St Hilda (614–680 AD) was the daughter of Hereric and Breguswith and the great niece of Edwin, King of Northumbria (616–633 AD). In 657 AD, Hilda came to Whitby, North Yorkshire to administer the abbey. As the abbess of Whitby, she managed one of the most important religious centres in the Anglo-Saxon world. Today her known feast days are commemorated on the 17th, 18th or 19th of November.
My illustration above was inspired by Hilda’s associations with the ammonite fossils found in the cliffs of Whitby. The legend goes she cast out the serpents in Whitby in order to clear the ground for a new convent. In response to her devout praying the snakes coiled up, turned to stone and fell off the edge of the cliffs after she cut off their heads with a whip. A 15th-century Latin manuscript found in the Durham University library indicates this ammonite legend goes back to at least late medieval times.
Ammonites collected from the cliffs of Whitby were reshaped with snake heads and examples of these snakestones are found in the Whitby Museum (see above). Moreover, Victorian geologists named one of the local species after her – Ammonite hildroceras.
The Whitby town coat of arms features three coiled serpents and they are also depicted underfoot in the stela sculpture of St Hilda found on the cross erected in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church high on the cliffs near the remains of the abbey. You can click to view a 3D model of the stela below.