The Journal Of Antiquities

Ancient Sites In Great Britain & Southern Ireland

Hilbre Island, Dee Estuary, Wirral Peninsula

SJ1855 8781. About 1 mile off the very north-western tip of the Wirral Peninsula, in the Dee estuary, and 2 miles from West Kirby is the small island of Hilbre – it is one of three islands here but the other two, Eye Islands, are even tinier than Hilbre. The island is just under 12 acres long. In medieval times it was called St Hildeburgh’s Island after a female saint who may have founded a monastic church on the island in the 7th century AD. She is perhaps one and the same as St Edburga of Mercia, daughter of the pagan king, Penda? Hilbre became a place of pilgrimage in the 13th and 14th centuries. A church is still dedicated to St Hildeburgh at Hoylake, Wirral Peninsula.

Hilbre Cross 1000 AD [Image copyright S.Craggs]

In about 1080 AD a cell and church for Benedictine monks was established on the island as a dependancy of Chester; this probably acted as a chapel of ease to Chircheb (West Kirby). At the dissolution of the monasteries two monks were allowed to remain on the island, the last monk leaving in 1550. Apparently the monks kept a beacon lit during the nightime to aide sea-going vessels in the Dee estuary from colliding with dangerous rocks.

In 1926 archaeological excavations on the island discovered artefacts from the Neolithic Age, the Bronze-Age and the Roman period. Roman artefacts found included pottery and beads. The Romans may have had a signal station here to protect their fort at Deva (Chester). Earlier, in the 19th century a sandstone cross-head from 1000 AD, a gravestone and a cross-slab in the wall of a stable were found – the gravestone cover may have come from the monks graveyard. A rock-cut grave was also found. At the western-side of the island is the famous or, perhaps, infamous ‘Lady’s Cave’, but there are other caves in the cliffs.