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St. Hugh of Lincoln
(1140-1200)

Prior of Witham
Bishop of Lincoln
Born: 1140 at Avalon, Burgundy
Died: 16th November 1200 at London


Hugh of Avalon or Burgundy is best known as St. Hugh of Lincoln, bishop and founder of the existing cathedral in that city, which was far advanced during his lifetime. There are many biographies of his life in existence, of which the longest and most important, written by a Benedictine monk who was the Bishop's chaplain and constant associate, remains in manuscript form in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Later versions have been widely published over the years. For it may be safely said that a more zealous and indefatigable prelate, than was this man, seldom, if ever, presided over a see of England or any other Christian land.

St. Hugh was born about the year 1140, of a knightly Burgundian family which took its name from Avalon, a place about three miles distant from Grenoble. At an early age, he lost his mother and, soon afterwards, entered a priory of Regular Canons established at Villarbenoit in the neighbourhood of his father's castle. To this step, he was led by the precepts and example of his widowed father who, at the same time, retired from the World and became an inmate of the same priory. At this time Hugh was a mere child; according to the best authority, not quite eight, but according to others, ten years old.

At the age of eighteen, he was ordained deacon and, some time afterwards, probably when about twenty-four years old, was made prior of a neighbouring cell, a dependency of his convent. Within two or three years, it would seem, he deserted this post and betook himself to the Grande Chartreuse, near Grenoble, then in the zenith of its fame, for the rigid austerity of its rules and the earnest piety of its members.

After ten years spent in the most exemplary devotion to his duties as a Carthusian monk, he was advanced to the office of procurator, a post second only to that of the prior of the house. This post he can have held but a year or two. Had he held it a short time longer, he would have succeeded, with little doubt, to the priory of the Grande Chartreuse, then one of the proudest pre-eminences in the religions world. Such, however, was not to be his destiny. King Henry II was founding a Carthusian convent at Witham in Somerset - the first of the Order in England - but difficulties and disasters obstructed the Royal purpose. At length, hearing of the fame of Hugh - and being assured that he was the man who would succeed in carrying out his designs to full and good effect - Henry managed, with difficulty, to procure his removal for this purpose to England. This was probably in 1175.

Hugh did not disappoint the expectations formed of him. All difficulties soon vanished upon his taking the rule of Witham, of which establishment - to the admiration of all - he was prior for about ten years. However, in 1186, mainly through the Royal influence and that of Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury, he was made Bishop of Lincoln.

Sorely had Hugh striven against this removal from the religious calm of his beloved Carthusian cell to so different a sphere of action. At first, he rejected his election as uncanonical, but, when compelled to acquiesce, at the insistence of the Prior of the Grande Chartreuse, he brought all his determined earnestness and untiring energy to the duties of his new station. He held synods and visitations. He travelled endlessly: confirming children, consecrating churches and burying the dead. His sense of justice was legendary and three popes, as well as the King, made him judge over some of the most important legal cases of the time. Always a friend to the oppressed, he often tended to lepers and even risked his own life to prevent the slaying of a group of Jews during a riot.

Hugh chose learned and worthy men with which to surround himself and was able, therefore, to delegate much diocesonal government to his Archdeacons. As reputedly the most learned monk in the country, he revived the Lincoln schools which men like Gerald of Wales soon considered second only to Paris. His great work in the city, however, was the rebuilding of his cathedral, which had been ruined by an earthquake the year before his consecration. Parts of his choir and transepts, which he sometimes laboured on it with his own hands, can still be seen today.

Though he became an especial favourite of Henry II, Bishop Hugh was a man of "cool and excellent judgement" and "resolute unbending firmness of purpose in what he believed to be right". He was, therefore, a critic, as well as a friend, to three Angevin Kings, applying a mixture of cheerfulness & asceticism and "singular & exquisite tact" to remain in favour. He refused to appoint Royal courtiers to ecclesiastical preferments and excommunicated Royal foresters; yet avoided King Henry's wrath with an impudent joke. Later, a playful shake thawed the anger of Richard I when, at the Council of Oxford in 1197, Hugh refused to provide knight-service overseas. His admonishments of John at the beginning of his reign, however, were simply ignored.

The emblem which generally accompanies representations of St. Hugh is his pet swan, which is said to have taken up its abode at Stow, the episcopal manor-house, on the day of the Bishop's installation at Lincoln. It formed an especial attachment to St. Hugh; and displayed extreme grief on his last visit to Stow, before going to London, where he died in the autumn of 1200. He had been Bishop of Lincoln for a little more than fourteen years and he was returned there for interment, the journey taking up six days. The Kings of England and Scotland (John and William) had met, by appointment, at Lincoln and assisted in conveying the bier into the cathedral. Three archbishops, nine bishops, "many abbots and many priors," were also present.

St. Hugh was canonized by the Pope Honorius Ill, in 1220; and in 1280 his body was translated, with great ceremony, into the newly-built eastern part of the cathedral - the so-called "Angel Choir." This translation took place at the cost of Thomas Bek, who on the same day was consecrated to the See of St. Davids. Numerous miracles were said to have been worked at his shrine, a large part of still remains. His white linen stole also survives at the Parkminster Charterhouse in West Sussex. Up to the time of the Reformation, no such saint in the English calendar, with one exception, had his fame more widely spread, or received more earnest reverence. The one exception is, of course, St. Thomas Becket; with whom, however, Hugh of Lincoln has no cause to fear comparison. With fully as stern a resolution to defend the rights of the Church against the encroachments of the State, in many other points the character of Hugh was a far finer one, and his consistent life more saint-like, than can ever be truly predicated of Becket. So long as his cathedral stands, in its grand beauty, the name of Bishop Hugh of Lincoln can never altogether be forgotten.

His feast is on the 17th November, the day following his death.

Edited from Richard John King's "Handbook to the Cathedrals of England: Eastern Division" (1862).

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