The Holy Women of York: Hild, Margaret Clitherrow and Mary Ward Possessed Remarkable Vision and Character

By Greene, Dana | National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Holy Women of York: Hild, Margaret Clitherrow and Mary Ward Possessed Remarkable Vision and Character


Greene, Dana, National Catholic Reporter


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After London, York is England's most visited city, and with reason. It is beautiful, historic and bustling, a port city of some 180,000 people built at the confluence of the rivers Ouse and Foss. Tourists pour in to admire York's Gothic Minster, the largest in northern Europe, and its massive walls, first constructed by the Romans, offer a three-mile treetop view of ancient ruins and a thriving metropolis. Entering the city through one of its many gates or "bars," one finds the Shambles, a medieval commercial lane, next to Marks & Spencer, the popular British retailer, and the remains of the 16th-century Benedictine abbey of St. Mary's a few paces from the city's modern archaeological museum. Cheek by jowl, old and new coexist, offering those with eyes to see the opportunity to enter the past and encounter the treasures buried there.

For Catholics the treasures of York are many. Throughout its long history, it was the most Catholic of English cities. An early center of Christian faith, it was also home to recusants, those 16th-century Catholics who resisted both Anglicanism and Puritan authority. In the lore of the city and its archaeological remains, one finds buried three Catholic women who continue to be revered. Although their circumstances and contributions differ, each lived at a time of peril and tumult, and each shaped a life that was wise and prophetic. These holy women of York not only offer access to the city's rich history, but inspiration for all those living in perilous and tumultuous times.

The most distant of the three is Hild(a), who is commemorated in York's Minster where she was baptized. She spent most of her life at the edge of the shire in Whitby. Today, Whitby is a resort town, its main attractions being an early home of Capt. James Cook and the ruins of the abbey Hild founded in the seventh century, which perch on a bluff facing the blustery North Sea. What is" known of this extraordinary woman, abbess of a double monastery of women and men, comes from the historian Venerable Bede, who chronicled the development of the early English church, including the contributions of this woman called "Mother" by all who knew and revered her.

After the end of invasions by Angles and Saxons, the early church faced a triple threat: continued jockeying for power among local political forces; the need to evangelize non-Christian peoples, and divisions within the nascent Christian church itself. Hild met each of these challenges. Renowned for her wisdom, she was sought out by kings and princes who came to her for advice and in the process became supporters. Attuned to the pressing need to spread the Gospel, Hild nurtured missionary efforts, encouraging the genius of Caedmon, a cowherd turned poet-monk, who put scripture to poetry in order to evangelize the folk. The lyricism of Caedmon spread Christianity, ensuring his fame as first among English poets.

It was within Hild's monastery that the Synod of Whitby was convened in 664. While the issue at hand seems arcane to the contemporary mind, the outcome of the synod was important for the unity of the Christian church. In this early context, the divisions between Celtic Christianity, emanating from Iona, and Roman Christianity were still pronounced. The immediate issue was how to compute the date for the celebration of Easter. Although Hild herself probably favored a Celtic computation, the issue was decided in favor of Rome and the threatened division between rival factions was averted. Hild died in 680, having suffered illness for many years.

The English church grew stronger in the early Middle Ages even as it endured the invasions of Vikings and Normans and the consolidation of political power by ambitious monarchs. With the ascension of the Tudors, however, the independence of the church was challenged, first by Henry VIII, and then by Elizabeth. The wealthy monasteries of York were closed, and the Anglican church was established. …

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