The Abbess of Whitby

Written by Jill Dalladay
Review by Edward James

Like all Oxford history students of my generation, I had to start my course by studying Bede’s History of the English Church in mediaeval Latin.  I have forgotten most of my Latin but I still remember Bede’s History, particularly the Synod of Whitby in 664, chaired by Abbess Hild, which reconciled the rival Celtic and Roman churches in Britain.  Hild was obviously an important woman and a skilful chairperson.

Bede tells us nothing about Hild’s life between the ages of 13 and 33.  The silence of the historian is the liberty of the novelist.  Dalladay tells an exciting tale of the wife of a minor thane in war-torn Northumbria who makes a daring escape from the sack of Edinburgh.  The story slows down when we reach the better chronicled part of Hild’s life, when she became a nun.

There are only a few pages about the Synod, near the end of the book, which you may find disappointing or a relief.  One thing I had not fully appreciated as a student was that almost everybody there was a first-generation Christian.  This book is the story of a woman and a people moving to a new faith and struggling with its complexities.  It is a good companion to Bede and is written in beautiful, clear English.