A cute little English town, like taken out from any period drama movie. By the sea on nice days, the people are out in the streets, walking up the piers, sitting in the small cute boats, walking past the small houses. But that is until the weather turns. And the weather always turns for the worse in these seaside towns facing the North Sea.
Steeped in history, one need only to spin around to touch ruins, memories and ghosts of the past. And this town is haunted, at least if you believe Bram Stoker, the father of modern horror.
Much of the settlements back in the day was attributed to the abbey that was built in the mid 600. At that time it was a center for the medieval Northumbrian kingdom. She was renowned for her wisdom and counseled Kings, princes and nuns alike. The abbey was known as Streoneshalh, and she remained there for the rest of her years as an abbess. She was also the one inspiring one of the first British poets, Cædmon to start out.
The last seven years of her life was a struggle for Hilda as she suffered from a fever. But nevertheless she continued her work until her death on 17th of November in 680 AD. She was then 66 years old, and that was pretty impressive in those days. According to a nun who lived there called Begu, she saw Hilda’s soul being carried to heaven by angels.
And it was not the last time someone would claim to see her after her death. On dark nights there have been reports of Hilda in the highest window on the northern side of the Abbey when the winds comes blowing in from the sea. She is only seen for a few moments, looking out the window before she again disappears. According to lore there are two faiths that awaits you if you look into the well at the abbey at midnight. Those with a pure heart will see Hilda, those without will be taken by the devil. So perhaps seeing a ghost here is just a good omen.
We know little of what happened to the abbey after the death of Hilda, as Danish Vikings invaded it in 867, leaving it desolate for more than 200 years. It was first then the name Whitby was being used, meaning White City in old Norse.
After the invaders of the Norman, they made the abbey to a Benedictine house for men that lasted to the Dissolution of Monasteries in 1539. A process that was often painted with the blood of the Catholics. In any case they stole with them the abbey bells and tried to take them to London, but on the way there, the ship sank. It is said that St Hilda appears in the ruins sometime as the bells can be heard ringing under the water. Now the ruins of the abbey stands at the top of East Cliff, looking out to the sea, missing its bells.
Walled up Nun
But Hilda isn’t alone in the ruins of the abbey. The legend tells of another nun, a Constance De Beverley.
She was a young girl, but had already taken her vow. But she broke them when she fell in love with a young knight and thereby breaking her celibacy. She was found out and the sisters in the Abbey walled her inside the walls when she was still alive in the dungeon. Could it be Hilda? A confirmed Saint could have done something like this? These were, as they’re called: The Dark Ages. If you walk around the ruins one can perhaps hear the screams of a woman in the wind and a plead for forgiveness and mercy. There has also reported a fleeting image of a young girl, fleeing the abbey.
The story might have been the inspiration of Sir Walter Scott’s poem ‘Marmion‘ . It is about a nun of the same name that meets the same fate. Or perhaps the poem gave birth to a legend? Who’s to say?
But perhaps today, Whitby is more known for its fiction than for its history. Today, every summer there is a performance of the story of Dracula at the abbey. Wonder what Hilda thinks of that. But many things found in Dracula is drawn on the experience of the Whitby history. In the book, Mina writes in her diary:
“Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes … It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows.”
In the book, Dracula arrives with a ship that beaches on the shores of Whitby. This actually happened with the Russian ship Dmitri: “The sequel to the strange arrival of the derelict in the storm last night is almost more startling than the thing itself. It turns out that the schooner is a Russian from Varna, and is called the Demeter. She is almost entirely in ballast of silver sand . . . “ (Bram Stoker, Dracula, 1897). Even the name, Dracula, Stoker found in the old library there.
Bram Stoker arrived and stayed at Mrs Vewazey’s Guesthouse in the summer of 1890. He was supposed to work on a new story, set in Styria, Austria with a character called Count Wampyr (thank you old public library of Whitby). The Gothic literature drew on landscapes like this, and maybe not surprisingly, the ruins of the abbey, the desolated shores and the ghostly tales by the locals made it a perfect setting for what would become Dracula’s first encounter with England.
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