Stories of Saints and Martyrs - Jetta S. Wolff

St. Hugh of Lincoln

Nov. 17; A.D. 1200

In an old castle in the land of Burgundy there was born about the year A.D. 1134 a little child who was to become in later times one of our noblest and most famous Bishops of Lincoln. His family for ages past had been one of the foremost of the powerful old families of the country; and perhaps if little Hugh had had a different father, we should read of him as one of the proud and fierce warriors of the time, instead of as the good and humble Christian saint.

Hugh was only eight years old when he lost his mother. The father's grief at this loss was so great, that he seems to have cared no longer to keep up the state of his castle-home. He took his little son and went with him to live in a house of Canons at Grenoble. The boy was placed in a school for youths of noble birth. "But," said his father, "the levity of thy school-fellows is not for thee, thy lot is not such as theirs. Little Hugh, I nurture thee for CHRIST, and jest and levity are not for thee."

His father loved Hugh dearly, and was never harsh. But his was that true love which is strong enough to show itself in wise control. He often saw his child, and his frequent words of counsel were loving and tender; but he was never so weak as to overlook the boy's natural faults, or to shrink from giving reproof when it was needed. And so the bond between father and son was very strong and true, a bond not only of natural affection, but also of deep and loving respect.

The boy was quick and clever, and worked well at his books, which gladdened the father's heart. He grew up, and his father became old and infirm. Then he was made a monk in the house of the Canons, and the Prior gave into the son's charge the care of his beloved parent; this was to be his special work for the time. What a blessed work! To Hugh it was really given to "succour his father." He rarely left his side, but would gently lead him about the place, carry him when he could not walk, with his own hands prepare his food and serve it to him, and in every possible way minister to his comfort and his need. Every one learned to look upon the young man with respect, and he was loved by all around him. At nineteen years of age he was ordained Deacon.

His father died, and now Hugh said he must have a harder life than that among the Canons. The Prior took him to the monastery of Chartreuse. Here the monks lived, each one alone in a cell cut out of the hard rocks among which the monastery stood. Their beds were simple horse-cloths, their pillows rough skins, their dress a horse-hair shirt, their food scanty, and always eaten in silence.

"The men who dwell among these rocks," said an old monk, are as hard as the rocks themselves. They are severe, each man to himself and to all other men."

But this instead of daunting St. Hugh, only made him the more eager to brave so rude a life. He loved learning, too, and thought that here he should be able to study with profit.

After he had been at Chartreuse a little time, there was given into the charge of the young man, who had known so well how to care for his father in his old age, the care of an aged monk who needed loving, patient attention. The old man was often very trying and severe to the young Priest. But at other moments he was gentle enough, and would beg Hugh to bear with his weakness. "Be not troubled by the worries of these present days, my son, or rather, indeed, my lord," he would say. "There will come a day, in GOD'S own good time, when thou wilt be a Bishop."

And so, indeed, it came to pass. Hugh had until now passed all his life in his own land of France. But while the good monks at the monastery of Chartreuse were training themselves to endure hardship and self-denial, the clergy of our own country were trying to awake their people to a braver, truer, religious life. Then the king, Henry II., invited over some of the monks of Chartreuse, gave them lands at Witham in Gloucestershire, and money to build a monastery, so that they might live in England, teach and preach to the people, and set "an example of godly life."

This was the first "Charterhouse" in our land. The second was that great London school where so many of our English boys have been taught for ages past, and which is still one of our grandest public schools. It was built first as a simple monastery under the Carthusian Rule. Traces of the old cells can still be found. But the poor monks were harshly treated, and turned out of their house in the time of Henry VIII. Then, about the year 1606, a very rich man named Sutton left money to endow the building as a hospital and house of refuge for the aged, and a school for the young.

The first Abbot of the new monastery at Witham did not get on with the peasants who lived and worked on the land, and in a short time he gave up his office. The monks of Chartreuse sent another, but he died very soon, and now the king sent for a third. The good monks thought it their duty to send one whom they believed to be truly fitted for so high a post, but it was with grief that they gave up their beloved Hugh.

St. Hugh soon won everybody's heart in the land he had crossed the sea and left his own brighter country to come to. All felt that this brave Abbot was truly upright and just. He had no easy post to fill. Often there were disputes among the rude peasants who worked on the lands around; sometimes there were disputes even within the monastery walls. There had not been time yet, since it was set up, for its ways and rules to have become quite orderly and settled. But as his father had acted with him, so Hugh acted now with those under his charge. He never weakly gave way to one side or another, but looked every matter bravely in the face, and then strove to be just and firm in his judgment about it. And in whatever he did, he kept a bright face, and a good-humoured manner. So full of smiles and fun was he often, that the shyest of children loved him, and would come creeping up to his side. He was loved alike by the king on his throne, and the poor peasants in their rude huts, by little children and by dumb animals.

He always kept to his simple Carthusian dress, and his plain, hard Carthusian way of living.

Then he was made Bishop of Lincoln.

King Henry was always devoted to St. Hugh, and he helped both Henry and Richard Coeur de Lion with advice and counsel; with John he did not get on. Before all things St. Hugh was true—true to GOD, to himself, and to others—and King John, as we all know, was weak, and mean, and false.

But, friend of kings though he was, St. Hugh made everything give way before the duties of his Priesthood. There is a story that Henry once went to see him just as the Bishop was about to read the Burial Service over the grave of a poor peasant. There were, no doubt, several clergy about; Hugh might easily have taken off his surplice, called another to take his place by the grave-side, and have gone at once to the king. But this was not his idea of what was due to the dead in CHRIST, even in the case of a simple peasant. He sent to tell the king how he was engaged, and went on calmly with the service while Henry waited for him. At one time, however, the king was very much offended with him. But Henry was wise enough to know the true worth of the good Bishop, and soon made it up with him.

In the spring of the year 1200 he caught a fever while staying in London. It was soon seen that his work on earth was over. His friends sent to St. Paul's to ask the choristers to come and chant the service of Compline for him. The Bishop had himself laid on a bed of ashes upon the floor of his room, in sign of penitence for whatever wrong he had done during his life. Then the boys and men stood by and softly sang the service. As the words of the Nunc Dimittis were slowly chanted, the spirit of the brave old saint passed away.

"Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation."

The body of St. Hugh was carried to Lincoln. All kinds of people flocked to his funeral, rich and poor, Christians and a crowd of poor Jews. The Jews had really been banished from the kingdom, but at the grave of the Bishop who was loved and honoured indeed by "all sorts and conditions of men," they dared to show themselves. King John was there and helped to bear the coffin, and the King of Scotland stood by in tears. All men felt of Bishop Hugh—

"Christ's love and His Apostles twelve he taught,

And first he followed it himself."

Chaucer's Preface.