St. Hilda of Whitby or Hild of Whitby (c. 614-680 A.D.) was a Saxon abbess and a member of the ancient Northumbrian nobility. She is frequently depicted with a pastoral staff and carrying an abbey church. There are often ammonites at her feet.
The historian, St. Bede (who was about eight years old when she died), records she hosted the Synod of Whitby, at which Celtic and Roman Catholicism met to decide on liturgical matters in 664 A.D. She is an important person, and personality, in the history of the early development of Christianity in Britain. St. Hilda, or “Mother” as she was affectionately known, was a source of encouragement and counsel for people from all walks of life.
Hilda was baptized at age 13 by St. Paulinus of York, who converted her great-uncle, St. Edwin, King of Northumbria and all of his court to the Christian faith. She lived the first half of her life as a noblewoman, but at the age of 33 she became a nun. Whitby Abbey was a double monastery housing both monks and nuns, and Hilda presided over both communities. Whitby Abbey became well-known as a place of learning. For more on her life, especially her importance to women in the Church, read here.
St. Hilda is associated with several legends, especially turning snakes into stone.
Ammonites were frequently interpreted as being coiled snakes that had turned to stone and somehow lost their heads. They were often called snakestones. Most of the legends surrounding snakestones centered around Whitby. Sir Walter Scott recounts in his 1808 poem, Marmion, how snakestones came to be:
They told, how in their convent cell – A Saxon Princess once did dwell, The lovely Edelfled. And how, of thousand snakes, each one – Was changed into a coil of stone. When holy Hilda pray’d: Themselves, within their holy bound, Their stony folds had often found. They told, how sea-fowls’ pinions fail, as over Whitby’s towers they sail. And, sinking down, with flutterings faint, They do their homage to the saint.
The legend goes that she turned all the snakes to stone in Whitby in order to clear the ground for a new convent. In response to her devout praying, the snakes coiled up, turned to stone, and fell off the edge of the cliffs after she cut off their heads with a whip. The absence of heads is also attributed to a curse by St. Cuthbert.
It has become a tradition in Whitby to carve snakeheads onto ammonites. These snakestones, usually specimens of Hildoceras (named in honor of St. Hilda) and Dactylioceras are used for this purpose. Some of the carved and polished specimens from Whitby were found in Norway, clearly traded or transported by Norse settlers. In Elizabethan England snakestone brooches of jet were highly prized.
Hilda was succeeded as abbess by Eanflaed, widow of King Oswiu of Northumbria, and their daughter, Aelfflaed. St. Hilda and Eanflaed were cousins. All three were buried at Whitby Abbey with St. Hilda.
After the rule of Aelfflaed as abbess, nothing more is known of Whitby until it was destroyed by Vikings in 867. After the Norman invasion of England in 1066 AD, monks from Evesham refounded the abbey as a Benedictine house for men. It continued until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII in 1539.
According to local folklore, the the wraith of St. Hilda appears in the abbey ruins in a shroud; and the bells of the abbey can be heard ringing under the sea, where they sank with the ship taking them to London after the abbey was dismantled.
The 2013 novel Hild by Nicola Griffith is based on the life of St. Hilda. She also appears as a main character in Absolution for Murder, the first book in Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma mysteries.
There are different versions of everything in this story! St. Emer, Saint Emerius, Sant Emerio or Mer, was an 8th century abbott, Benedictine monk, and legendary founder of the monastery of San Esteban de Banyoles, Spain. Tradition places his birth at Narbonne, in southern France. Although his father was a noble, Emerius renounced the prospect of a military career to live as a hermit, journeying to the Catalonia region of Spain. Another version explains Emerius was called by Charlemagne to accompany him in his campaign against the Muslims in Girona–also called Gerona. Several wonders and miracles are attributed to Emer. He wore some cloak, helmet or basket with a fish design, which was removed each day to feed the army of Charlemagne in its siege of Gerona. There was always enough and never failed. But the fighting around Girona was not only against the Muslims, said chronicler Joan Amades, an eminent Catalan ethnologist and folklorist, “the Christian troops were fighting a fierce dragon and had its huge falls in the lake of Banyoles, this dragon possessed the property of flying, swimming and walking..”…his fetid breath had made life impossible for people and livestock in Selva, “and its strength was so great that the best of the French army” died by its claws or poisoned by its breath. Emerius, arming himself with holy water, led a procession to confront the beast. In one version, he sprinkled the dragon with holy water, easily capturing and destroying it. In another version, he was sent alone to confront the monster. When Emer drew the sign of the cross on the dragon, it became tame. Emer wrapped his stole around its neck, and led the dragon “like a gentle dog” to Charlemagne.
There is another version that links the dragon to dinosaurs. “A story from the 8th century tells of a great beast which lives beside the lake. It is the last descendant of the prehistoric beast that lived in that region. It lives in a deep cave and it is not good to disturb him. According to what people said, the beast had a voracious appetite and it devoured the peasants’ flocks. They lived hidden at home protected by walls. In fact, every night one man disappeared from his house. One day, Charlemagne arrived there and, having heard about the beast, he decided to go kill it. When the soldiers arrived there, the dragon came out of its cave giving off its foul breath and they began to cough because of the toxic cloud that formed around them. After that, the peasants asked a monk to help. He had arrived with Charlemagne’s troops, and was called “Mer” (Sant Emerio). The monk went into the dragon’s cave and began to pray, after that both the dragon and the monk appeared together at the mouth of the cave. The peasants asked the monk to kill him. The monk stopped them and told them it was harmless and ate only grass and roots. And when they asked him about the disappeared people he told them the truth: the disappeared people were fighting with Charlemagne who stole all the flock. The big monster went back to its cave and even today, if somebody tries to disturb it, it will give off its foul breath against them.”
St. Colman was the first bishop of Dromore in County Down, Ireland. Catholic sources disagree on on practically all other facts. In some books his feast day is celebrated on May 7th; in others June 7th or October 27th. He is also referred to sometimes as Mocholmoc, or Mocholmog. He may have been born in 450 , 514, or 516 A.D. Again, the sources don’t agree. Part of this confusion may be that there are no less than 120 Irish saints named Colman or Colum, and the stories may have gotten confused. St. Colman was probably interred at Dormore, but though the Breviary of Aberdeen gives Inchmacome as his place of burial.
On one thing all sources agree: St. Colman saved a maiden from a river monster, known as a wurrum or wyrm.
The incident is described in the 1896 book, Irish Local Legends by Lageniensis (pen name of Rev. John O’Hanlon):
“Not far from the espiscopal city of Dromore, flow the lazy deep waters of the River Lagan, and often the Patron Saint, Bishop Colman, rambled along its banks in prayer and meditation. Indeed, if tradition speak the truth, often he passed over it with dry feet. But, it was well-known, a great water monster lurked beneath its surface, always in quest of prey. Not withstanding the danger of approaching him, yet, an incautious and innocent young damsel went down the bank, and stood upon some stepping stones to beetle her linen. The wily monster sailed slowly towards her, and before she was aware of his approach, he suddenly reared his huge head from the deep, opened his tremendous jaws, and at one gulp swallowed the poor maiden alive. Although her terror was very great, she had the presence of mind to call out, ‘Oh, Holy Colman, save me!’ Her cry was heard by the saint, and he prayed to heaven for her release. Some of the girl’s companions, who stood on the bank, and who witnessed that fearful doom, set up shouts and screams. But St. Colman approached the river, and commanded the infernal beast to deliver up its prey. Then the girl he had swallowed was cast unharmed on the bank. There, to this very day, are shown the tracks of the holy bishop’s feet, and that path is called ‘Saint Colman’s-road.’
In one re-telling, St. Colman also recovered from the water the girl’s book of palms, and the young woman subsequently entered a convent.
In the book, The Celtic Dragon Myth by J. F. Campbell (1911) Irish antiquarian, William Reeves, Church of Ireland Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore (1866-1892) commented on the story’s possible occurrence: “The belief,” said Bishop Reeves, “that certain rivers and lakes were haunted by serpents of a demonical and terrible character was current among the Irish at a very remote period, and still revails in many parts of Ireland.”
W. R. Fanu, 19th c. Irish horror writer and folklorist, echoed the belief in his book, Seventy Years of Irish Life: “The dreadful beast, the wurrum–half fish, half dragon–still survives in many a mountain lake–seldom seen, indeed, but often heard. Near our fishing quarters in Kerry there are two such lakes, one the beautiful little lake at the head of the Blackwater River, called Lough Brin, from Brin or Bran as he is now called, the dreadful wurrum which inhabits it. The man who minds the boat there speaks with awe of Bran; he tells me he has never seen him, and hopes he never may, but has often heard him roaring on a stormy night. On being questioned what the noise was like, he said it was like the roaring of a young bull…Some miles further on, between Lough Brin and Glencar, there is another lake from which a boy while bathing was driven and chased by the dreadful wurrum which dewells in it. It bit him on the back and hunted him all the way home, where he arrived naked and bleeding.”
The story reminds me a lot of the legend of the Lambton Worm. Read more here.
A funny-scary horror movie, “The Lair of the White Worm” retells the Lambton Worm legend with Pagan vs. Christianity overtones. The movie was based on the novel of the same name by Bram Stoker and published in 1911. In an interesting coincidence, the novel was illustrated by occult artist Pamela Colman Smith.
Saint Rigobert was archbishop of Reims, France. During a conflict between Charles Martel and some of his enemies, Rigobert refused to open the gates of the city to him for refuge. The saint claimed neutrality for the safety of the city. Unsure of which side would prevail in the conflict, Rigobert didn’t want to anger the other side if Martel lost. The gates stayed closed. This explanation did not sit well with Charles the Hammer. After his victory Martel exiled the archbishop from Reims.
Eventually the archbishop settled in a nearby village. When on one occasion he had been given a live goose to take home for his dinner, Rigobert put the bird in the arms of a servant-boy accompanying him. Along the way, as Rigobert was reciting the divine office, the bird broke free and flew away. The boy deeply grieved this mishap, but Rigobert comforted him, urging him to trust in God.
When Rigobert resumed his prayers, the goose flew back to them. Thereafter, the archbishop kept the goose as a pet. The goose would walk with him to a church, where, as the tame bird patiently waited for him, he celebrated Mass at an altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Saint Rigobert died in 745 AD. His feast day is celebrated on January 4th.
A mystery is gripping Britain’s religious community: Just how did a treasure-trove of rare medallions and coins collected by a former archbishop of Canterbury end up at the bottom of the River Wear?
Many of the artifacts are linked to the late Michael Ramsey, a former archbishop of Canterbury with long-time ties to Durham, where he served as bishop and spent some of his retirement years before his death in 1988.
The coins, medals, goblets and other religious items, some solid gold, have been discovered by amateur divers Trevor Bankhead, 40, and his brother, Gary, 44, a fire service watch officer, over the past two and a half years in the frigid, murky waters that loop Durham Cathedral. The brothers have retrieved over 30 items linked to Ramsey, along with hundreds of medieval and ancient Saxon artifacts.
Among them are gold, silver and bronze medals struck to commemorate the second Vatican council, which must have been presented to Ramsey, who was the most senior cleric in the Church of England from 1961 to 1974, when he met Pope Paul VI at the Vatican in 1966.
Trevor Bankhead, a former soldier, said: “We believe the Archbishop threw them into the river in 1983 or 1984, by which time he would have had limited mobility. So we chose places which were easily accessible by the water’s edge and threw silver washers in the river to try and trace the trajectory the objects could have taken.”
“It’s my belief that he did this as a votive offering to the river and to the people of Durham, who he loved,” said Bankhead. “They weren’t just chucked by a burglar–they had clearly gone into the water at different times and different places.”
Archbishop Ramsey’s old friend, the Very Rev Victor Stock, dean of Guildford, commented on Bankhead’s assertion: “He used to go for a walk by the river every day, whatever the weather. I think it’s entirely plausible to imagine him making up a little packet, and quietly dropping it into the water.”
The archbishop’s offerings are keeping up a tradition that is at least 3,000 years old and possibly much older.
In 1998 an archaelogical survey of the Thames found the remains of a huge bridge built 3500 years ago not far from the present Vauxhall Bridge. The confluence of the three rivers, where the Tyburn enters the Thames from the north and the Effra from the south, would have made this a sacred site for Bronze Age tribes.
Around the bridge were votive offerings of valuable goods to appease the spirits of the river. The Celts regarded rivers as bestowers of life, health, and plenty, and offered them rich gifts and sacrifices often at the same spots used by pre-Celtic British tribes.
At one time rivers were thought of as deities with powers to cure all kinds of ailments. Ways of appeasing water courses were devised in an attempt to stop them from claiming lives.
In May 1825 the Duke of Sussex led an elaborate ceremony to mark the start of work on Hammersmith Bridge. In front of a large crowd he performed a ritual that involved the fixing of a brass plate (praising the builders and designer) over one of the coffer dams into which had been placed gold coins and a silver trowel. As this was put in place the Duke poured corn over it saying: “I have poured the corn, the oil and the wine, emblems of wealth, plenty and comfort, so may the bridge tend to communicate prosperity and wealth.”