The Abbess of Streonshalh, St. Margaret of Antioch and Julian of Norwich

 Dr J. J. McFarlane, April, 2018


Whitby Abbey 1 by Chris Kirk 1  License: CC BY 2.

Caedmon’s Hymn or Song (c.660-680) is celebrated as the fount of English vernacular poetry. The story of Caedmon and a prose summary of his Hymn, together with a note on the translation, appear in the Latin versions of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731); the poem exists as a poem in Old English Northumbrian and West Saxon versions of the Bede. In Three Northumbrian Poems (1978) the editor, A.H. Smith, observes that ‘the poem represents the beginnings of…a diction and its freshness and originality must have been felt a generation or more after its composition’ (p.15).

The joyful responsive feeling conjured by Caedmon’s hymn has endured well beyond the time limit of a few generations. For twenty-first century poets the primal and primary poetic quality of the piece still demands homage, as well as providing sustenance for the poet’s own practising voice: U.A. Fanthorpe in her own idiomatic version of the song in Queueing for the Sun (2003), for example. Geographical, linguistic and poetic identities continue to push through the earth of Caedmon’s poem, its oral resonance.

As noted in an earlier post on Cecily Daune, I am a writer currently engaged in doctoral creative work exploring and conjuring renditions of women’s voices in the Paston world. In terms of the wider reading field, it is Abbess Hild, the enabling power behind Caedmon, who interests me. In 657 she founded the double monastery whose livestock Caedmon tended: Streonshalh, built on the east cliff above the Esk estuary at Whitby – ‘the bay of the lighthouse’, as Bede explains. Great-niece to King Edwin, Hild served in his court and was baptised with him by his Roman priest. After he was killed, she became a nun and served with a small community on the north bank of the River Wear where she learnt from a visiting bishop, Aidan, the traditions of Celtic monasticism: scholarship, cultural patronage and care for the very poor. She became an abbess at Hartlepool, ‘the island of the hart’ (Bede again), and a little later established Streonshalh, or Whitby Abbey, where she was loved for her peacefulness, her charity, and was known to all as ‘mother’, a favourite term of praise for women saints (St. Anne and Elizabeth of Hungary, for example).

Bede’s Hild, for me, engages the imagination because of her perspicacity. She sent for Caedmon after the steward had reported to her what Caedmon had told him of an extraordinary dream. And when, at her request, Caedmon sang for her and for the company of learned church worthies she had called in, when he sang the God-bidden Creation song which he had dreamed, she recognized and honoured both the words and the man. She gave him a position in her religious house and encouraged his gifts and talents.

In terms of symbolic imagery around Hild, the legend of her mother’s sense of her unborn daughter as a bringer of light to the world, taken up in Nicola Griffith’s novel, Hild (2013), is a powerful one. Light meshes in special ways with the presence of waters in Hild’s life too: the Wear, the Esk and the North Sea.

Two new poems posted here inhabit Hild’s experience both before and during her time at Streonshalh, concentrating down to that extraordinary morning with Caedmon. Her voice is both more thoughtful and more brisk in the second piece, imbued by a growing sense of God’s immanence and by the necessity to attend to it. There is a deliberately structured play on time with the ‘Before’ piece framed as a present tense experience and the ‘Towards’ piece composed as a present tense dialogue that invites the Abbess to look back. Human and other realities live, move on, pass and live again, just like her rivers and the sea.

After the Hild pieces come two other new works which might also be of interest, one on (from) St. Margaret of Antioch, the other on (from) Julian of Norwich. A kind of polyphonic build, or prismatic stained glass effect, is beginning to be intended as I write, a composed scatter of significant early and medieval women’s voices. A reader might approach the more secular but equally uniquely voiced world of the Paston women through these – and might also hear some unexpected echoes.

A few texts directly relevant

Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. trans. Bertram Colgrave , eds. Judith McClure & Roger Collins. 1999. Oxford: OUP.

Fanthorpe, U. A. 2003. Queueing for the Sun. Cornwall: Peterloo Poets

Griffith, Nicola. 2014. Hild. London: Blackfriars

Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love, ed. Frances Beer. 1998. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer

Salih, Sarah, ed. 2010. A Companion to Middle English Hagiography. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer

Smith, A. H. ed. 1933, revised 1978. Three Northumbrian Poems (Caedmon’s Hymn, Bede’s Death Song and The Leiden Riddle). Exeter: University of Exeter Press





Before Streonshalh and on the River Wear


The river bank pulses with tangled ranks

of hawthorn and their red berries are

like sweat upon the light’s bright skim.


Rage and grief attend in silence. Good

days say King Edwin is with the God

of our old tonsured priest, Paulinus.


Yet when I take a walk, the evergreen

against the red is like green grass upon

the untombed dead. The river body’s


flexed, it shivers in its stretch towards

the sea. Slow and slow, an unsaid

bitterness of soul must be assuaged.


Bishop Aidan sails down from Iona. He

turns my heart from what has been and

calms my prayers to all that is not me:


the homeless and the poor, the loveliness

of words both read and heard, how to tend

the garden of a soul. How to be whole.


I wait upon the world for my Lord’s sake.


Towards Streonshalh and Caedmon’s Hymn


You were some kind of seer.

That’s what I’ve read.

Child of a mother who knew

that whilst she had a politic mind

behind her beauty, you had

something else that would carry

further. Always on watch –

clear eyes – a special sight

which looks both ways at once –

but something more subtle than

two-way Janus, and for always,

not just for the shortening

deep night of the year.


I keep free with what God gives.  I know the value of what is

perceived and heard.  And I know the value of the written word.

It does not pass, like the east wind’s fret and drip, or like what

a man says the day fishing boats come in with news of strange

ships further north, or like the tidal rips beneath exhausted migrant

birds. The written word. It arrived with priests in Latin and in Greek

but it is all of ours as well. It is what we tell of others and ourselves.


What did you see in Caedmon, then,

the gentle cowman, who understood

his kine better than fireside songs, who

slept in the byre and who had that soft

toothed whistle and gentle touch

for any unsettled animal?  Did you intuit

how he was somehow different, already

marked,  like you, for more than mud and

milk and meat?   Marked, like you, for what

lies beyond and underneath?


It was a day like any other: the chanting of the early morning Offices,

matters of accounts, a problem with the Abbey’s stonework that had

to be addressed. Then a moment with a Novice, heart-sore for home.

Time for private prayer. The diurnal round. It is given by God and I

give back to Him with all that is in me so to give, always with waiting

joy, even when stung by hunger or fatigue or cold (winds confound

the very soul at Whitby). And then our steward delivered news of

something different and strange – what Caedmon had said or sung

to him on waking. And so I sent for Caedmon. In that short wait,

with many learned churchmen gathered, as they were told to be, I

felt aware of subtle shifts and lifts of light, and of a quiet. It held

the world at bay. Then Caedmon came, tuft-haired, raw-boned,

tousled – every inch the practised cowherd, not a boy. He looked

about a little, open-mouthed. When asked, he simply threw back

his head, and out it came. And no words thereafter were the same.


St Margaret of Antioch


Your hands are tired? Just a thumb’s touch on

one page of any book about my life will do:

then begone, bad bones and rheumy lungs,

begone, the patched and blistered skin.


Listen, Osbern Bokenham used a ring that had

once touched my poor old relic foot back

in Reading Abbey as a sort of flare to find his

way out of a foggy swamp in the Veneto:


he writes of how I lit his path by proxy. It’s

a fine thing, just to manage to do good for

God by the simple fact of being, or having

been…I’m not quite sure what it all means.


But there’s no doubt that the big event was

my fight to freedom from the dragon’s belly.

There was no thread of light there, only an

unseen purple blow of sac, behind which


pumped the flow of blood through spools of

viscera. To be, to be in a place where there

is not one thread of light. I dreamed the world

and its realities before He came to us, before


He came home. Beauty without a thread of

light. Well, I got out of there. The test was

to be here, and to be of use, in the name of

our Lord Jesus. I broke through the dragon,


away from sickness, suffocation, the untrue.

These are small and serious miracles I do.



‘I know what I am saying’ – Julian of Norwich


By a kind of liminal light

upon my soul’s sadness

the world seems sometimes far,

so far as to be quite away

and soul itself’s a shade

unpinned from this body

and from God. But God

taught His Son that all

travails and agonies are

necessary sacrifice.

And so, then, let it come.

This static ache suffered

is just an indrawn breath,

a pause, before the follow

and the flowering into

Paradise. Then let it come.



In my mother’s house they gather by my bed.

The curate’s here, he calls me ‘daughter’.

The crucifix he raises glows and is the one

object beyond and in my body’s sluice and

draining down of pain. Like a fish hook,

the Cross catches my lips and heart and

draws me in towards Him.

So cold, so cold but Christ has come down. I

feel the blood’s hot drip from His forehead

meet the flail and fail of me. He draws

me in, and more, and I begin to sweat a

raw and heat-filled agony and I begin to

thaw away the frozen thresh of pain.

He shares this with me. And He

tells me all is as it should be, for pain passes

and we live in Love and we shall live in

Love, always and all. He is my Mother

Jesus, from whom I come and into whose

arms I fall. Ah, there is an unexpected

grace in this hard thrall.