When we think about The Way of Saint Hild our first thoughts are naturally about Hild herself, the life and times of this great Saxon woman, and how the themes of her life might speak to us today. And I shall come on to her shortly. But before we do, I want to look briefly at the other important word in this project title, Way.
The idea of pilgrimage trails is ancient. For centuries people have criss-crossed Europe to undertake pilgrimages to the great Christian shrines of Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago da Compostela where I was two months ago. Here in England among prominent pilgrim destinations have been, and still are, Canterbury, Walsingham and Glastonbury. And in the North East, Lindisfarne, Hexham, Jarrow, Wearmouth and Durham where I was privileged to spend thirteen years of my life as, you might say, a guardian of St Cuthbert’s shrine.
Among those honoured places here in the North East are, or ought to be, South Shields, Whitby and Hartlepool, the three sites most closely associated with St Hild, and through her, the Saxon saints of the seventh century. The Way of St Hild will link the two southern sites associated with her, a pilgrim path along the North Sea that connects St Hilda’s Church on Hartlepool’s Headland to the Abbey on the cliffs above Whitby.
What is a pilgrimage for? Why would anyone want to walk the path we are creating? Why do people already walk the St Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose to Holy Island, and the St Oswald’s Way from Holy Island to Heavenfield? This seems to me to be a fundamental question to ask if we are going to make sense of this project.
A pilgrimage is a journey with a purpose. Traditionally, that meant a religious purpose, making an often long and arduous journey to visit a place associated with some key event in the story of faith, or with the lives of holy men and women who are revered in that story. The tradition speaks about holy places, sites that have been touched and lit up in some way because of those associations. “Hild was here.” And insofar as the whole journey is inspired by this sense of holy purpose, we can say that it comes to define a sacred geography, a landscape imbued with historical, cultural and spiritual meanings.
So pilgrimage declares: this is not just any landscape, however historic, however beautiful. The pilgrim way contributes to what we can call place-making. Its very existence enhances our understanding of our native geography, its genius loci or “spirit of the place” that makes it what it is, or as we tend to say nowadays, its sense of place. The journey may already be familiar or be travelled for the first time. The important thing is that pilgrimage lends it added significance. It suggests new ways of looking at it because of the stories it commemorates. There are new interpretations, new meanings, new textures.
Historically, pilgrimage has been defined in terms of journeys with a religious purpose, but I need to broaden that understanding. A journey can have many kinds of purpose that are not always overtly religious. Veterans travel to honour war graves where their comrades lie buried. Holidaymakers visit distant places they haven’t been to before to learn about their culture and art, meet their peoples and admire their landscapes. People go back to their birthplace or where their ancestors have lived. These are all pilgrimages in their different ways. A holiday is literally a holy day. That makes the point.
The Way of St Hild is offered as a journey that carries multiple significance. We can see this clearly from the twelve proposed stations for the “augmented reality” interpretations. It begins and ends with churches associated with St Hild herself, a traditional way of setting out and completing a pilgrimage at a sacred site. Some set our saint in the context of the Saxon era and explore how her story was told and her pilgrimage developed into the later middle ages and beyond. Another identifies her as one of a North East cluster of holy men and women who were honoured by pilgrimages. But some stations are more historical. They make us aware of the Anglo-Saxon culture in which Hild lived and that the pilgrimage landscape has a prehistory going back to Roman times. One of them opens up an aspect of the natural world, the wildlife of the Tees Estuary and helps us understand the landscapes that Hild knew and that formed her as a northern saint. Not all of these are directly focused on Hild herself, but all of them contribute to the rich texture of this pilgrim journey and place her story in a larger context than simply her own life and times.
One of the important aspects of any pilgrimage is that while it often commemorates people or events in the past, at its best it is never backward-looking. That is to say, good pilgrimage makes a distinction between the past in itself, the past as it’s featured in the stories told about it by subsequent generations, and the past as we ourselves encounter and experience it as people of today. Theologians talk about anamnesis, bringing the past into the present so that it has the potential to shed light upon our contemporary concerns and even contribute to shaping the future. This is what is happening when Christians celebrate the eucharist and take bread and wine “in remembrance of me”, not to relive the past memory but to actualise it in the present, make it a real agency of transformation.
This seems to me to be crucial in the way we set about the project of imagining this particular Hild-inspired journey and creating it as an offer to enrich people’s lives. How do we avoid setting up an exercise that is no more than an exercise in recreating the past? By taking an intentionally holistic view of what we are engaged in, not least in its connections with our contemporary world. This means broadening the scope as far as we can while preserving the integrity of the controlling theme of St Hild. I shall come back to this later on.
I began by defining pilgrimage as journey with a purpose. Ultimately, I guess that purpose means our own self-understanding as contemporary men and women. A way is more than a physical path. It suggests our way of life, a spirituality of being human, the journey we cannot help making if we are serious about human life and being good citizens of our age. We want in our best moments to know our place in the world and how we can leave a legacy that will have added value and enhanced not only our own lives but those of our successors.
So much for the meanings of pilgrimage. I want now to turn to Hild herself and how we should commemorate her in this pilgrim journey. Let me say something about her life and times, and then suggest themes to consider as we create this pilgrimage that bears her name.
Our source for the life of St Hild (in Latin, Hilda) is the Venerable Bede, that great chronicler of the late seventh and early eighth century to whom we owe the very idea of “England”. As a Northumbrian living in the double monastery of Wearmouth and Jarrow, his focus was inevitably northern which makes him the best (and often only) authority on Christian Northumbria in what we’ve come to call its golden age. It is agreed by all that Bede was a scrupulous historian when judged by the criteria of his times, and a wealth of information about the Saxon kingdom and its people has been preserved to us which would otherwise have been lost.
He tells us that Hild was a Saxon princess who was brought up in the court of King Edwin of Northumbria. When he converted to Christianity in 627, the first Northumbrian king to do so, he and his entire court were baptised by Paulinus at York, including the thirteen-year old Hild. Sent away to the safety of the south when Edwin was killed by the Mercians in 633, she returned to Northumbria at the summons of Aidan of Lindisfarne who asked her to found a religious community somewhere north of the River Wear. Tradition identifies this with the ancient Christian site on which St Hilda’s Church in South Shields was later built. In 649 Aidan appointed her as Abbess of the double monastery at Hartlepool, a community of men and women who took vows and lived separately but worshipped together in their abbey church. In keeping with Northumbrian Christian tradition instituted by Bishop Aidan, himself an Irishman, their rule of life would have drawn on Irish rather than Roman Benedictine monasticism.
Again, we don’t know precisely where the community was situated but we can assume it to have been on the Headland by St Hilda’s Church where the remains of the medieval sea wall and the convent cemetery can still be seen. Perhaps we should see the Headland as a second Lindisfarne, an almost-island that was conducive to spiritual reflection and the life of prayer. The Saxon church loved these semi-detached places by the sea, isolated in themselves yet always connected to the mainland. Even today, the Headland retains these qualities despite – or perhaps because – of its urban character. It’s one of the most magical places I know. In my book Landscapes of Faith I said of it that “it is quintessentially north eastern in its marriage of a centuries-old Christian history and more modern urbanisation”. Like Bede’s churches at Wearmouth and Jarrow, the Saxon churches at Billingham and Escomb, and Durham Cathedral itself.
Hild founded Whitby Abbey in 657. This too was a double monastery, and there is no reason to doubt that it was situated on the cliffs near the Benedictine abbey that was built there in the thirteenth century. (Indeed, it could even be possible that it was “double” in the sense Wearmouth-Jarrow was: a single convent on two geographical sites, Hartlepool and Whitby.) Bede commends Whitby as a model of its kind, a house of discipline, prayer, learning, good works, peaceability and charity. Its greatest moment took place in the year 664. Oswiu, Oswald’s brother and successor as King of Northumbria, convened a synod there to resolve matters of dispute in the church of which he was the leading lay person.
The principal point of contention concerned the date of Easter. This may seem arcane to us today, but to Christians in the early centuries of the church’s history it was a matter of extreme importance to celebrate the festival of the resurrection on the correct day and together. Bede himself wrote about the mathematics and astronomy that underlay the complex calculations. Irish tradition, inherited by the influential community on Lindisfarne, calculated the date one way, Catholics, taking their lead from the continental European church and St Augustine’s mission in the southern kingdoms, in another. This was a sharply personal issue for Oswiu because while he like his brother followed the Irish calendar, his queen Eanfleda who had been brought up in Kent followed Roman practice. This meant that one of them could be feasting in Eastertide while the other was still fasting rigorously in Lent. What was at stake was the unity of the Northumbrian church. But more than that, the kingdom’s political relationships with the rest of England and with the continent had everything to gain by reaching agreement.
Oswiu listened carefully, then decided in favour of the Catholic way and imposed it on his kingdom. This was how decisions were made in those days. Cuius regio, eius religio – you followed the religion of whoever reigned over you. Those on Lindisfarne who could not accept it returned to Iona where they had come from, and then to the north of Ireland (where, in due course, the church fell into line with the Catholic south, thus ending a schism that had divided the western church). For Bede, the Synod of Whitby was a turning point in the history of the northern church. And we can see Hild’s role in the synod as presiding over bitterly contested ground, acknowledging the outcome of the dispute, and promoting its acceptance among the company of those gathered in her monastery and in the wider Northumbrian church – all the more impressive for the fact that she personally inclined to the Irish tradition in which she had been formed, rather than the Roman.
Hild died on 17 November 680. It was not long before her memory began to be venerated. We know this from a church calendar from early in the eighth century, not long after the Lindisfarne Gospels were written. I think we should remember her for her holiness, her piety, her administrative skills, her wisdom, her learning, her charity and, not least, her extraordinary energy even in old age. Two stories endeared her to the ordinary people of her day. Bede tells the story of how she enabled the simple cow-herd Caedmon to sing and compose poems in praise of God. He is the earliest English poet whose name we know, so Hild came to be celebrated as a midwife of poetry and song. A legend was told of her turning snakes to stone during an infestation of the town, which supposedly explained fossils found in the cliffs; hence the ammonite symbol long associated with her which you will see on many churches and institutions dedicated to her.
Why does her story matter to us today, and how should we set about commemorating it in our Pilgrim Way of St Hild? Let me make three suggestions.
First, we should respect and honour our Christian heritage. What do I mean by invoking that slippery word? I mean, among other things, the “landscapes of faith” that we are fortunate enough to live in here in North East England. In England, it’s perhaps only in Cornwall and the North East that we have such a rich legacy of saints from early Christian times. The difference is that whereas in Cornwall, so many of them have survived only in village names and church dedications, here in the North East we know a great deal about who they were, how they lived and what they achieved that left such a mark on the collective memory that they were canonised as saints.
Most people have heard of Aidan, Cuthbert and Bede. Fewer could name Oswald, Wilfred, Benedict Biscop, St John of Beverley, Chad and Cedd. Hild belongs in that second group of saints who had a real and lasting impact on the history of the English, but remains comparatively little known. I think it is the duty of places associated with any great men and women to promote their memory and celebrate their contribution to our history. It helps if natural and built heritage create obvious ways in which to do this, which they indeed do in this part of England.
But intangible heritage is as important as what is visible and concrete. Intangible heritage has to do with stories and their meanings, the values and aspirations, that human beings assign to their surroundings to explain why they matter and should be cherished. It is the story itself that must be told in order to interpret the “sense of place” I spoke about at the beginning, and bear witness to the importance of events that shaped our past. So our project is an act of piety, that is, an explicit acknowledgment of what makes our places what they are, and what we owe to them as people who are, consciously or unconsciously, formed by them. In her case, we should not be afraid of speaking about promoting spiritual values, those dimensions of human life that are intanglible but influential and formative, whatever content we choose to give to that kind of language.
Secondly, we should draw on the narratives of the past so as to inform our present and future. I am thinking of two aspects of Hild’s story as a leader in public life that I think speak directly to our society today. She was a woman, perhaps the most accomplished of the women Bede makes a point of celebrating in his History. An abbot or abbess was always a person of significance in Saxon England. But her oversight as a woman of one of the great institutions of Saxon England, and her capacity to open up educational possibilities for young women and girls in the convent tells us much about her stature. Her presiding role in a monastery important enough to host a royal synod is all the evidence we need of her standing in the kingdom. This speaks volumes to the times we are living in as we struggle to achieve equality in our gender roles in public and personal life. By extension, we could see her role as symbolic of our quest for a genuine inclusion of all who are marginalised in our supposedly equal society. We can see Caedmon, the singer whom Hild brought in from outside as an instance of the literally voiceless person on the edge of her privileged circle being recognised, heard, taken seriously and given back their power. As a practitioner of social justice, she speaks eloquently into our own divided society.
And this is what Hild’s conduct at the Synod of Whitby particularly witnesses to. As far as we can tell, she demonstrated the capacity to reach across a society fractured by ideological debates in order to achieve unity and common purpose. We can see her, I think, as a broker of reconciliation towards those hurt by the king’s decision, for while loyal to the agreed outcome, as a woman herself shaped by Ireland and Iona, she did not lose her sympathy for those on the losing side. In our increasingly fraught politics, there are all kinds of lessons those in public life can usefully draw from the career of a leader whom tradition honours for her celebrated wisdom in turbulent times.
But thirdly, we need to respect the pastness of the past and while learning from it, we should not attempt to recapitulate it in our present experience. I said earlier that we must not allow a project of this kind to become locked into the past, still less to try to reconstruct it and relive it in the utterly different world in which we live. We only do justice to Hild if we can distance ourselves from her and recognise that she was a woman of her time. There is so much we can learn from her, but it doesn’t follow that we should inhabit the cultural assumptions and thought-world of seventh century Northumbria. We must beware of nostalgia for our Saxon past. Nostalgia is literally aching for home. But the past is not our home. The present is.
This hardly needs to be said, but there is a strain of heritage activity (which has influenced some sections of the church in its take on Northumbrian Christianity) that risks romanticising the past, subtly – or not so subtly – suggesting that it was better, kinder, more noble, more courageous than the present. I think this is a point worth dwelling on at a time when nationalism is on the rise, often driven, it seems, by a nostalgic harking back to the days of empire or the wartime spirit. More than thirteen centuries after the event there are still people who will tell you that the decision at the Synod of Whitby was a terrible mistake, fatally compromising the purity of a supposedly primitive Celtic Christianity as against the corruptions of Rome. When heritage colludes with nostalgia to convey the message that the past was always better than the present, we should beware.
The fact is that the Anglo-Saxon world was cruel and harsh to an extent that we don’t always realise when we look at our Christian sources. Christian monarchs thought nothing of slaughtering their foes as a matter of daily reality. The saints of that era practised extreme asceticism of a kind we might be tempted to regard as eccentric or even abusive, especially when the young were trained up in these practices. I am thinking of Cuthbert walking into the North Sea and reciting Psalms all night long while the waters rose up to his neck. We are impressed and moved by that story but I doubt that we should emulate it, especially knowing the North Sea as we do. So it’s important that we do not regard historical figures as our contemporaries, however much we may admire them. We need to learn from them intelligently, exercise discernment as their critical friends.
This is how we must respect Hild as a great woman who belongs to our common past. We honour her by respecting the distance that lies between our times and hers, the gap of the centuries across which we reach back to her story and try to tell it as people of today. This entails understanding how her memory come down to us endlessly worked on and reshaped by those who received it, cherished it and bequeathed it to those who followed. Tradition is traditio, literally “that which is handed on”. It is never free of the influences of those who receive it and pass it on. This is part of its richness, that layered, textured quality the deep structures of our best stories acquire precisely because they have been handled with such reverence and love.
So the interpretative task is: how do the horizons of the Saxon and our modern worlds encounter each other in ways that respect the distinctiveness of each and enrich our own? The Way of St Hild ought to help us pilgrims who walk it understand our own times all the better for the insights that our past sheds on it. Here is where the choice of augmented reality stations and the interpretative experiences we offer is fundamental. If the enterprise is to realise its cultural and spiritual aims, it must demonstrate a holistic understanding of pilgrimage that sets it in our own times and addresses contemporary concerns.
For example, I could see further interpretation points) focusing on themes such as:
-the natural maritime heritage of this stretch of the North Sea coast (recalling how the Saxon saints lived close to nature), together with threats to the environment, species diversity and natural habitats;
-industry on the coast including mining, shipping and fishing;
-Hartlepool’s role as a gateway to safety for those given sanctuary at Durham Cathedral and embarking on exile
-sea and land communications along the coast (in the middle ages, the sea was the highway of choice that connected nations and societies);
-poverty, need and social justice in the North East (of which the Saxon saints were champions);
-war and conflict from the Viking invasions, military fortifications along the coast, and the air raids of the Great War;
-education and learning (promoted in Hild’s convents as a key aim of monasticism);
-the arts in the North East from Caedmon, Hild’s poet, to the present;
-sport, leisure and recreation as they respond to the opportunity of “sabbatical time” whether chosen or enforced by unemployment, age, sickness or disability.
This can sound contrived, I know. And pilgrims would see straight through any bogus attempt to make connections. But I could make a plausible case for a Hild pilgrimage broadening its reach in all these ways. And that includes connecting it with other pilgrim “ways” that already exist or are being developed in the North East. They could link us to Holy Island, St Oswald and St Aidan, Durham and St Cuthbert, Hexham and St Wilfrid, and Wearmouth-Jarrow and St Benedict Biscop and Bede. Once the controlling idea was worked out, so much else could flow from it. Natural heritage, our Christian past, the lived experience of the people whose “places” the route passes through, the larger dilemmas of contemporary North East England, all have a part to play in contributing to the wholeness of pilgrimage in these parts, its capacity to raise questions and make connections across the entire breadth of human life as it is experienced in this region of England.
The “pastness of the past” is part of its gift to us. By resisting nostalgia, but instead receiving and understanding it for what it is and what it has become helps us become genuinely contemporary citizens of the present who are able to contribute to today’s world with renewed insight, imagination and vitality. The Way of St Hild has an enormous amount to contribute to our common life here in the North East. “Augmented reality” could be another word for pilgrimage, in whatever ways we experience it. It’s very good to have a small part to play in realising this imaginative project.
At a seminar to discuss the development of a pilgrim trail "The Way of St Hild"
Hartlepool, 2 July 2019