"a man in all things most laudable, difficult of comparison, and of wonderful sanctity"
Bishop Bruno of Segni, writing about St. Hugh's later years
"Most pure in thought and deed,
he is the promoter and perfect guardian of monastic discipline and the regular life,
the unfailing support of the true religious and of men of probity,
the vigorous champion and defender of the Holy Church"
Bishop Arnulf of Soissons on St. Hugh
St. Hugh the Great was born in the year 1024 in the diocese of Autun, in France. The eldest son of Count Dalmatius of Semur and Aremberge of Vergy, he was descended from the noblest houses in Burgundy, and from birth had the title of "Hugues de Semur". His father wanted his eldest son to succeed to the family's ancestral estates and become a knight, but his mother wanted Hugh to enter the service of God and become a member of the clergy. Her views were reinforced when a local priest apparently had a vision advising that this should be the case. Hugh's father realised that he was much more suited to the church, being extraordinarily pious, eager and studious from an early age (as well as being a bit too clumsy to be a knight). Therefore Hugh was sent to his grand-uncle, Bishop Hugh of Auxerre, for the start of his religious education and preparation for the priesthood.
Hugh was educated at a monastery school, attached to the Priory of St. Marcellus. He became a novice at an early age, just 14, at the Benedictine Abbey at Cluny. This abbey had a notoriously severe novitiate, yet such was Hugh's religious fervour that he was allowed to take his vows to become a monk at age 15, just one year later, without completing it. The Congregation at Cluny's abbey had a special privilege, and this enabled Hugh to become a deacon at age 18, and a priest just two years later. His zeal for the discipline of the Benedictine order was quickly recognised, and he was chosen as abbey prior, despite his conspicuous youth. As prior, Hugh was charged with the basic day-to-day running of the abbey, both spiritually and temporally, as well as representing the abbot if he was absent for any reason. The abbot at Cluny was the famous St. Odilo, who had held this post for nearly 50 years. When Odilo died, on the 1st of January in 1049, Hugh was unanimously elected to be the next abbot. He was installed by Archbishop Hugh of Besançon, on the 22nd of February 1049. He was still only 24 years old.
Hugh wasted no time in making his presence felt. The same year that he had been elected, 1049, he appeared at the Council of Reims - at the request of the current Pope, Leo IX - to speak out against the abuses that were present in the Church at that time. His passion and zeal when expressing himself about clerical abuses at Reims led to the passing of several remedial ordinances concerning discipline in the church. Hugh was particularly effective in his campaign against simony, the exchange of clerical pardons for money. The Pope was so impressed by Hugh that he took the young abbot to Rome with him, so that he might have his advice and help at the next year's great council. His help was also sought by France's papal legate (Hildebrand, aka Pope St. Gregory VII) in 1054 for the Council of Tours.
Hugh was popular with a succession of Popes: the succesor to Leo IX, Victor II
, held Hugh in high esteem and confirmed all of the privileges granted to Cluny in 1055
; Stephen IX
summoned Hugh to Rome immediately upon his ascension, and the two traveled together until 1058
, when Stephen died in Hugh's arms at Florence
; he also journeyed with Pope Nicholas II
, and assisted with the Council of Rome that reformed papal election
s. In the following years Hugh traveled France extensively, to effect the decree
s passed in Rome. During this successful mission
Hugh also managed to win the support of many bishops for important later reforms. When the privileges held by Cluny's abbey were attacked in 1063, Hugh defended them at the Council Of Rome. Pope Alexander II
sent a legate (St. Peter Damian
, the Cardinal
Bishop of Ostia) to adjudicate in this case (and others); after a stay at Cluny, the legate held a council at Chalons which decided in Hugh's favour. Two later Popes, Urban II and Pascal II
, actually came from the monastery at Cluny and were disciple
s of Hugh. He served a total of nine popes.
Such is the number of Hugh's other known achievements that they are almost impossible to list. They included the effecting of peace between Emperor Henry IV and King Andrew of Hungary as papal legate in 1057, presiding over the Synod of Toulouse, serving as mediator between the Vatican and Henry IV at Canossa in 1077 and playing a major role in increasing the number of Benedictine houses in Europe from 60 to 2'000, new houses being established in France, Germany, Spain and Italy. Also under Hugh the very first Benedictine house in England was founded, at St. Pancras, near Lewes. He also set up a hospital for lepers at Marcigny and often worked there himself, performing the most menial duties. Hugh was also prominent in composing and promulgating the decrees at the Council of Clermont in 1095, where the decision to undertake the First Crusade was made. St. Hugh was instrumental in the consecration, by Pope Urban II, of the largest church in Christendom at that time on the 25th of October 1095. This church was located at Cluny itself (it was started by Hugh, in fact), and remained the largest church in Chrstendom until the erection of St. Peter's in Rome. Unfortunately, absolutely nothing remains of this once-magnificent building today.
The years of travel finally took their toll on Hugh in the spring of 1109, when he felt the end approaching. His final hours are well-documented; he was at Cluny, and gathered the monks of the order around him to give them the kiss of peace. Dismissing them with the word "Benedicite", he was then carried to the church, where he laid himself in sackcloth and ashes before the altar. He died there, late on Easter Monday, the 28th of April.
His tomb, in the church at Cluny, was soon the scene of miracles. Pope Gelasius I made a pilgrimage to Cluny in 1119, and died there. Pope Callistus II, elected that year on the 2nd of February, began the process of canonisation as quickly as possible. On the 6th of January, 1120, Hugh was declared a saint, with the 29th of April his feast-day. In St. Hugh's honour the abbot of Cluny was henceforth accorded both the title and honours of a cardinal. The majority of his relics, however, were destroyed in the Huguenot uprising of 1575. Saint Hugh's name is invoked against fever.