The stark silhouette of Whitby Abbey on the ancient headland overlooking the fishing harbour is an iconic image. It is the skeletal ruins of the impressive medieval abbey church that you see, all that remains of the great Benedictine monastery that once dominated the town. The ruins are the size of a fairly respectable cathedral, though, and conceal an even older past – as well as the answer to the question about Easter.
The headland was settled in the Iron Age and people lived on it in Roman times. Possibly, a signal station stood there, similar to the one at Scarborough, on part of the peninsula that has long since been washed into the sea. By the time the Anglo-Saxons conquered most of what is now England in the 5th and 6th centuries, the headland was known as Streaneshalch and by the 7th century it was part of the Anglian Kingdom of Northumbria. Britain in those days was by no means Christian; worship of the older gods was widespread and deeply rooted. The Anglo-Saxons worshipped gods such as Tiw, Woden, Thunor and Frig (Tiwesdaeg, Wodensdaeg, Thunresdaeg, Frigedaeg), but the Christian tradition that had sprung up in late Roman times was carried on in these islands amongst the Celts of Ireland and the west in the 5th and 6th centuries. This spread, via Strathclyde in what is now southern Scotland, into Northumbria and the Saxon kingdoms to the south. A monastery was established on the island of Lindisfarne sometime around 634AD. Coming the other way, from the south, another brand of Christianity had been busy since 597AD, when St Augustine landed in Kent - on an official mission from Rome to convert the heathen English.
The King of Northumbria, Osuiu, or Oswy (and a variety of other spellings too) was a committed Christian of the Celtic tradition. His wife Eanfled, however, had been brought up in Kent and followed the Roman way. This meant that they sometimes celebrated Ester twice – imagine, all that chocolate! Clearly, something had to be done. And Whitby was the place to do it, because here was Northumbria’s principle church and minster, founded by a remarkable lady, Hild, of the Celt party, in 657AD. So the two sides, the Celtic and Roman, convened a synod at Whitby in 663 (664 in some accounts) to debate the issues. The Roman case was led by a monk called Wilfred, who concluded by saying that the Roman church received its authority from St Peter, holder of the keys to the kingdom of heaven. The Celts had no answer to that and Osuiu found the argument pretty convincing, observing that if he did not obey the commands of the guardian of the gates of heaven, he might have some difficulty getting in when his time came. And so it came to pass that the Roman Church gained ascendancy over all others, an authority that lasted some 900 years until the English Reformation in the 16th century.
I find it mindboggling that you can wander about a place where such influential decisions were made, don’t you? Who knows how things would have turned out if the Celts had won, or, shock-horror, if both parties had agreed to tolerate each other’s little ways. Nothing remains of the buildings where all of this took place once stood, or any other part of Abbess Hild’s community. It is believed the minster was sacked by Danish raiders sometime in the 9th century. Whitby is a Danish name – the suffix ‘by’ means farm – and it is assumed the pirates turned settlers developed the fishing port at the mouth of the River Esk, below the headland. Maybe the Danes didn't have a word for 'fishing port'.
It is said that the new abbey at Whitby was founded by a wandering Norman soldier, Reinfrid, who came across the desolated ruins of Hild’s monastery and was so effected that he became a monk and, later, established a priory amidst the debris of the earlier buildings. By the late 11th century, this had morphed into a full-blown Benedictine monastery – though only a few traces remain of these buildings. The magnificent Gothic abbey church you see now was constructed between the 12th and 15th centuries, and was – appropriately – dedicated to St Peter and St Hild.
When the Abbey was dissolved in 1539, the property was acquired by the Cholmley family, who proceeded to demolish most of the buildings. In the 17th century, the old abbot’s house was refurbished into a family home. The Cholmleys were Royalists in the Civil War. By the late 18th century, they appear to have lost interest in their Whitby estate. It was inherited by a cousin, Sir George Strickland in 1857 and his son, Charles, repaired and extended the abbey house. Now, part of it forms a visitor centre and the largely Victorian wing is a youth hostel.
Inevitably, the evocative ruins are haunted. The ghost is known as the ‘white lady’, or ‘Lady Hilda’ (I wonder if this should be Hild?) and she appears, in a shroud, at the higher windows on the north side of the abbey church.
One postscript to Whitby Abbey’s rich history: on 16th December 1914, it was shelled by battle cruisers of the Imperial German Navy. Clearly, Whitby had a strategic importance known only to the commander of the German ships.