Legends of Saints and Birds – Saint Hugh and His Swan

Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, who lived in the twelfth century, was not an Englishman by birth. His father was a knight of Burgundy, and Hugh lost his mother when he was very young. At eight years old he was sent to a Convent of Regular Canons, near to his home, to be brought up a monk.

Every happy game was denied to the little eight-year-old boy: he must neither run, laugh, or joke as did other children.

“Hugh, I bring you up for Christ,” said his master, the monk who taught him. “No jokes for you.”

Now, this treatment would have broken the spirit of many boys, but Hugh bent under the vigorous discipline, becoming obedient, loving, and guileless.

When he was nineteen he was taken one day to the Grande Chartreuse monastery, near Grenoble. He looked at the pine- clad Alps with their snowy summits, and the loveliness and grandeur of the scene impressed him. He loved the sombre pine woods and the dazzling snow, and would fain have become a monk at Chartreuse. His companions thought the life of a Carthusian Monk would be too hard for him.

“I have lived simply from my childhood,” said Hugh.

Yet he went back to the Convent for a while; but the rich plains of his native Burgundy did not draw him as did the rugged mountains round the Grande Chartreuse, so after a while he went there and asked to be admitted as a Carthusian Monk.

Ten happy years were spent there; then the call came. He was to leave those snow-clad summits, thundering avalanches, the blue gentians and Alpine roses, for a Somerset valley; to leave that again for the desolate fens of Lincolnshire, where instead of crisp air and glittering mountains he would have the raw fogs and damp marshes of an English fen.

At Witham, in Somersetshire, Henry II, King of England, had founded the first Carthusian Abbey on English soil. As it had not prospered under the first two Priors, the Bishop of Bath was sent to the Grande Chartreuse to ask for a Monk who was thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the Carthusian Order to come to Witham to build the foundations of a thriving Community. Hugh was chosen to go. Hugh, who loved the Grande Chartreuse and its solitude so greatly; but better than the mountains, better than the monastery Hugh loved his Saviour, so when he was convinced that duty called him to England on his Master’s service, he bid farewell to the life he loved so well and set forth on his journey.

When he was established at Witham he saw that much reform was needed to make the English Community like the Grande Chartreuse. Now even the English folk in the twelfth century were suspicious of anything that was new the people who lived round Witham did not like the idea of a new Community of Religious in England.

“Let the Carthusian Monks stay in their own land,” they thought; and Hugh’s heart may have echoed that wish as he toiled under the dull sky, and the heavy rains of an English autumn. He saw that the actual building needed to be bettered and enlarged, so he set to work, carrying the stones and kneading the mortar himself. And the folk round Witham took note of this; they also saw that the Carthusian rule which they thought too severe for any man did not tend to make Hugh gloomy, sombre, or severe. Instead this man, strict as was his own life, had ever a tender word and a gentle smile for others; and when he spoke to them in his broken English, his sweet face expressed all that his halting tongue could not utter. So prejudice wore away, and the house at Witham became a busy hive where industry, devotion, and harmony reigned supreme.

Now it so happened that for two years the see of Lincoln had been vacant, and during those years Henry II had taken the money belonging to it; but after a while he felt that it would not do to leave it longer without a Bishop, and he therefore told the Chapter to consider whether Hugh, Prior of Witham, might not well become Bishop of Lincoln; for Henry had a great respect for Hugh. So the Chapter dutifully elected the Prior. Hugh, however, did not like this. “You have chosen me at the bidding of the King,” he said. “And I will not come to Lincoln, for perhaps in your hearts you know of one you would rather have than I. Choose for your Bishop one whom you judge most worthy to Shepherd the flock of Christ, and not at the bidding of an earthly king.”

But the Chapter again elected Hugh, this time convincing him that it was by their own wish, and not simply to gain favour with the King, that they asked him to be their Bishop.

At Lincoln, as at Witham, Hugh found much to be done. He saw that the Foresters who were overseers of the Royal Chases often oppressed the poor, treating them with great cruelty. He excommunicated the Chief Forester. Henry was angry at this; that a Bishop who owed his preferment to the King should dare to excommunicate a Royal Forester, was unheardof impudence, and he remonstrated with Hugh.

But Hugh was firm, explaining that though Henry had temporal power over the Foresters to appoint or dismiss them, he had the spiritual authority over their souls, and the King was forced to submit. Again, later on, Henry urged the Bishop to give a Prebendal stall to one of his Courtiers. But Hugh said: “The King has the means of rewarding his servants without burdening the Church with them; a prebend’s stall is for a Clerk, not a Courtier.”

Now Hugh loved animals and birds. He had a Swan which lived in the moat, and when he walked near to the moat the swan would come to him and put its head up the Bishop’s sleeve, so that he might caress it. It fed from Hugh’s hand, and would swim along in the water while the Bishop walked on the pathway by the moat.

It used to go off into the Fens, sometimes, but it always returned to Hugh. Indeed, once or twice, the return of the Swan was at the same time as the return of the Bishop from a Lenten Retreat, so that folks used to say that the coming of the Swan was a sure sign of the coming of the Bishop.

Hugh lived on at Lincoln when Richard Coeur de Lion was King, until John reigned. King John sent him to France to conclude a treaty of peace between that country and England; and Hugh went once more to see his beloved mountains and pine forests round the Grande Chartreuse.

He did not reach Lincoln alive. On his way through London he fell ill of a fever and there died, peacefully and fearlessly as he had lived.

His body they took to Lincoln for burial.

Thus died Hugh, Monk of the Grande Chartreuse; Bishop of Lincoln; by some called “Hammer-King,” because of his fearless dealings with Kings.

And Richard, himself “Lion-Hearted,” is reported to have said of him, “If all the Bishops in my realm were like that man, Kings and Princes would be powerless against them.”

– taken from Legends of Saints and Birds by Agnes Aubrey Hilton