Hilda and Caedmon


Hilda of Whitby

Hilda of Whitby

The 19th of November is the feast day of Abess Hilda of Whitby, and I am posting this poem in her honour a couple of days early so that those who wish to copy or use it in services or for personal prayer on the day can do so. Saint Hilda was great leader of the Church in England and the first patron of English Christian poetry. She also presided at the crucial and controversial Synod of Whitby and brought that Synod to a fruitful and peaceful conclusion. When I posted this sonnet on her feast day some years ago it happened that the church’s General Synod was meeting and I had that in mind as part of my prayerful remembrance of Hilda, as you will hear in the preamble to the recording of the poem.

This year its another aspect of her story I’d like to highlight, to which I also allude in my poem. This is the story of Caedmon, the earliest English poet whose name is known. Bede tells the story of how he came to his vocation as a poet:

According to Bede, Cædmon was a lay brother who cared for the animals at the monastery Streonæshalch (now known as Whitby Abbey). One evening, while the monks were feasting, singing, and playing a harp, Cædmon left early to sleep with the animals because he knew no songs. The impression clearly given by St. Bede is that he lacked the knowledge of how to compose the lyrics to songs. While asleep, he had a dream in which “someone” (quidam) approached him and asked him to sing principium creaturarum, “the beginning of created things.” After first refusing to sing, Cædmon subsequently produced a short eulogistic poem praising God, the Creator of heaven and earth.

Upon awakening the next morning, Cædmon remembered everything he had sung and added additional lines to his poem. He told his foreman about his dream and gift and was taken immediately to see the abbess. The abbess and her counsellors asked Cædmon about his vision and, satisfied that it was a gift from God, gave him a new commission, this time for a poem based on “a passage of sacred history or doctrine”, (account taken from this Wiki article )

So as I remember Hilda with thanksgiving I also give thanks for all the churches and church leaders who have been patrons of the arts and especially those who have found a space and place for poetry in liturgy. I give thanks too for all those churches who have chosen to weave my own poems into liturgy and sermons and pray that those words have been fruitful

The icon of Hilda above is from the St. Albans Parish website The Daily Cup

The sonnet also appears in my second poetry book with Canterbury Press, The Singing Bowl

As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on its title or on the play button

Hilda of Whitby


Called to a conflict and a clash of cultures,

Where insults flew whilst synod was in session,

You had the gift to find the gift in others,

A woman’s wisdom, deftness and discretion.

You made a space and place for poetry

When outcast Caedmon, crouching in the byre,

Was called by grace into community

And local language joined the Latin choir.


Abbess we need your help, we need your wisdom,

Your strong recourse to reconciliation,

Your power tempered by God’s hidden kingdom,

Your exercise of true imagination.

Pray for our synods now, princess of peace,

That every fettered gift may find release.



Filed under Poems

11 responses to “Hilda and Caedmon

  1. Ben Hopkinson

    Dear Malcolm,

    Thank you so much for this sonnet.   I was Rector of Whitby some years ago and I feel that you have expressed some essential aspects of Hild very well indeed.   Looking at the lovely item makes me ask whether you know that there is a medieval  piece of window glass depicting Hilda in St. Lawrence Church, Warkworth (where I now live).   It is one of only two medieval pieces, the other being of St. Brigid.   I often ask myself how they survived, and what their survival says  about the honour in which these saints were held.

    Your sonnet talks of our need for reconciliation, in all sorts of ways.   I think that Hilda is enormously important in the history of our relationship with continental Europe.   She went with the decision at Whitby, which meant a departure from the ways she loved, but by doing so, she ensured that the English (and British) Church became part of the greater whole.   The consequences were not only ecclesiastical, but also cultural, scholarly and political.   The Synod of Streonshalh was no historical byway. What does it say to our present dilemma?

    With every good wish,

    Ben Hopkinson

  2. And today to pray for Her Majesty’s Council in Parliament “that every fettered gift may find release”.

  3. MJH

    Reblogged this on the pocket scroll and commented:
    My weary mind was trying to come up something to blog, but nothing I can come up with now will be as good as this sonnet about St Hild by Malcolm Guite.

  4. Hello,
    I’m an italian monk, from the benedictine community of Dumenza on the Lago Maggiore (Milan diocese). Last week I was speaking about the story of Caedmon with our sister, the abbess of the monastery of Milan. So I decided to translate your poem for them…Thank you.
    I send also to you my translation in Italian here below.
    May Hilda continue to pray for peace and friendship and could Ambrose, our father in the faith and a great poet too, bless you!
    Thank you for your poems
    br. Alberto Maria

    Chiamata ad un conflitto, a uno scontro di culture,
    quando gli insulti filavano mentre il sinodo era in assemblea,
    tu sei stata il dono per trovare il dono degli altri.
    Sapienza femminile, prontezza e discrezione.
    Hai fatto spazio e posto alla poesia
    quando Caedmon, l’emarginato, rannicchiato nella stalla,
    fu chiamato per grazia ad unirsi alla comunità
    e la lingua locale si unì al coro latino.

    Badessa, abbiamo bisogno di te, della tua sapienza,
    del tuo strenuo richiamo alla riconciliazione,
    del tuo potere, mescolato al regno di Dio nascosto,
    del tuo esercizio di vera fantasia.
    Prega per i nostri sinodi di oggi, principessa della pace,
    che ogni dono incatenato trovi una liberazione.

  5. Liza Austin Strange

    Thank you Malcolm. I am a great fan of your poetry. I have had a recent fascination with our understanding of two presentations of Christianity existing in our islands at the time of the Whitby Synod and am trying to find more out about the differences between the Celtic church and that of Rome at that period other than dates for festivals. This was a timely reminder to keep up the search. Can you recommend a good novel based on the life of Hilda? Reading one would be a pleasant way to spend Christmas.

    • malcolmguite

      Thanks. I don’t know of any novels specifically about Hilda. Our main source is Bede’s history of the English Church and people which is still highly readable

  6. Paul Scott

    Thank you for this lovely sonnet. Really enjoyed reading it on this special day.
    I have the honour of occupying the stall of St. Hilda in Newcastle Cathedral.
    Paul Scott

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