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Saint of the week

The bishop who charmed kings and ate with lepers

St Hugh of Lincoln (November 17) travelled around his diocese defending the poor and needy against the powerful and insolent

By on Thursday, 17 November 2011

St Hugh observes St Bruno adoring the Virgin and Child

St Hugh observes St Bruno adoring the Virgin and Child

Hugh of Lincoln (c 1140-1200) was described by John Ruskin as “the most beautiful sacerdotal figure known to me in history”. 

Yet Hugh possessed a peppery temperament, and showed little patience with far-fetched miracle stories. Rather, he combined fierce ascetic discipline with strong practical acumen, predominantly exercised on behalf of the poor.

He possessed at once the moral courage to confront kings Henry II, Richard I and John, and the charm to turn aside the royal wrath.

The youngest of three brothers, Hugh was born into an aristocratic family near Grenoble. When he was about 10, his mother died and his father decided to enter an Augustinian monastery, taking Hugh with him. The boy was professed as a canon at 15, and developed a reputation as a preacher. Seeking a sterner existence, however, at 23 he joined La Grande Chartreuse, north of Grenoble.

Subsequently he was appointed procurator of the monastery, responsible for looking after the lay brothers and visitors. It was work for which his warm nature was well suited so that even from that fastness his fame began to spread.

Meanwhile, King Henry II of England had determined to found three monasteries in penance for the murder of Thomas à Becket – a project he pursued with both reluctance and economy. Indeed, the Carthusian house which he founded at Witham in Somerset seemed likely to fail altogether until a French aristocrat suggested the appointment of Hugh as prior.

Arriving in 1179, Hugh immediately showed that he knew how to handle the volcanic monarch. Having used the King’s money to buy up some peasant holdings which had cluttered up the site, he disarmed Henry with bluff humour: “See, my lord, how I, a poor stranger, have enriched you in your own land with many houses.”

While Hugh never scrupled to rebuke the King in defence of the Church, the two men got along splendidly. Indeed, the false rumour began to spread that the prior was an illegitimate son of Henry.

Witham Abbey flourished and in 1186 the King arranged Hugh’s election as Bishop of Lincoln, the largest diocese in the country. Hugh discovered his cathedral damaged by an earthquake in 1185 and employed the brilliant French architect Geoffrey de Noyers to rebuild it.

The bishop never became expert in the English vernacular. Nevertheless, he travelled continually around his diocese, defending the poor and needy against the powerful and insolent. 

“Fearless as a lion in any danger”, he excommunicated the King’s chief forester for his depredations, defended the Jews against mob fury, ate with lepers, and became the first person to dare to refuse a money grant directly demanded by the Crown.

In 1199 Hugh revisited the Grande Chartreuse but took ill on his return journey and died in London at the Temple.