Some primary sources for the later legends of St Hilda

The Anglo-Saxon Saint Hilda of Whitby is known to us, not from legendary material, but from a first-rate historical source, Bede’s History of the English Church and People.   The ruined medieval abbey still stands on the cliff-top above the town, and there is still an Anglican order of nuns with a priory in the town, the Order of the Holy Paraclete.  The modern name of Whitby is Danish; the Anglo-Saxon name was Streneshalc, or some variant thereof.  There is a useful article in the Tablet here, if one can get past all the advertising popups.

But what about later miracle stories?  Surely these must exist?  What is out there?

For hagiographical texts for any saint, one would naturally consult the Acta Sanctorum.  Unfortunately the editors  of that series, the Bollandist monks, have yet to get that far.  Volume 67 only takes us to November 10.  St Hilda is commemorated on November 17 in the Roman Catholic Church, so we get nothing from that source.

The Bibliographia Hagiographica Latina vol. 1, p.583 has only a very short entry:

Hilda abb. Streanaeshalcensis, + 680. — Nov. 17.
Beda, Hist. eccl. iv. 21 (23) ; || Hist. SS. (Colon. 1483), f. 373d-74d (prima sententia post reliqua omnia reiecta est) ; || id. (Lovan. 1485), f. 198v-99v (item) ; || Capgravius, f. 179-80T (quibusdam omissis, quibusdam etiam ex Beda, iv. 22 (24) insertis).

The “Hist. SS.” is Hystorie plurimorum sanctorum noviter et laboriose ex diversis libris in unum collecte, Colon (1483).  This may be merely a version of the Golden Legend, but I was unable to locate a copy.  At all events the Bollandists do not assign any of this material a BHL number.  The Capgrave item we will discuss below.

However there are indeed later medieval texts containing a Life of St Hilda.  These naturally build on Bede, but contain new legendary material.  Here is what I was able to find, scattered across other publications.

The 14th century John of Tynemouth’s Sanctilogium (found in the badly damaged MS British Library Cotton Tiberius E.1) is accessible in a revised form in Capgrave’s Nova Legenda Angliae.  The 1901 reprint by C. Horstman contains a Life of St Hilda in volume 2, pages 29-33.  (Online at here).

Another life of Hilda is preserved in the 14th century MS British Library Lansdowne 436, fols. 105v-7r.  This is independent of John of Tynemouth, but unfortunately is not accessible online.

A 15th century manuscript, Cambridge Trinity College O.9.38, contains on ff. 69r-76v a Latin poem written by a monk of Glastonbury, tells us that St. Hilda’s relics were taken to that abbey during the Viking raids.  This has been printed by A.G. Rigg, “A Latin Poem on St Hilda and Whitby Abbey”, Journal of Medieval Latin 6 (1996), 12-43 (JSTOR), to which I owe my knowledge of these other sources.  He also details the sources for the history of Whitby abbey.

In the 16th century John Leland, who called himself “the king’s antiquary”, made visits to all the soon-to-be-abolished English monasteries, and made notes of books in their libraries, plus other incidental information.  Although he never published anything, his tantalising handwritten notes survived, and they were published in the 18th century by Thomas Hearne: John Leland, De Rebus Britannicis Collectanea (1715), vol. 3, pp.39-40. (Online at Google Books here).   Page 39 begins his account of the Whitby area.  He gives extracts from a Life of St Bega, an Irish saint, who had a double monastery at Whitby of monks and nuns, according to Anglo-Saxon custom. There is mention of a “humilis” church of St Hilda at “Greveson”, standing on a prominence called “Sowter” locally, and, he thinks, perhaps once a cell of St Bega.  Then he gives excepts from a text, taken “ex vita S. Hildae”, “From a life of St Hilda”.  This text is otherwise lost.

Ex vita S. Hildae.

Monasterium S. Hildae apud Streneshalc penitus destructum fuit ab Inguaro et Hubba, Titusque Glesconiam cum reliquiis S. Hildae aufugit.

The monastery of St. Hilda at Streneshalc was completely destroyed by Inguar and Hubba, and Titus fled to Glastonbury with the remains of St. Hilda.

Restitutum fuit monasterium de Streneshalc tempore Henrici primum per Guelielmum Perse.

The monastery of Streneshalc was restored in the time of Henry I by William Percy.

Mira res est videre serpentes apud Streneshalc in orbes giratos et inclementia caeli vel, ut monachi ferunt, precibus D. Hildae in lapides concretos.

It is a wonderful thing to see serpents at Streneshalc turned into orbs, and by the judgement of heaven, or, as the monks say, by the prayers of Lady Hilda, into concrete stones.

Locus, ubi nunc coenobium est, videtur mihi esse arx inexpugnabilis.

The place where the convent now stands seems to me to be an impregnable stronghold.

Pictura vitrea, quae est in Streneshalc, monstrat, Scotos, qui prope fines Anglorum habitabant, fuisse vel ad Gulielmi Nothi tempora antropophagos, et hanc immanitatem a Gulielmianis gladio fuisse punitam.

A glass painting, which is in Streneshalc, shows that the Scots, who lived near the borders of the English, were cannibals even in the time of William Noth, and that this savagery was punished by the sword of William.

Eska flumen oritur in Eskdale, defluitque per Danbeium nemus, et tandem apid Streneshalc in mare se exonerat.

The river Eska rises in Eskdale, flows through the forest of Danby [Dalby], and finally empties itself into the sea at Streneshalc.

The “orbs” and “concrete stones” seem to be a reference to fossil ammonites, still to be found on the beaches north of Whitby.  I do not know who William Noth was, unfortunately.

An 18th century extract from John of Tynemouth’s Sanctilogium exists in MS British Library, Stowe 305, on fols. 316-7, which includes the story about the serpents, but also a note about the medicinal properties of the ammonites.  This does not seem to be online, and indeed is an odd collection of mainly early modern items.  Their rather useless catalogue lists this as the last item in the collection, an 18th century paper manuscript:

10. Account of the foundation of Whitby Abbey by Hilda, afterwards 1st Abbess. Lat. f. 316. Paper; ff. 325. xviith-xviiith centt. Folio.

The early 17th century English text follows John of Tynemouth directly, and may be found in C. Horstman, The Lives of Women Saints of Our Contrie of England, (1886) pp.56-58 (Online at here)

A.G. Rigg tells us that St Hilda was a popular saint, at least if dedications of churches and colleges are anything to go by.  If so, the above material seems like rather a meagre harvest of material.  Surely there must be more out there somewhere?


6 thoughts on “Some primary sources for the later legends of St Hilda

  1. Dear Roger (if I may),
    I have been following your blog for some time with great interest and appreciation and this material on Hilda is marvellous.

    I have lived in the north east for 60 years and over the years have got to know Whitby well. As a priest in the CoE I have a particular in Hilda and the Abbey – I think we last visited it to see the archeological excavations there, which were extensive.

    And as a former librarian I enormously enjoyed the meticulous work you do – and share with us – on the various sources. This is true of everything you publish.

    My only substantial bibliographical work is “Gospel origins”, which is freely available online under that title. Outside, I think, of your usual areas.

    Alan Bill

  2. Thanks – fascinating stuff!
    As ‘nothus’ is Latin for ‘bastard’, I think William Noth must be Guillaume le Bâtard, i.e. William the Conqueror.

  3. Please do! Thank you for your kind words! As it happens I am due to visit the priory in Whitby in a few days time – I’m driving someone there. I shall have to take my laptop. I’ve not seen Whitby. Is there anywhere you would recommend, other than the Abbey?

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