when you could become King and not be literate.”