Whitby Abbey

Whitby Abbey

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.

Caedmon's Cross

Caedmon’s Cross, Whitby.

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.
Saint Hild of Whitby

Caedmon’s Cross: St Hild, abbess of Whitby.


Caedmon’s Cross: Caedmon the poet

Caedmon's Cross

Caedmon’s Cross: commemorative text

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).
Hild and Wilfrid

St Mary’s Church: Hild and Wilfrid

Caedmon and Colman

St Mary’s Church: Caedmon and Colmán

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.

St Mary's Church, Whitby: memorial to General Lascelles

General Lascelles (left) and his memorial at St Mary’s Church, Whitby (right).

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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.

* * * * * * *

24 comments on “Whitby

  1. Valerie Brewster Willis says:

    Somebody recently published an ebook connecting Pictish art and Mithraism – – and here’s me thinking that the Scots went north after Whitby determined to stick to their guns and keep to their ancient, tried and true way of reckoning dates etc – and that’s why we see all the Pictish symbols on tall crosses!
    There’s an Irish rebel song that goes “we’re not English, we’re not Saxons; we are Irish and proud we are to be …. ” If you think of all that ancient standing stone – druid – Celtic Christianity continuum, what must they have thought of upstart Rome trying to tell them what to believe?

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for dropping by again, Valerie. The situation is even more complex than my blogpost suggests. Pressures on the Celtic clergy at Iona (and in Iona’s Northumbrian satellites) to conform to ‘Roman’ customs were being applied not only by their English neighbours but also by their own fellow-countrymen in Ireland. Many of the southern Irish churches had already made the switch to Roman practice before c.650. Even in the north of Ireland, where many churches acknowledged the authority of Iona, support for change was gathering pace. Also, although the issue was clearly divisive and emotive, Iona and the other Celtic traditionalist churches (i.e. in Wales, Cornwall and North Britain) remained steadfast in their allegiance to the Pope. When we look past the strongly Romanist rhetoric of Bede, we soon see that the Celtic churches never regarded themselves as separate from mainstream Catholicism.

  2. Many thanks for the shout-out.

    • Tim says:

      You’re welcome, Nicola. Let me know if you ever want to use the two Hild images and I’ll send the larger versions.

  3. Lovely post. Appreciate the pictures of places I’ve read about but will probably never see in person.
    Sounds a little like they let the wolf in the door?

  4. tsmorangles says:

    I believe that many people are missing the point of the economical weight of a Kingdom linked to Rome/Byzantium empire and the matching trade routes to Spain, Italy etc via Frankish Gaul and the rather limited economical weight of a church linked to Irish/Pelagic churchmen however saintly they may have been…

    I must say I am flabbergast by this tunnel vision of historians. In about 100years, we see Anglo-Saxon kingdoms one after another switching to a Roman tradition and nobody realizes the impact of Bertha/Aethelburg/Eanfled/Osthryth with family links with the Frankish realm not limited to the Royal family but with down to earth connections with the Gallo-Roman aristocracy and we all know who was really ruling/doing business in Gaul …

    Oswiu switched traditions but was a clear observant of what a kingdom who followed the Roman tune could achieve through trade if on the other side of the border the customs officer was looking benignly on your wares or not. The South was rich by trade , the North was rightly emulating it by choosing the right political move.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for your input.

      I agree there was probably a lot more to the Celtic-versus-Roman issue than disagreement over religious matters such as the date of Easter and the style of monastic tonsure. Whether economic factors relating to Continental trade played a significant part is an interesting question. It’s worth keeping in mind that some monasteries in Ireland and northern/western Britain already had well-established trading links with Frankish Gaul while happily retaining Celtic religious practices.

      • Valerie Bewster Willis says:

        Thank you for that phrase “Celtic religious practices”. I struggle to find an acceptably academic way of expressing the notion that older ideas appear to surface through the evolving social structure of early medieval western Europe. On the one hand there are those accumulating money and authority, and hand-in-glove with the Roman church refining ways to regulate, maintain and ensure a future for their way of life; and on the other, there are craftsmen drawing on inherited tradition to interpret commissions from those with new money and new ideas.
        For me, with an interest in architectural art history, “Celtic” is the simple way to describe an apparent link between Burgundy, Northern Spain and Western Scotland for example, although it is the world view of ordinary people rather than the cultural refinement of the elite I am thinking about.
        That’s why I enjoy these posts, keeps me up-to-date and well rounded. Its all to easy to get lost in never never land when trying to nail an abstract idea.

        • tsmorangles says:

          By Burgundy , do you mean the Burgond Kingdom which was not exactly Celtic , while Northern Spain Galicia and Asturias have a strong Celtic bckground it must be relativized, In 664AD, it was more Wisigothic than anything. And when said Kingdom was crushed by the Muslim invaders, the Reconquista ,who started very soon after though it would take up to well over 700 years to achieve a free Spain, was about a Wisigothic past, not so much a Celtic one….

          • Valerie Brewster Wilis says:

            Nothing to do with 7th C. kingdoms except that great events facilitate small ones. People travel, meet and swap ideas. A mason from Burgundy talks to a Muslim mason somewhere in the Pyrenees. Its about the same peg and string geometry once used to lay out stone circles and decorate high crosses being used to design abbeys. Its about Euclid or wherever the Muslim learned to design his complex tile patterns. Its about those two having no language or religion in common except geometry, and in that they find mutual understanding.

            The geometry they talk about is the same geometry that forms a Celtic cross, and everyone knows what a Celtic cross looks like. Its about geometry as language. The phrase “Celtic spirituality” might not be academically accurate but it is particularly useful when thinking about a world view predating any 7th C. European kingdom and continuing to inform art and architecture today.

            Sorry, wandered too far from Whitby to keep this conversation up!

            • Tim says:

              Wandering a little way off-topic is no problem here, Valerie. Happens all the time. Some of these comment-threads twist and turn along all kinds of interesting pathways.

              • Valerie says:

                Just to explain why I was talking about spirituality and geometry,
                The lovely grave stone found recently with the medieval knightly burial beneath an Edinburgh car park so closely resembles another at Kilmartin, that together they demonstrate this idea of an older spirituality preserved in the iconography of the new.
                The Edinburgh cross is described as a Calvary cross because it is a tall cross on a stepped base representing the hill on which the cross of Crucifixion was raised. The head of the cross is carved in the old way, an equal armed cross within a wheel, a sun wheel. Jesus at the centre of creation is THE sun god, no longer must we think of Roman Mithra or Sol, or Celtic Lough.
                Among the grave stones at Kilmartin is one in which the cross is again a tall cross with a sword alongside, like that at Edinburgh. As was often done, the wheel cross at Kilmartin is carved separately, above the Latin cross, though here designed as a square rather than a wheel. The design consists of four large, plain circles arranged to form a square within which a delicate cross is carved. In Edinburgh, those same four circles in a square are more closely integrated in the overall design, blending the square with the circle.
                There is another grave stone at Kilmartin in which a warrior stands firmly in full armour with pike and sword above the same circle and square geometry that so effectively preserves an ancient spirituality in the newer Christianity.
                These four circles with a cross turn up in many variations on older carved stones until they eventually settle into the four armpits of the Celtic cross (where they might be thought of as the four wounds of Christ).
                I think these four circles are something like four principles to uphold and sustain life, the same four invoked as a warrior danced over crossed swords before battle. Spirituality is a difficult subject to talk about, somebody with a deeper understanding of Celtic spirituality would be better to talk about this sort of thing.

              • Tim says:

                This is interesting info, Valerie. Also, it reminds me that I’m long overdue a return visit to Kilmartin. I think I remember the stones you’ve described here, but after 10+ years I can’t picture them clearly. Need to go back and refresh my memory.

    • nicolagriffith says:

      I think you might enjoy my novel if this is your focus. I spend a fair amount of time on the politics of trade.

      • Valerie says:

        I’ll certainly look Hild up, looks like a good read. When Tim posted his discovery of the pool at Dunino, it reminded of an episode from one of D.G’s novels in which her Catholic red heided hero resorts to a sacred pool to invoke the aid of his Celtic heritage.

  5. Jo Woolf says:

    This looks a fascinating place, and it’s high on my list of places to visit!

    • Tim says:

      I’d definitely recommend a visit, Jo. The heights on either side of the harbour make it quite a dramatic setting for photography.

  6. Jon Goode says:

    Next time you’re south of the border, the site of another of St Hild’s double monasteries on the Headland of Hartlepool is well worth a visit. The later medieval church of St Hilda, (a similar age to Whitby abbey and still in use) was built by the Norman De Brus family – who you might know something about!

    • Tim says:

      I’ve been to Hartlepool a few times but never had an opportunity to check out the old monastic site. If I do manage to visit the headland I may blog about it here.

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