Whitby in Yorkshire is better know these days as a seaside resort. The ruins of the Abbey high on the cliff top dominate the town and speak of its religious history. These are the remains of a Benedictine Abbey built on the site of a far more ancient abbey where1300 years ago, a Synod was gathered that was to change the course of British Christianity.


Whitby Abbey (16221 bytes)

Ruins of the medieval Abbey

Christianity came to Britain with the Romans but, when they left, it began to adapt to the culture around them. It was strongly influenced by the teachings of the Desert Fathers and Scripture and has become known as Celtic Christianity mainly because it had its deepest roots in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the north of England where the Celtic peoples lived.

When St Augustine came to England, he brought with him the developing Roman tradition which was based on the structures of the Roman Empire. Where Celtic Christianity was loosely organised, the Roman form was highly ordered. Eventually, the two began to clash - not least in the household of King Oswy.

Oswy’s wife had been brought up in the Roman tradition which used one calendar for calculating the date of Easter - the king, belonging to the Celtic tradition used another. This could lead to cases where the king might be celebrating Easter whilst his wife was still fasting for Lent.

So, Oswy called a Synod - a gathering of the Churches - to determine which tradition should be followed. He chose the Abbey of Whitby - aware that this was governed by a formidable woman called Hilda and where a just and lasting outcome could be assured.

Hilda was born in exile in 617 AD. Her father had been murdered but, the day before she was born, her mother had a vision of taking a great jewel from inside her robe - a jewel that began to glow more and more brightly until the light from it illuminated all England.

Hilda was baptised at Easter 627 AD in a church on the site where York Minster now stands. She contemplated the religious life for a long time but had planned to go to Europe. However, she was invited by the King to go back to Northumbria and there met St Aidan. He recognised her gifts - both spiritual and practical and asked her to establish a new Abbey in Whitby. As Abbess, she was responsible not only for the nuns and monks entrusted to her care - but also for the decisions about the buildings and land.

The choice of her Abbey for the great Synod reflects the skill and learning of the people who lived and prayed there - and the respect that she had gained among the leaders of the day.

The Synod chose to follow the Roman path - a decision which may have saddened Hilda - as an Abbess in the new order, she would only be permitted to have nuns in her Abbey. But, she accepted the decision and continued her wok in Whitby.

On 17th November 680, a nun had a vision of the sky opening and angels appearing to take home a great soul. Only later did she discover that this was the night on which Hilda had died...

(The events around the Synod of Whitby form the basis of an epic novel by Melvyn Bragg called Credo - a good read!)

Whitby could also be a place of pilgrimage for church musicians since it was here that the first person to write sacred music in one of the native tongues of these islands was born and died.

 Caedmon Father of English Sacred Music(164313 bytes)His name was Caedmon and he lived at the time when Hilda was Abbess of Whitby.

His early life is obscure but what is known is that he was employed by the monastery as a cowherd.

One night, he had a dream in which an angelic stranger came to him and asked him to sing a song for him. Caedmon claimed he could not sing - but the angel persisted. Caedmon asked what he should sing about - and the angel told him to sing about the beginning of created beings - which Caedmon did.

The dream was so intense that Caedmon could not forget it - and, presumably spoke of it because news of it came to the attention of Hilda.

She called Caedmon in to see her and to tell her of what had passed in the dream and recognised it as of God. She invited him to join the monastic community as a lay brother and to continue writing sacred songs in the language of the people. Until this time, all hymns would have been in Latin - Caedmon’s gift was to make sacred music as available to ordinary people as their traditional folk songs.

He died in the Infirmary at Whitby - probably in the same year as Hilda herself. He seems to have known that death was coming as, shortly before, he asked to receive Eucharist. This caused some surprise as until then he had been his usual cheerful self - but his request was granted. The venerable Bede - who recorded Caedmon’s life - says that shortly after, as the Night Office was beginning in the Abbey, Caedmon signed himself with the sign of the Cross and passed peacefully away.

A cross dedicated to the memory of Caedmon now stands in the graveyard close to the Abbey ruins.

Caedmon's Memorial Cross (138248 bytes)

Caedmon's Memorial

The inscription reads:

To the glory of God and in
memory of
The Father
of English
Sacred Song
fell asleep
hard by 680


The photograph of Whitby Abbey comes from the Whitby link listed below
and is used with the kind permission of Jeff Snoxell

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