Saints of the Day – Hugh of Lincoln

detail from the painting 'Apparition of Angel Musicians to Saint Hugh of Lincoln'; Vicente Carducho, c.1629; Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

(also known as Hugh of Avalon)

Born in Avalon Castle, Burgundy, France, c.1140; died in London, England, on November 17, 1200; canonized 1220, the first Carthusian to be so honored. Saint Hugh had the advantage of faithful parents. His father William, lord of Avalon, was known for his works of charity. Mother Anna, who cared for lepers and the sick, died when Hugh was eight. Thereafter he was raised and educated at a convent at Villard-Benoit. He was professed at 15, ordained a deacon at 19, and was made prior of a monastery at Saint-Maxim.

While visiting Grand Chartreuse with his prior in 1160, Hugh decided to join the Carthusian Order and was ordained a priest. In 1173 he was appointed procurator (in charge of monastery business and care of guests). He became known for his love of the poor and animals, who would feed from his hands.

In 1175, King Henry II invited him to establish a monastery at Witham in Somerset, England, between Bruton and Frome (penance for murdering Saint Thomas Becket. When Hugh arrived in Witham, he found that the monastery still needed to be built.

He immediately clashed with the king over matters of justice. Hugh refused to undertake the office of prior until the king had given alternative accommodation and compensation ‘to the last penny’ to the peasants whose land was seized for the monastery. After interviewing his earthly sovereign, Hugh would hurry back to his prayers and his pets, including his pet swan. Hugh’s reputation for holiness spread all over England and attracted many to the monastery.

He also chided Henry for keeping sees vacant to enrich the royal coffers (since income from vacant sees went to the royal treasury). Soon thereafter (1186) he was reluctantly consecrated bishop of Lincoln, the largest see in England, which had been kept vacant for more than a decade. He relented and accepted the post only when ordered to do so by the prior of Grand Chartreuse.

Hugh arrived at his consecration dressed as a shabby monk riding on a mule, which caused embarrassment to the knights. He walked barefoot into the cathedral and threw a great feast afterwards for all the poor of Lincoln, rather than for the nobility.

Saint Hugh quickly restored clerical discipline, labored to restore religion to the diocese, and became known for his wisdom and justice. He had differences with Henry over the appointment of seculars to ecclesiastical positions. He rebuilt the fire-damaged Norman cathedral and founded a famous school of theology.

He had the gift of healing and visited the sick. He brought lepers into his own rooms to minister to them. His acts of charity included feeding the poor, protecting the outcast, caring for the sick, and burying the dead. Hugh set aside one-third of his revenues for the poor.

During the pogroms (1190-91) against the 2,000 English Jews following Henry’s death (during the crusades of King Richard), Hugh acted as protector to the Jews of Lincoln, repeatedly facing down armed mobs and making them release their victims. It is said that after such a showdown he would go to play with children, tend the neglected sick, or visit outlying parts of his diocese – I guess to him seeking justice was just part of another day’s work for the Kingdom.

In Northampton, Hugh dealt with a cult that arose around the death of a local boy, John, who had allegedly been killed by Jews. There was evidence that John was a thief murdered by his partner. Hugh, with his own hands, tore down the shrine to John. (A similar situation arose around ‘Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln’ 60 years after the bishop’s death – see Saints who never were.)

With all his burdens and spiritual earnestness, he was full of liveliness and gaiety, but he was easily aroused to anger by injustices of any sort. He vigorously supported the common people against the king’s foresters and fought the Forest Laws, which hunted down the poor. He excommunicated one forester. (He used excommunication rather than fines in the ecclesiastical court.)

In 1197 King Richard demanded monies from bishops and barons to subsidize his war against King Philip Augustus in France. Hugh challenged that churches and religious houses are the property of God, not the crown. Hugh won the long legal battle.

Then Richard demanded 300 men. Hugh flatly refused, saying he had an obligation only to provide men for home defense. Supported by the bishop of Salisbury. Richard tried to seize property of both, but officers were afraid of excommunication. They begged Hugh to work it out with the king.

King Richard said of Hugh, “if all the prelates of the Church were like him, there is not a king in Christendom who would dare raise his head in the presence of a bishop.” Though he had clashed with Henry and Richard, his leadership was such that he remained on good terms with both monarchs. Dealing with able and overbearing men is never easy but Hugh’s sense of humor, even temper, and steady firmness compensated.

Hugh said of himself that he was ‘peppery’; his admirers said ‘he was a good man, fearless as a lion in any danger,’ and his bravery was without bluster. He calmed the rage of the fierce Henry II with a joke – a daring joke at the king’s expense; he calmed the rage of the fierce Richard I with a kiss – and still refused to pay taxes to finance the king’s war with France: an early case of the refusal of a money-grant demanded directly by the Crown.

In 1199, Hugh went on a diplomatic mission to France for King John, and returned from the trip in poor health after visiting the Grande Chartreuse, Cluny, and Cîteaux. A few months later while attending a national council in London, he was stricken and died at the Old Temple in London.

His will gave ‘everything which I appear to possess to our Lord Jesus Christ in the person of His poor.’ He was so venerated during his lifetime that at his magnificent funeral the kings of England and Scotland helped carry his bier. (John Ruskin found him “The most beautiful sacerdotal figure known to me in history.”) Many of the sick were healed as his funeral procession passed from London to Lincoln Cathedral (Attwater, Benedictines, Delaney, Douie, Markus, Thurston, Woolley).

His emblem in art is a ‘swan,’ because he had a pet wild swan that would follow him and keep watch over his bed. He sometimes holds a chalice in which the Christ Child sits, which relates to a miracle witnessed as he was celebrating Mass at Buckden when a vision of Christ was manifested as Hugh consecrated the bread and wine. At other times he may be shown (1) with the swan by his deathbed; (2) as a bearded bishop giving a blessing; (3) helping to build Lincoln Cathedral; or (4) raising a dead child to life (Markus, Roeder).

MLA Citation

  • Katherine I Rabenstein. Saints of the Day, 1998. CatholicSaints.Info. 12 August 2020. Web. 27 November 2020. <>