Chosen as Eostre’s handmaid, Hild will serve the fertility goddess for a year before being wed. Her future is predictable–until King Edwin claims her as kin and she learns that her father was murdered.
Her first love is given a command in Edwin’s forces and vanishes from her life, wed to her sister. The court is baptized, ending the old religion and Hild’s role. Life looks bleak. She can’t stop wondering who killed her father.
Suspecting Edwin, she challenges him, only to be married off to safeguard his northern frontier. Struggling in a loveless marriage, she is intrigued by the Iona priests making pilgrimages to spread Christ’s love. When home and family are lost in Oswy’s sack of Edinburgh, she finds herself in enemy hands, but meets the charismatic Aidan.
Inspired and guided by him, she builds communities to live and teach Christ’s love. She attracts followers. Even her old enemy, King Oswy, entrusts his child to her, gives her Whitby, and seeks her help to reconcile divisions in his kingdom.
She never ceases battling against old superstitions resurrected by storm, plague, and solar eclipse, but at last she receives a bishop’s blessing–from a man she trained herself.
I thought I knew about the saints of northern England. I went to a school named after Saint Aidan. I had been to Durham and seen the shrine of Saint Cuthbert. I’d visited Durham and Lindisfarne. But I don’t recall hearing about Hild, and other female saints, until recently. And, since English history tends to begin around 1066, I knew nothing of the individual kingdoms except maybe their names. The Abbess of Whitby has changed all that. This is an in-depth look at seventh century life in what is now northern England and southern Scotland.
It’s a complex book. At the beginning there are maps, family trees and a list of characters. I referred to them often. Hild lived in two different kingdoms before joining religious communities. There were different kings with their wives, sons and advisors. There were different people with similar names, and fathers and sons with the same name. Alliances kept changing and kings were almost always going off to war with each other. Royal women were used as brides to seal deals, but often outlived the men they were forced into marrying. Jill Dalladay has captured all of that.
Dalladay also shows the reader how Christianity gradually came to the land. Edwin kept to the pagan rituals although his wife was Christian. A bargain made with her religious advisor ensured that their newborn daughter was baptized. Eventually, Edwin was also baptized and made his court go through the process as well. I found it interesting that although Hild was baptized at that time she kept to some of the old ways, even as she learned more about Christianity. Her conversion was not immediate. I also learned about the divisions between Roman and Celtic Christianity. Saint Wilfrid, it turns out, was partly responsible for these, favoring the pomposity and power that came from Rome while Hild and her communities preferred a simpler way of living.
I loved reading The Abbess of Whitby. Yes, it gets confusing due to the issues I’ve listed above. But Jill Dalladay has brought all these historical people to life in such a way that I felt I got to know them a lot better than I had previously. I now have a deeper understanding of what life was like in the British Isles at that time, both the good and bad of it. Hild was a woman raised to endure bloody battles between rival kingdoms, but who finally found her place and peace in the Lord. This is definitely one of my favorite books of 2015.
Thank you to Kregel for my complimentary copy of The Abbess of Whitby, which I received in exchange for my honest review.
Have you read The Abbess of Whitby? Do you plan to read it? Let me know your thoughts.
Publisher: Lion Fiction (a division of Kregel)
Publication Date: 27 October 2015
Page Count: 352
Read more on: Kregel’s Website