Born into a noble family at Avalon, near Grenoble in Burgundy, Hugh received his education and made his profession in the priory of the Augustinian Canons at Villarbenoit. At twenty-five he joined the Carthusians, the strictest contemplative order of the Church at the time, at their major house, the Grande Chartreuse. He became procurator of the house around 1175 and was invited by King Henry the Second of England to become prior of his languishing Carthusian house at Witham, Somerset, founded by the king in reparation for the murder of Thomas Becket. The Charterhouse was insufficiently endowed and had been ruled by two unsuitable priors in succession. Under Hugh the monastery soon flourished and attracted several distinguished monks and canons to its membership.
In 1186, Henry chose Hugh as Bishop of Lincoln, but he refused to accept because he believed the election was uncanonical. Eventually he undertook to rule this, the largest diocese in England at the time, reluctantly and only in obedience to the prior of the Grande Chartreuse. To serve him in the task of overseeing his diocese, Hugh chose worthy and learned men as his canons, to several of whom, as archdeacons, he delegated much of the government of the diocese.
Hugh was reputedly the most learned monk in England, and he revived the schools of Lincoln to such an extent that the writer Gerald of Wales considered them second only to those of Paris. He rebuilt his cathedral, damaged by an earthquake, sometimes aiding the workmen with his own hands. He held synods and visitations, traveled ceaselessly to consecrate churches, confirm children, and bury the dead. His justice was proverbial, and he was appointed to act as a judge-delegate by three popes in succession, for some of the most important cases of his time. The king also appointed him to act in his court. Hugh was austere but gentle, intransigent but tender. He was always a friend of the oppressed and the outcasts, especially lepers (whom he tended himself), and he risked his life in riots to save Jews from death.
Hugh was the friend and critic of three Angevin kings: Henry the Second, John, and Richard the First. He excommunicated royal foresters and refused to appoint courtiers to Church benefices, and he never shrank from reproving the king for unjust exactions from his people. He refused to raise money for Richard’s foreign wars, yet Richard said of him, “If all bishops were like my Lord of Lincoln, not a prince among us could lift his head against them.”
After visiting his home and various monasteries in France, Hugh fell mortally ill in his London house. On his deathbed he gave instructions regarding the completion of his cathedral and his own funeral arrangements. He died on the sixteenth of November, 1200.
One of his sermons, on care for the dead, has survived and several of his sayings. One of the latter was that lay people who practiced charity in the heart, truth on the lips, and chastity in the body would have an equal reward in heaven with monks and nuns. In 1220 he was canonized by Pope Honorius the Third, the first Carthusian to receive this honor.
prepared from The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
O holy God, you endowed your servant and bishop Hugh of Lincoln with wise and cheerful boldness, and taught him to commend the discipline of holy life to kings and princes: Grant that we also, rejoicing in the Good News of your mercy, and fearing nothing but the loss of you, may be bold to speak the truth in love, in the name of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, are published on the Lectionary Page website.
Saint Hugh is usually depicted iconographically with his tame swan from his manor house at Stow, or with a chalice holding the infant Jesus.