[#11 in the series This Week in English Catholic History: Week of November 11 – 17]
AINT Hugh was actually born in Avalon, France, to a wealthy noble named William, Lord of Avalon, and his wife Anna. His English connections come later. He was the first canonized Carthusian. His feast day is November 17th.
Hugh’s mother died when Hugh was only eight years old. After Anna’s death, William retired from the world to a monastery and brought his son Hugh with him. Hugh’s older brother, also named William, carried on the affairs of the family while father and son sought God in holy contemplation as professed religious. Hugh made his perpetual vows at the age of fifteen.
Hugh was ordained a deacon at age 19. He quickly gained a reputation as a great preacher. Around the year 1170, he was ordained a priest.
Around 1179, St. Hugh became the prior of the first Carthusian monastery in England. Hugh sought and acquired royal patronage for the priory, which was constructed by King Henry II of England, many believe as an act of reparation for his rôle in the death of St. Thomas á Becket (d. 1170). King Henry was a frequent visitor of the monastery himself.
St. Hugh became a great spiritual force, attracting many to visit for spiritual direction and healing, and of course also to join his monastery as religious. As prior, despite his debt to the king for sponsoring the priory, St. Hugh – in the great tradition of the independence in the West of the Church from the State – often rebuked King Henry for the spiritually destructive practice of leaving Dioceses without Bishops in order to divert their revenues into the royal treasury. Henry in turn had to take it: He was on thin ice after precipitating St. Thomas’ death, and in any case St. Hugh was too popular to interfere with without consequences. It also helped that St. Hugh was congenial and winsome, so the king always reconciled with Hugh eventually.
At King Henry’s insistence, St. Hugh was named the Bishop of Lincoln in 1186. Like many of the saints we have studied, St. Hugh feared the temptations of such power would corrupt and damn his soul, and he initially refused, only accepting when ordered to do so by his religious superiors in the Carthusian Order.
St. Hugh flourished in his position as Bishop, restoring clerical discipline to his diocese and exercising his office with wisdom and justice. St. Hugh also raised the quality of education provided by the cathedral school.
As bishop, St. Hugh was also a defender of the most despised and hated in his society. When Richard I persecuted the Jewish communities of England, St. Hugh spoke out against the antisemitism then in vogue, defending the value of human life irrespective of the religion of the human being made in the image of God.
Also while St. Hugh was Bishop of Lincoln, strangely a white swan became the bishop’s constant companion, following the saint wherever he would go and acting in a docile manner uncharacteristic of its race, even guarding St. Hugh while he slept. For this reason, a white swan is part of St. Hugh’s iconography, and St. Hugh of Lincoln is the patron saint of swans.
Arbitrating between the English monarch John I and the French monarch Philippe Augustus, St. Hugh fell ill and died while visiting his native France. He was buried in the cathedral in Lincoln, where his body remains to this very day. Many miracles have been attributed to his intercession. He was canonized by Pope Honorius III in 1220.
St. Hugh of Lincoln, R.M. Woolley (1927).
St. Hugh of Lincoln: A Biography, Joseph Clayton (1931).
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Written by Mr. John Burford, IV and Dr. Foster Lerner of Incarnation Catholic Church in Orlando, Florida; a parish of The Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter © 2018.
John is the founder and owner of Magnolia Prep, an SAT and ACT tutoring business with branches in several major US cities. Foster holds a Doctorate in Medicine from Nova Southeastern University Dr. Kiran C. Patel College of Osteopathic Medicine, and is currently pursuing post-graduate studies in medicine.