As this blogpost is about a place in England I’m putting it in my ‘non-Scottish’ category, but that’s not the whole story, because Whitby has an important connection with early medieval Scotland.
Today, Whitby is a busy town and seaside resort on the coast of North Yorkshire. Its most striking landmark is the ruined abbey on a high headland overlooking the harbour. The abbey stands near the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery which was the venue for a hugely significant event in AD 664: an ecclesiastical synod where matters of grave concern were discussed. The synod was hosted by Abbess Hild, a princess of the English kingdom of Northumbria, who also chaired the debate. Among the attendees was the Northumbrian king Oswiu (husband of Hild’s kinswoman Eanflaed) at whose request the gathering was summoned.
At stake in the debate was the future direction of Christianity in Oswiu’s kingdom. Would the Northumbrian churches continue to follow the ‘Celtic’ religious customs of Iona, the Hebridean island monastery founded by Saint Columba? Or would they instead adopt the so-called ‘Roman’ customs practised throughout much of Western Europe? The Celtic case was put by Colmán, bishop of Lindisfarne, while the chief spokesman for the Roman side was Wilfrid, abbot of Ripon. After hearing the arguments and counter-arguments, King Oswiu decreed that the Northumbrian churches should adhere to Roman customs alone. At a stroke, Iona’s authority among the Northern English clergy was ended. Even those who felt strong loyalty to the old Celtic ways, such as Hild herself, were obliged to obey the royal command.
Nothing now remains of the seventh-century monastery at Whitby. Although archaeologists have found traces of timber buildings on the seaward edge of the headland, as well as a large cemetery of Anglo-Saxon graves beneath a car park near the Abbey, the precise layout of the monastic site is unknown. Modern visitors are instead left to imagine how the headland might have looked in Hild’s time. When they reach the top of the 199 steps leading up from the town, they encounter an impressive rendition of an Anglo-Saxon cross.
This monument, known as Caedmon’s Cross, was erected in 1898 to commemorate Caedmon, a herdsman at the Whitby monastery, whose talent for poetry caught the attention of Hild. Both he and the abbess are carved on the front, together with Jesus Christ and the Israelite king David.
The cross stands in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, an interesting old building which is well worth a visit. The church has a number of stained glass windows depicting key figures connected with the Synod of Whitby (Hild, Wilfrid and Colmán) as well as Caedmon and two seventh-century Northumbrian kings (Oswiu’s brother Oswald and Hild’s kinsman Edwin).
Finally, a Scottish connection from a rather later period: a stone memorial, high on a wall inside St Mary’s Church, honouring the English general Peregrine Lascelles (1685-1772) who fought in the battle of Prestonpans near Edinburgh in 1745. This famous Jacobite victory, in which an English army was flung into disarray by a wild Highland charge, evidently niggled the old general to the end of his days. His memorial refers to a fruitless exertion of his Spirit & ability at the disgracefull rout of Preston pans.
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All photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.
I’ve written in more detail about the Synod of Whitby in my book on Saint Columba.
Hild has been brought vividly to life by award-winning author Nicola Griffith in a historical novel scheduled for publication later this year.
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