Monday, November 17, 2014

Saint of the Month: Saint Hugh of Lincoln

St. Hugh and his swan buddy at St. Hugh of Lincoln Church in
Huntington Station, on Long Island.

St. Hugh of Lincoln

AKA: Hugh of Avalon; Hugh of Burgandy
Not to be confused with: Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, the subject of a ghastly legend that you might have read in The Canterbury Tales.
Feast Day: November 17.

Really Existed? Yes.
Timeframe: 1135ish-1200.
Place: England.

Credentials: Canonized in 1220 by Pope Honorius III.
Martyrdom: None.

Patron Saint of: the sick, swans.
Symbolism: "St. Hugh's emblem is a white swan, in reference to the beautiful story of the swan of Stowe which contracted a deep and lasting friendship for the saint, even guarding him while he slept."

Like St. Theodore of Tarsus, whom we met a few months back, St. Hugh of Lincoln made his name as an able administrator and courageous leader of the English church. His miracles, at least in the mainstream historical record, are less of the raising-the-dead, healing-the-lame variety then the administrative it-will-be-a-freaking-miracle-if-he-can-make-this-plan-work kind. And as we know, for as much as there is to be said for the miracle cure, having a guy around who can actually make things happen is priceless.

So in 1170, if you recall your English history, King Henry II shot his mouth off about how annoying his old pal Thomas Becket had become, now that he was Archbishop of Canterbury.  Four of his cronies rightly or wrongly thought this was a demand for immediate action, and a few hours later death came for the Archbishop.  Both the powerful interests of the church and general public opinion was mortified by the assassination, and Henry would spend the rest of his life eating crow.

One act of penance that was imposed on King Henry was an obligation to found a Cistercian monastery.  The site of Witham was chosen, in Somerset, but the first two priors dropped dead before they could even get buildings set up.  So in 1180 (although some less reliable sites say 1175), a can-do 45 year old fellow from Burgundy was sent across to see if he could make any headway.  This, then, was the man who would become Hugh of Lincoln.  First, though, he became Hugh of Witham.

Since the monastery was built at the king's expense and adjacent to one of his favorite hunting spots, we're told, Hugh and Henry built up something of a rapport, and Hugh apparently felt no compunction about criticizing the secular figurehead about his ethical shortcomings in public and private life.  One shortcoming of Henry's that the Church especially disliked was his way of refusing to appoint new bishops after incumbents passed away.  The then-important city of Lincoln, for instance, had been without a bishop for 16 years by 1186.  This made it hard to keep the local clergy pulling on the same oar, of course, and it also meant that the revenue generated by church properties, since there was no bishop to collect it, went straight to the crown.  You might even think Henry was doing it on purpose, right? 

In 1186, though, Henry backed down and allowed a bishop to be elected at Lincoln.  He even nominated Hugh of Witham, who was chosen and ordained and finally became Hugh of Lincoln.  And, to cut a long story short, he was a terrific administrator, getting his bishopric humming like a top, repairing and adding onto Lincoln cathedral, and making himself both a gadfly and an effective diplomat for Henry.  His religious and political career continued through the reign of Richard I, and into the early days of King John.  In a strange wave of pogroms that broke out across England after the coronation of Richard I, Hugh was a rare voice against antisemitism, and is said to have personally confronted mobs in an attempt to protect Lincoln's large Jewish population. 

To recap: capable guy, good administrator, put the brake on some royal abuses, did some protecting of the oppressed, and assisted in the evolution of the English nation-state.  He had a pet swan.  Seems like he was a pretty nice dude.  Have a great St. Hugh of Lincoln Day!


Elizabeth said...

I would have picked a different saint, myself (*ahem*).

Michael5000 said...

St. Namasius? The Martyrs of Paraguay? St. Hilda of Whitby?