(Despite numerous biographies of this saint, including one written by a close associate of his, information regarding dates (e.g. his birth) is not totally reliable. Therefore, I have tried to bring together the most accessible information here to provide a mere overview of this man's life and works.)
St. Hugh (of Lincoln):
Born: circa 1135 at Avalon, France.
Died: 16th November 1200 at London, England.
Positions: (held at time of death)-
- Prior of Witham
- Bishop of Lincoln.
"Truly, if all the prelates of the Church were like him, there is not a king in Christendom who would dare to raise his head in the presence of a bishop."
Richard I on Saint Hugh of Lincoln, to his courtiers.
Once upon a time, or more accurately around the year 1140, in the castle of Avalon in Burgundy, near Pontcharra and three miles from Grenoble, a second son was born to the Lord of Avalon, William, and his wife Anna. His name was Hugh.
This boy would become the most revered and well-known saint in the English calendar, bar only one, Thomas Becket, up to the Reformation period; and would also become second only to Saint Bruno in the Carthusian Order.
Child and Deacon:
Hugh's mother, Anna, died only a few years after he was born. Distraught, Lord Avalon retired to an Augustinian monastery near Grenoble, called Villard-Benoît. His elder son William inherited the title and estates. Hugh, at this time around only eight or ten years old, went with his father and became an inmate of the priory. Spending his childhood there, the religious setting greatly influencing his life, the boy became ordained as a deacon at the age of 18/19 (again, sources vary as to which). In around 1159, he was sent to St-Maximin, near Avalon, to discharge his duties. Hugh, however, was not satisfied with this posting and desired to become a member of the Carthusians at the Grande Charteuse, also near Grenoble, famed for its piety and rigid austerity. Although he was forced to take an oath not to desert his post by his superior (who did not want to lose the young deacon), Hugh realised that this oath (made hastily and with high emotion) was not binding, and thus became a novice at the Grande Chartreuse, which was at the height of its fame at the time.
Priest, Procurator and Prior:
Ten years of exemplary service and ordainment as a priest of the Order at the age of thirty led to his posting as the "procurator" of the priory, a post held for one or two years and usually followed by appointment as the prior (the top posting) itself. However, Henry II of England was at that time attempting to build the first Carthusian house in that country at Witham, located in the south-west in Somerset, as penance for the murder of Sir Thomas of Canterbury. Having failed on two occasions to do so, Henry had heard of a certain Hugh from a French noble, and specifically requested his transfer to become prior of the new establishment. Hugh travelled to England to carry out this task at some point between 1075/1080. Hugh also retained his duties as procurator of the Grande Charteuse, however.
It is said that all the previous problems associated with the building of the new priory soon disappeared on Hugh's arrival. Indeed, he himself made the plans for a new Charterhouse, an exact copy of the Grande Chartreuse. Located on the edge of Selwood Forest, one of Henry's favourite places for hunting, Witham saw frequent visits from the monarch over the next ten years, during Hugh's priorship. Despite this and the confidence placed in him by the king, Hugh proved fearless in objecting to and criticising Henry's actions, particularly on anything that violated the rights of the Church. For example, royal interference in the elections to ecclesiastical posts was strongly reproached by Hugh.
The king summoned a council of bishops and barons to Eynsham Abbey in 1181, with the intention (amongst other matters) of filling several vacant bishoprics. One of these, Lincoln, had been vacant for the preceding 16 years, and Henry nominated Hugh, the prior of Witham, for the post. The council voted in Hugh's favour after some discussion - but Hugh refused due to the nature of the election. Therefore another, free, election followed, held at Lincoln with observance to canon law. The result was unanimous: Hugh was again elected. Despite refusing again, at the insistence of the prior of the Grande Charteuse (Hugh's superior) the post was finally accepted. Hugh's consecration took place on the 21st of September 1181, in St Catherine's chapel in Westminster Abbey, by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The new bishop was enthroned at Lincoln on the 29th.
Hugh became almost instantly involved with reform, for example excommunicating the king's chief forester in protest at contemporary forestry laws. Although he rarely left his diocese, Hugh travelled within it almost endlessly, acquainting himself with the local priests, consecrating churches, as well as performing confirmations and funerals. He was also conspicuous for his charity to the poor and for personally tending to those afflicted with leprosy (then fairly common in England). Hugh retired to the priory at Witham for prayer only once a year; the only break he granted himself in his work. Famed for his sense of justice, the king and three seperate popes bade him preside over some of the most important cases of the time.
Hugh was in France, visiting the French king, at the time of King Henry's death in 1188. He returned in 1190 to be present at the coronation of the new king, Richard I. At the beginning of Richard's reign the Jewish population of Lincoln came under increased persecution from the townsfolk, and there were several incidents of popular violence. Hugh put down several of these incidents personally, risking his life to prevent a group of Jews from being killed during one such riot.
Hugh also succeeded in reviving the schools of Lincoln, even to the extent that some thought them second only to Paris, and the bishop had a reputation as the most learned clergyman in England. The greatest feat for Lincoln undertaken by Hugh is recognised as the renovation of the cathedral, damaged in an earthquake a year before Hugh's consecration. Bishop Hugh even laboured on parts of the building with his own hands.
Hugh continued to fearlessly rebuke the ruling monarch, Richard, for his faults (such as infidelity), and twice refused to grant the king money for overseas adventures. Both times he travelled to meet the king in Normandy, and was admired by Richard for the extraordinary courage shown in doing so. The second time was just before the death of Richard, and Hugh was present at the obsequies. Hugh briefly returned to London for the coronation of King John I in May 1199, but was soon aiding the new king back in France.
Hugh took this opportunity to visit the Grande Chartreuse, travelling there in the summer of 1200. Many of the routes he travelled were lined with well-wishers, who showered him with their affections. However, on the return trip to England, Hugh was afflicted with a fever. Although he made it back to the London residence of the bishops of Lincoln, the Old Temple, Hugh died several months later, on the 16th of November 1200. The feast of St Hugh takes place on the 17th of November, the day following his death.
Hugh's body was returned to Lincoln cathedral, the journey taking six days, where the kings of England and Scotland (John and William respectively) assisted in carrying his bier into the building. His body was lain in the north-east transept. Also among those present were three archbishops and nine other bishops.
Saint Hugh was canonised in 1220 by Pope Honorius III. In 1280 his remains were transferred, with great reverence and ceremony, into the (newly-built) great south transept. A golden shrine contained his relics, and numerous miracles were said to have been witnessed at this memorial. A large part remains up to today, although the gold, silver and jewels were confiscated by Henry VIII during the Reformation of the 16th century. Lincoln had become the most celebrated centre of pilgrimage in northern England due to the saint's presence. The Charterhouse at Parkminster in West Sussex, where part of his white linen stole is kept, is also dedicated to Saint Hugh.
The emblem of Saint Hugh is a swan, in reference to the story of the pet swan Hugh is said to have kept at Stowe, the episcopal manor house in Lincoln. This swan apparently took up residence there on the day of Hugh's installation at Lincoln, and formed a special attachment to the bishop. Hugh is even said to have been guarded in his sleep by the loyal bird. The story also runs that the swan displayed extreme grief on Hugh's last visit to Stowe in 1200, just before he travelled to London and just before he died.
Richard John King, "Handbook to the Cathedrals of England: Eastern Division" (1862).