Thursday, November 15, 2007

Kings Were His Pall Bearers

The legend of Robin Hood shows King Richard the Lion-heart and his brother John struggling over who should rule England. But while the story of the Thief of Sherwood is indeed fiction, the reality is there was a bit of a thorn in the side of these two members of the 12th century royal family. His name was Hugh of Lincoln.

Born to a knightly family in the Burgundy region Hugh Avalon's life changed dramatically due to his mother's death when he was somewhere between 8 and 10 years old (accounts vary). His mother was the shining light of his Father's existence. When she died he was so overcome with grief he abandoned his castle and took up life in a nearby monastery, taking young Hugh with him. When asked why, he responded, "I will have him taught to carry on warfare for God before he learns to live for the world."

After his father's death, he joined a The Carthusian Order, a community of hermits in the Chartreuse Mountains, living in a cave in strict silence on one loaf of bread a week and wearing a hair shirt. Like many hermits he became more enamored of the wildlife that occupied the forests around his cave than his fellow human beings. After ten years of strict devotion he was promoted to the office of procurator of the Great Chartreuse, head monastrey of the order, a post second only to that of the prior of the house (the order has no abbeys, hence no abbots). He likely would have been made prior when the time came, but God had other plans for Hugh.

Across the channel in England, harsh words against Thomas Becket by King Henry II inspired four of his knights to assassinate the Archbishop. Henry, appalled at his own actions, swore to build three abbeys as penance. In true kingly style he confiscated peasant land to build one of the abbeys at Witham, near Somerset. Those set in charge of the abbey however, had difficulty making it work. Since that particular abbey was the first Carthusian abbey, Henry turned to Chartreuse for help. The prior knew just the man to go to England and resolve the situation - Hugh of Avalon.

At first Hugh resisted, but his devotion to the order wouldn't let him do so for long. At his prior's insistence, he left for England. He was astonished to discover that Witham had not been paid for. Holding Christ's example before the king he made it plain that he would have nothing to do with the site until the peasants who had owned the land were fully compensated. Henry, knowing the monk's reputation for unassailable integrity, paid "to the last penny."

Even though Hugh became a trusted advisor to the king, he never lost his humility. In the royal courts he dressed as simply as he had as a monk. He won the love of the poor, of children, and of lepers. Always a friend to the oppressed, he often tended to lepers and even risked his own life to prevent the slaying of a group of Jews during a riot. Never afraid of hard work, no task was beneath him. Lincoln cathedral had been damaged in an earthquake the year before Hugh became bishop. Hugh founded the present building, and worked on it with his own hands.

Hugh lived up to the expectations of his superiors. During the ten years he was prior at Witham numerous difficulties vanished almost as soon as they appeared. In 1186, again with much resistance, he was made Bishop of Lincoln. Any hope of someday retiring to the religious calm of his beloved Carthusian cell disappeared with this appointment. True to his character, he brought all his determination and untiring energy to the duties of his new station. He travelled endlessly: holding synods and visitations, confirming children, consecrating churches and burying the dead. His sense of justice was legendary and three popes, as well as the King, made him judge over some of the most important legal cases of the time. He even excommunicated the king's own forester who had oppressed the poor. At first Henry was angry, but in the end saw justice and had the man flogged.

Hugh also wrestled with Richard Lionheart, refusing to raise money for his wars. Unable to persuade the determined monk, Richard said, "If all bishops were like my lord of Lincoln, not a prince among us could raise his head against them." Hugh also took Richard's brother, King John to task on a number of occasions, but John simply ignored him.

It should be mentioned that Hugh never lost his love of or affinity for nature. On the day of his installation at Lincoln, a swan took to following Hugh around the grounds, it soon became a beloved pet and even today when you see icons or paintings of St. Hugh, he will be accompanied by the swan. It is even said that after his death, in the year following that of King Richard, the bird pined for him the way swans are known to pine for a lost mate.

And the swan wasn't the only one. Though King John rarely followed Hugh's advice it did not mean John had no respect for the Bishop of Lincoln. Both remain royal brothers, King John of England and King William of Scotland, considered it an honor to be numbered among those carrying his coffin. Thus Hugh of Lincoln's pall bearers included two kings, and three archbishops, nine other bishops were also in attendance. St. Hugh was canonized by the Pope Honorius Ill, in 1220; and in 1280 his body was translated, with great ceremony, into the newly-built eastern part of the Lincoln Cathedral - the so-called "Angel Choir."

St. Hugh of Lincoln's funeral took place on November 16, 1200 - 807 years ago this week.


1. Britannia Biographies: St. Hugh of Lincoln. < >
2. The Catholic Encyclopedia, St. hugh of Lincoln, Nihil Obstat, June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York < >
3. Photo Credit: The Grand Chartreuse: Official website of the Carthusian Order <>

Other events this week in Church history:

November 12, 1660: John Bunyan is arrested for unlicensed preaching and sentenced to prison. While incarcerated, he penned Pilgrim's Progess and Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, the greatest Puritan spiritual autobiography.

November 13, 1618: The Dutch Reformed Church convenes the Synod of Dort to "discuss" the Arminian controversy. Of course, the synod's condemnation of Arminianism was a forgone conclusion—Arminians weren't even invited for another month. By April, 200 Arminian ministers (known as Remonstrants) were deposed by the Calvinist Synod, 15 were arrested, and one was beheaded for high treason.

November 14, 1976: The Plains (Ga.) Baptist Church, where then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter was a member, votes to permit blacks to attend.

November 15, 1885: Mwanga, ruler of Buganda (now part of Uganda), beheads recent Anglican convert and royal family member Joseph Mukasa. Mukasa opposed the massacring of Anglican missionary bishop James Hannington and his colleagues in October. The bloodbath continued through January 1887 as the ruler killed Mukasa's Christian pages and other Anglican and Catholic leaders. Collectively, the martyrs of Uganda were canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1964.

November 17, 270 (traditional date): Gregory Thaumaturgus ("The Wonder Worker"), a well-loved bishop in Pontus and the author of the first Christian biography (on Origen) dies. A legend, from a generation later, about the Virgin Mary visiting him is the first account of an apparition of Mary.

November 18, 1874: The Women's Christian Temperance Union is founded in Cleveland. Claiming the power of the Holy Spirit, Protestant members would march into saloons and demand they be closed. It was the largest temperance organization and the largest women's organization in the U.S. before 1900.


No comments: