The Society was placed by the bishops who founded it under the patronage of two English saints of the seventh century, Saint Wilfrid and Saint Hilda.
Saint Hilda (614-680) was a member of the Northumbrian royal family. She was baptized in 627, with King Edwin and the whole Northumbrian court, by Saint Paulinus, the first Bishop of York. Following Edwin’s death in 633 she fled Northumbria with Queen Ethelburga. Eventually (Bede says in 647), having decided to become a nun (perhaps having been widowed) she was persuaded by Saint Aidan, the Bishop and Abbot of Lindisfarne, to return to Northumbria and enter the first royal monastery there. In 657 she founded the Abbey of Whitby as its first Abbess. Whitby was a ‘double monastery’, in which women and men lived separately, under the authority of Hilda as Abbess, but worshipped together. It had a monastic school, five of whose pupils became bishops. It was at Hilda’s abbey that the Synod of Whitby was held in 664.
Saint Hilda died on 17 November 680. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints comments: “Hilda enjoyed great personal prestige; not only did religious and learned men value her wisdom, but kings, rulers, and common people would ask her advice. She was an excellent example of how in the Anglo-Saxon church an able woman could attain to great influence and authority without, however, there ever being question of her being ordained.”
Saint Wilfrid (c. 634-709/10), the son of a minor Northumbrian nobleman, was educated at Lindisfarne. Having lived in Canterbury for about a year, he embarked on an extended pilgrimage to Rome, staying in Lyons for some time on the way and for three years on the way back. On his return to the Kingdom of Northumbria (c. 658) he became Abbot of Ripon. As such he attended the Synod of Whitby, where he successfully argued that in a matter that affected the whole Church – the date of Easter – the practice of the wider Western Church, centred on Rome, should be followed.
Having been appointed as Bishop of York, Wilfrid went to France to be consecrated. However, during his extended absence Chad became bishop in his place. Reinstated in 669 by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, he arranged for Chad to become Bishop of the Mercians, giving him his estate at Lichfield as his see. Wilfrid restored Paulinus’ cathedral in York, built a new stone church at Ripon, and founded a monastery at Hexham, where he built another stone church. He was concerned to enhance the music of the liturgy in his churches.
In 678 Wilfrid was deprived of his see by the King of Northumbria. He travelled to Rome, where the Pope and a council meeting at the time ordered him to be restored to his see. This judgement was ignored, however, and in 680 or 681 he moved to Sussex, where he founded Selsey Abbey, which later became the episcopal see for Sussex (transferred to Chichester in 1075). He played a major role in converting the still largely pagan population to Christianity. Wilfrid was restored to the See of York from 686 but by 692 he had left for Mercia, where he served as Bishop of Leicester until 703. After a further visit to Rome, Wilfrid retired to Hexham, where he exercised episcopal and abbatial authority.
Wilfrid died in 709 or 710, while visiting Mercia. He was buried in the church he had built at Ripon. His feast day is 12 October. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography comments: “Wilfrid was one of the most cosmopolitan figures of his age: his monastic communities represent a network transcending English political boundaries…; his architectural, liturgical, and collecting interests mark him as among the foremost English patrons of the arts in the later seventh century… Such wide-ranging activities left a lasting impact, especially apparent in his missionary work.”