Saints for Our Times: St. Hugh of Lincoln was respected for his wisdom
By Mary Lou Gibson
St. Hugh of Lincoln was one of the bright lights of the Middle Ages. In 1186, he became abbot of the first Carthusian monastery in England built by King Henry II as part of his penance for the murder of Thomas Becket some years earlier. Hugh restored the monastery of Witham Abbey in Somerset and revitalized the Diocese of Lincoln, which was the largest diocese in England and had not had a bishop in 18 years. Tom Cowan writes in “The Way of the Saints” that it was to the king’s advantage to keep bishoprics vacant because the revenues from the land and estates went to the crown.
Hugh was born at Avalon Castle, Burgundy in 1140, and made his profession in the Augustinian order when he was 15. He was ordained a deacon at 19. He became a Carthusian when he was 23 and had a reputation as a fine preacher.
When Hugh arrived at the site of the monastery at Witham, he found no building started and a dilapidated charter house. He soon became a “hands on bishop.” He ordered the cathedral to be repaired and he personally carried stone, cut it and worked with the masons and builders. Hugh became known for his wisdom and justice and his reputation for holiness and sanctity spread throughout England. His interest in education brought new life to schools in Lincoln and made them as good as those in Paris. Paul Burns writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that Hugh was reputed to be the most learned monk in England. Several popes recognized his wisdom and made him judge delegate for some of the most important cases of his time.
As bishop, Hugh traveled constantly to consecrate churches, confirm children and bury the dead. In one of his sermons on the care for the dead, he said, “laity who practiced charity in the heart, truth on the lips, and chastity in the body would have an equal reward in heaven with monks and nuns.” According to Cowan, Hugh defied social customs by working directly with the leper colony, people who were shunned by the vast majority of healthy people in the Middle Ages.
He was one of the leaders in denouncing the persecution of Jews that swept England in 1190-1191. When Jewish communities in the diocese were attacked by anti-Semitic mobs, Hugh placed himself physically between the rioters and the Jews.
In addition, Hugh was not timid in his dealings with royalty and was both a friend and a critic of several kings. John Delaney writes in “The Dictionary of Saints” that he had differences with Henry II over the appointment of seculars to ecclesiastical positions. He also refused to contribute to King Richard I’s war chest to finance foreign wars in 1197. When he defied King John on several occasions, Hugh earned the nickname “Hammerking.”
He also criticized the Forest Laws, which allowed royal foresters to punish the poor who hunted in and collected firewood from the king’s forests and even excommunicated some foresters. Cowan writes that Hugh used his power of excommunication rather than monetary fines, so that the punishment would fall equally on the rich and the poor.
Hugh was also fond of children and animals and reportedly kept a wild swan as a pet. Sean Kelly and Rosemary Rogers write in “The Saint-a-Day Guide” that the bird followed him everywhere, attacking anyone who approached, and would “bury its head and long neck in Hugh’s wide sleeves.”
When Hugh returned from a diplomatic mission to France for King John in 1199, he fell ill and after several months, died on Nov. 16, 1200. The kings of England and Scotland accompanied his body on its return to Lincoln. He was canonized by Pope Honorius III in 1220, the first Carthusian to be so honored. His feast day is Nov. 17. His shrine in Lincoln Cathedral was a place of major pilgrimage until the Reformation, when it was dismantled and his remains have never since been found.