The Pageant of St Hild, Abbess of Whitby

Pageant type

Notes

This pageant was written for use by any interested organisation. It had a companion piece written by the same author and published in 1912, called The Pageant of Margaret of Scotland.

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Performances

Place: All Saints Parish Church (Kingston upon Hull) (Kingston Upon Hull, Yorkshire, East Riding, England)

Year: 1923

Indoors/outdoors: Unknown

Number of performances: n/a

Notes

This pageant almost certainly had multiple performances in different parts of the UK. The first note recovered of it being performed is in 1923 when All Saints Parish Church in Hull staged it in their church hall. However, it is very unlikely this was its first staging and most would not have attracted a great deal of press attention.

Name of pageant master and other named staff

Names of executive committee or equivalent

n/a

Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)

  • Hill, Cecilia

Names of composers

n/a

Numbers of performers

Financial information

Object of any funds raised

It is likely that this pageant was often performed as part of fund-raising initiatives.

Linked occasion

n/a

Audience information

  • Grandstand: Not Known
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: n/a

Notes

This pageant would most often have played to small audiences.

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest

Associated events

Associated events

n/a

Pageant outline

Episode I: The Dark Before the Dawn, early summer 617

This scene is set in 'a wild place in East Anglia'.2 The dialogue is spoken in blank verse. Characters appearing include:

Eadwine, King of Northumbria, in exile

Bregusuit, wife of Heneric, his nephew

Hild, her child of three years old

A Northumbrian Noble

A stranger

Eadwine has been driven from his kingdom by a usurping kinsman, Ethelfrith. The drama begins with the Noble addressing Eadwine, telling him not to trust King Redwald in whose protection 'you in honour trust' for Redwald still practices the old religion and has murderous plans. The Noble offers to help Eadwine escape but he declines the offer, saying he has sworn an oath to stay and in any case, has no place to go since his kingdom was stolen. The Noble reluctantly leaves and Eadwine appears melancholic. A stranger enters; the stranger makes a proposition to Eadwine, asking what reward he would give to the man who prophesied that his kingdom would be restored and his troubles releived, so that eventually Eadwine would become 'Greater in power than all your fathers were'. Eadwine assumes he is being mocked, but the stranger persists and Eadwine says that this 'deliverer' would 'hold me sworn to follow him in faith'. Before leaving, the stranger lays his hands on Eadwine's head and tells him to remember this promise. The stanger makes a sign of the cross above Eadwine's bowed head and goes quietly. When Eadwine looks up he is alone until the entry of Bregsuit and Hild who Eadwine gathers up in his arms. Bregsuit asks for news and Eadwine tells her of the stranger's prophesy, but adds he has little faith in it. Bregsuit states that she has recently had a strange dream that fortold her daughter would one day 'be a gleaming light / To all the land'. At this the Noble returns; he is joyful and delivers the news that Redwald has repented and is gathering his armies in order to fight for Eadwine and help restore his throne. The scene ends with all rejoicing at this twist of fate as they leave to join Redwald.

Episode II: Dawn, Easter Eve 627

The scene is set in the meadows by Godmundingham, near York. The dialogue is again delivered in blank verse. In addition to Eadwine and Hild (now aged 13 years), the characters taking part are as follows:

Queen Ethelburga, wife of Eadwine

Paulinus, the queen's chaplain

Coifi, the High Priest of Woden

Other heathen priests

Wise men of the Northumbrian Witan

Soldiers, nobles, ladies, Northumbrian 'maids and boys', a countryman, a townsman and a crowd of people

The drama begins with the boys and maids running on from the sides: they dance while one of their number plays pipes. A countryman and a townsman arrive and watch until at a sign from a leader, the children all run off shouting and laughing. The countryman and townsman discuss King Eadwine's recent great victory against an army of Wessex men. The townsman states that the children have gone to meet the king. At this, Queen Ethelburga arrives in earnest conversation with Paulinus. The countryman and townsman talk about Eadwine's probable conversion to Christianity since he married Ethelburga but that efforts to convert all in his kingdom would meet with reluctance, for in the north they would not easily 'be turned from the old ways'. Hild arrives on the scene and she is recognised by the two. Then Coifi, leading his priests and members of the king's Witan, enter. A great noise is heard and the army march on with the king behind. A large crowd of people, including the children, enter alongside the army and everyone cheers. Eadwine greets Ethelburga then turns to Coifi, telling him to prepare a sacrifice in thanks for victory. But Paulinus interrupts and as he lays his hands on the king's head it becomes clear that he was the stranger who visited the king when he was in despair. Eadwine falls to his knees at this realisation and the crowd look on in wonder. Lengthy speeches from Eadwine, Coifi and Paulinus follow. The discussion ends with all agreeing to turn to Christianity and Coifi promising to 'smite to nothingness these shrines of ours'. As the assembly leaves, Paulinus and Hild linger. Hild emphasises her wish 'to learn to serve the Christ'. Paulinus responds by prophesying that 'a work most fair and wonderful' awaits Hild. Then Hild asks to join Ethelburga and her ladies at prayer. The scene ends with Ethelburga and her party crossing the stage 'two by two' singing 'The Lamb's High Banquet' and Paulinus declaring that upon this Eastertide 'Christ is risen in Northumbria'.

Episode III: Noon, Passiontide 664

This scene is set outside the abbey at the time when Hild is at the height of her power as Abbess at Whitby, with influence over many powerful men. The characters included in the episode are as follows:

Oswiu, King of Northumbria

Colman, Bishop of Lindisfarne

Wilfred of Ripon, priest

Nuns attending on the abbess, priests, monks and singing boys, nobles attending on the king, a herdsman of the monastery and a herdsman of the abbey, peasant women and children, shepherds, herdsmen, fisher lads and churls. Outside the abbey, tables are being set and fisher lads bring great baskets of fish. A shepherd and a fisher lad discuss the 'Lenten fare' that Hild has organised for the people and comment that 'all the wisdom of the North is here' for the Council she has summoned. A herdsman joins the conversation, saying that he saw the Council process to the church that morning at dawn. In the distance, singing of 'Vexilla Regis' is heard. A large procession arrives headed by King Osiwu; Wilfred of Ripon follows dressed in vestments, then Colman of Lindisfarne wearing a simple monk's habit. Accompanying are priests, monks, singing boys and nobles. Last is the abbess holding a crozier. When the singing ends, Osiwu comes forward and kneels before Hild removing his crown. All assembled watch solemnly. Hild bids farewell to everyone since their Council is concluded; Wilfred remarks that though it was discord that brought them all to Whitby, all such 'divisions are healed'. Colman pronounces that everyone in the 'Northern Borderland' will now follow the teaching of 'the Universal Church'. The procession exits and a shepherd remarks that it is Hild, 'the Mother', who made all these important people come together in friendship. Hild delivers blessings to all and peasant women rush to bring their babies forward for her blessing. The abbess leaves and the men sit at the tables. A shepherd calls for a song and Caedmon (a herdsman) is called upon to sing but he stays back, reluctant to join in, and slips away unseen. A monk then arrives stating that Hild wishes all to come to the abbey and join 'in High Thanksgiving unto God, / That he hath led the Church to peace and love.' All assembled make to leave and from the abbey, the psalm, 'Behold How Good and Joyful' is heard, sung by monks and nuns.

Episode IV: Eventide, 680.

This episode is set when 'Hild gathers her community about her and gives them her last charge'. Nuns are seen entering the abbey: they talk in low voices about 'our Mother's failing powers'. An old nun and a young nun speak of Hild's greatness; in their conversation, they mention that Hild has summoned the monk Caedmon to tell of how he first found his voice. All the nuns gather around Hild who is seated in a chair and appears frail; she greets them all and calls for Caedmon who arrives in his monk's habit and now sporting a long white beard. He tells of how he has worked many years at the abbey as a herdsman, spending a lot of time alone, but that many years before, when he was in company he was unable to sing. Then he had a dream in which he was told 'to sing the beginning of created things'. From that time on, he had sung 'in praise of God, the Creator, verses which I had never heard'. He begins to sing; when he stops, Hild tells all to 'Heed well this story'. She goes on to say that Caedmon is:

But first of a great brotherhood of song,

That down the ages in this English land

Shall like a trumpet to the people call,

In varying ways revealing God to men.

Hild calls for the abbey workers to be allowed into her prescense. They gather reverently about her and Hild stands, asking that all assembled sing to God in 'thankfulness and praise'.The scene ends with the singing of 'Angularis Fundamentum'; as the last verse is sung the company begin filing out: first Hild with the monks and nuns, then the people, until the stage is left empty and in silence.

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Hild [St Hild, Hilda] (614–680) abbess of Strensall–Whitby
  • Eadwine [St Eadwine, Edwin] (c.586–633) king of Northumbria
  • Rædwald [Redwald] (d. 616x27) %king of the East Angles
  • Paulinus [St Paulinus] (d. 644) bishop of York and of Rochester
  • Oswiu [Oswy] (611/12–670) king of Northumbria
  • Colmán [St Colmán] (d. 676) bishop of Lindisfarne
  • Cædmon (fl. c.670) poet

Musical production

Unaccompanied singing of the following was recommended by the pageant's author:

  • 'The Lamb's High Banquet', 7th century, to the melody 'Ad Coenam Agni providi' Mode viii (Episode II, sung by the Queen and her ladies)
  • 'The Royal Banners', 6th century, to the melody 'Vexilla Regis' Mode i (Episode III, hymn Sung in Procession)
  • Psalm cxxxiii 'Ecce quam bonum' Tone viii, 2nd ending (Episode III, sung outside by monks and nuns)
  • 'Christ is made the Sure Foundation', 7th century to the melody 'Angularis Fundamentum' mode i (Episode IV).3

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Hull Daily Mail

Wells Journal

Book of words

The Pageant of St Hild, Abbess of Whitby by Cecilia Hill. London, 1913.

The Book of Words was published by the 'National Society's Depository' in London and cost four pence. This organisation was the publishing arm of The National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church throughout England and Wales, founded in 1811.

Other primary published materials

n/a

References in secondary literature

n/a

Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • The National Library of Scotland holds one copy of the book of words. shelfmark: 1914.23

Sources used in preparation of pageant

  • Clearly Bede was an influence on this story of Hild, but more modern interpretations of her life are not noted.

Summary

This pageant was written by the now largely forgotten but in her time prolific novelist, Cecilia Hill.4 It was the second of two pageants that Hill wrote concerning the lives of saintly women: in 1912, she published The Pageant of Margaret of Scotland. Both of these works were published by the National Society's Depository and were aimed at making the business of putting on a pageant a little easier for church groups and other similar organisations by providing a readymade script. The books were cheaply produced. Both of Hill's pageants are of interest because they foreground the importance of women in the history of Christianity within the UK.

The Pageant of St Hild had four episodes, and a small number of players delivered the narrative through blank verse. However, in each scene there was scope to include variable non-speaking parts, making this a versatile type of drama for potential pageant groups of all sizes. Hill gave some guidance on accompanying music, and on costumes. For example, for 'Northumbrian Fighting Men' she recommended 'Tunics to the knee, loose gaiters right up to the thighs, with cross gartering, short rough cloaks, round shields and thick heavy spears, close fitting metal caps; long hair to the shoulders'.5 The episodes, as the title suggests, tell the story of Hild from childhood through to her death. However, the story includes wider contextual history, such as a portrayal of the famous synod that took place at Whitby in 664 which determined that the Northumbrian church should henceforth follow the Roman liturgical calendar. However, much of the narrative is couched in highly romantic terms and tends to give the last word always to Hild.

It is likely that this pageant was staged somewhere in the UK before the outbreak of war in 1914, but no evidence has yet surfaced about its production. It was certainly staged during the interwar years, but how widely can only be speculated. As only two examples, it was put on in Hull in 1923 and as part of a garden fete in Somerset in 1931 that aimed to raise money for Church of England missions overseas, suggesting that its appeal was not confined to the north.6 The subject matter was, of course, intensely religious in nature, but it is probable that it had appeal for many organisations who promoted Christian values beyond churches.

Similar types of generic pageants were popular during the interwar era: for example, Girl Guides performed one named The Amber Gate many times across the UK.7 Within pageants such as these, local history was not the primary focus of interest; instead, the theme might be Christianity or, as in the case of the Girl Guide pageant, it might be the notion that the great figures of history could and should be an inspiration to modern youth. Whatever the subject, all were powerfully patriotic and, in addition to their core themes, provided messages about the historical underpinnings of English/British national identity. As digitised collections of twentieth century newspapers become more widely available, and are more inclusive of regions across the UK, it will be possible to find out more about the popularity of such readymade pageants. It is almost certainly the case that they were important in fuelling the momentum of historical pageantry's popularity for many decades.

Footnotes

  1. ^ Notice in Hull Daily Mail, 7 December 1923, 4.
  2. ^ Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations in synopses text are taken from The Pageant of St Hild, Abbess of Whitby by Cecilia Hill (London, 1913).
  3. ^ The Pageant of St Hild, Abbess of Whitby, 5.
  4. ^ Reviews of Hill's works are widely available in the press. Generally, she was favourably reviewed and her books seem to have been popular. Extant copies can easily be found in the catalogues of second-hand booksellers. As well as fiction, she appears also to have been the author of some travel books.
  5. ^ The Pageant of St Hild, Abbess of Whitby, 32.
  6. ^ See short notices in Wells Journal, 26 June 1931, 5, and in Hull Daily Mail, 7 December 1923, 4.
  7. ^ Marion Catherine Barne, The Amber Gate: A Pageant-Play (Eastbourne, 1925). This play was performed across Britain, including by Girl Guides in Scotland. It was also later adapted to become a storybook by the author and published by Thomas Nelson's in many successive imprints from the 1930s until at least the 1950s.

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘The Pageant of St Hild, Abbess of Whitby’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1306/