Whitby Harbour On The River Esk
The Abbess of Whitby: A novel of Hild of Northumbria
Author: Jill Dalladay
First published: 21 Aug 2015
Chosen as handmaid to Eostre, the Saxon goddess, Hild would spend a year serving the goddess before she was wed. Her future was mapped out – until her father was murdered, and King Edwin claimed her as kin. Hild’s first love was given a key command in Edwin’s forces, and vanished from her life, wed to her elder sister.
That same day, the court was baptised, ending the people’s fertility religion and Hild’s role. Life looked bleak – even more so when the husband to whom she was given was killed, along with her child. Hild resented the compulsory baptism, but became intrigued by the Iona priests, and eventually converted. Aidan, the charismatic figure who taught, and lived, a new kind of love, persuaded Hild to help spread the new faith. In thanks for a significant victory, King Oswy ordered her to found one of his new monasteries at Whitby. She would see the men she trained appointed by the Pope as missionary bishops, carrying the faith across Britain.
Jill Dalladay is a classicist, historian and former head teacher who pioneered the Cambridge Latin course. She lives in Whitby.
Jill Dalladay’s The Abbess of Whitby picks up more or less at the point where Nicola Griffith ends her first volume, so that I could follow Hild’s whole life story in these two novels.
Both Griffith and Dalladay have clearly put in the hours and years it takes to produce good historical fiction, particularly as Anglo-Saxon written history only begins from the seventh century, when Roman and Irish clergy and monks began to put pen to parchment, almost exclusively in Latin, the language of the Church.
What makes Dalladay’s Hild fascinating as an historical figure is that, at Whitby, Hild ruled over a dual monastery comprising both women and men, where she raised an educated group of young men who went on to become the next generation of indigenous bishops. Hild hosted the crucial Synod of Whitby that finally settled the question of the ‘correct’ date of Easter that all of the Saxon kingdoms could adhere to, and the Irish monks in Deira and elsewhere withdrew to Iona in Scotland. Dalladay attends to all these aspects with insight and care, even though the fine line between teaching and presenting is easily crossed.
This was a time of significant change in the Church’s attitude towards the ministry and authority of women. Hild, and abbesses like her in Kent, stood as early examples of recognised spiritual authority, exercised by women, in the leadership of both women and men. How and why was this lost for so many centuries?
While the overall cast of characters in The Abbess of Whitby is smaller than those in Griffith’s Hild, we don’t come to ‘know’ them or Hild in quite the same depth, but that does not detract from the core story as it unfolds. It is good to see this era brought alive under the pen of a fine author, and Dalladay has the added advantage of living in Whitby where many of the novel’s events take place. Definitely a good and accessible read!