St Hugh of Lincoln (1135-1200)

When you next visit the Angel Choir at Lincoln, take two steps back in time: from the beautiful architecture to the cult of a Saint whose shrines (one for his head, one for his body) formerly stood there--and from the cult of a Saint, into a recollection of the life of a man who was a spiritual hero, if ever there was one.

His life is told in one of the most vivid biographies I ever read, the so-called Great Life of St Hugh. You can also look him up in such reference works as Everyman's Book of Saints, compiled by C. P. S. Clarke. You'll find how, born of a noble Burgundian family, he was both pushed and pulled into the Church: designed for it by his father (a soldier turned monk) and drawn into it by the appeal of the solitary life of Carthusian monks. But he also shows what the contemplative life can lead to (when it develops certain recognised qualities), and also what religious obedience might mean. He was ordered, firstly to sort out the chaos surrounding the foundation of the first English Charterhouse, and (later) to rescue the even more messy and neglected diocese of Lincoln. In the mean time, he also had in effect to sort out the spiritual wreckage of Henry II, who in his post-Beckett state of sad/mad penitence was thoroughly harrowed and therefore even more in need of patient cultivation. On one famous occasion, when summoned to the royal presence to explain why he had refused to sign over some Church income to support one of the courtiers, he defused the situation with a brilliantly judged and daring piece of wit.

He had found Henry in al fresco royal state, sitting under a parkland oak surrounded by his courtiers, turning angrily away from Hugh and fiddling with a needle and thread. He was trying to sort out a leather fingerstall, covering a sore finger which he had (perhaps) bruised in a tournament--or whilst banging a table. Hugh's joke might not strike us as particularly funny; but it referred boldly to some not-so distant relatives of the Plantagenet king, that family of Norman leatherworkers whose daughter had caught the eye of the father of William the Conquerer: 'How you resemble your cousins at Falaise!' This brought the house (or rather the boughs) down and Henry was forced to join in the laugh. With other later kings he tried equally daring but diversely courageous tactics, physically shaking Richard I to exact from him the Kiss of Peace, and directly rebuking King John.

He showed the same courage, judgement and principle in all his other dealings. He was one of the few Christian leaders of the Middle Ages who actively defended the Jews from persecution, and he cared particularly for the poor and for children. There is a lovely account in the Great Life about how children's faces lit up when they saw him, and how their 'body-language' expressed their joy in his presence.

One of the best stories about him (which has the ring of truth) concerns the swan which frequented the pools near his country manor at Stow, and which was inseparable from the Bishop whenever he visited. The Great Life describes this bird so precisely that ornithologists have identified it (I think as a Hooper Swan). It's nice to be sentimental about such things which are indeed touching and impressive; but it must have been hard for the bishop's attendants, who couldn't get anywhere near their master without risking a head-down wings-out rush from his feathered friend. When Hugh died the bird flew away and was never seen again; but (of course) it was destined to become the emblem in art of this most holy, heroic and humane Saint.

Robert Cockcroft, April 1996
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997