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St Hugh

St Hugh (1135/40-1200)

When his mother Anna died, he was eight and he went with his father, William, to the nearby priory. Hugh did very well, and was suited to the monastic religious life, becoming deacon at the age of nineteen. In about 1159, he was sent to be prior of the nearby monastery, rising to become procurator of the main Carthusian monestery at Grenoble.

Henry II of England had established a Carthusian monestery some time before, which was settled by monks brought from Grenoble. There were difficulties in advancing the building works, however, and the first prior was retired and a second soon died. Henry learned of Hugh and, in 1179, sent an influential embassy to demand his services. Most reluctantly, the Carthusians let him go.

Hugh found the monks in great straits, living in log huts and with no plans yet advanced for the more permanent monastery building. Hugh interceded with the king for royal patronage and at last, probably on 6 January 1182, Henry issued a charter of foundation and endowment for Witham Charterhouse. Hugh presided over the new house until 1186 and attracted many to the monastery.

On 25 May 1186 the canons of Lincoln were ordered to elect a new bishop and Hugh was duly elected and consecrated Bishop of Lincoln on 21 September 1186 at Westminster. As a bishop he was exemplary, constantly in residence or travelling within his diocese, generous with his charity, scrupulous in the appointments he made. He raised the quality of education at the cathedral school. Hugh was also prominent in trying to protect the Jews, great numbers of whom lived in Lincoln, in the persecution they suffered at the beginning of Richard I’s reign, and he put down popular violence against them in several places.

Lincoln Cathedral had been badly damaged by an earthquake in 1185, and Bishop Hugh set about rebuilding and greatly enlarging it, making it the first English structure in the new Gothic style; however, he only lived to see the choir well begun.

As one of the premier bishops of the Kingdom of England, Hugh more than once accepted the role of diplomat to France for Richard and then for King John in 1199, a trip that ruined his health. While attending a national council in London, a few months later, he was stricken with an unnamed ailment, and died two months later on 16 November 1200. He was buried in Lincoln Cathedral.

Hugh's primary emblem is a white swan, in reference to the story of the swan of Stowe which had a deep and lasting friendship for the saint, even guarding him while he slept. The swan would follow him about, and was his constant companion whilst he was at Lincoln.

Hugh was canonized by Pope Honorius III on 17 February 1220, and is the patron saint of sick children, sick people, shoemakers, and swans. Hugh is honored in the Church of England and in the Episcopal Church (USA) on November 17.