Born about the year 1135 at the castle of Avalon, near Pontcharra, in Burgundy; died at London, 16 Nov., 1200. His father, William, Lord of Avalon, was sprung from one of the noblest of Burgundian houses; of his mother, Anna, very little is known.
After his wife’s death, William retired from the world to the Augustinian monastery of Villard-Benoît, near Grenoble, and took his son Hugh, with him. Hugh became a religious and was ordained deacon at the age of nineteen.
In about the year 1159 he was sent as a prior to the cell, or dependent priory, of St-Maximin, not far from his ancestral home of Avalon, where his elder brother, William had succeeded his father. At St-Maximin, Hugh laboured assiduously in preaching and whatever parochial duties might be discharged by a deacon. Becoming more and more desirous to give himself to the complete contemplative life, he visited in company with the prior of Villard-Benoît the solitude of the Grande Chartreuse. Dom Basil was then head of the Chartreuse, and to him Hugh confided his desire of submitting to the Carthusian rule.
To test his vocation the prior refused him any encouragement, and his own superior, alarmed at the idea of losing the flower of his community, took him back quickly to Villard-Benoît, and made him vow to give up his intention of joining the Carthusians. He submitted and made the promise, acting, as his historian assures us, “in good faith and purity of intention, placing his confidence in God, and trusting that God would bring about his deliverance”; his call to a higher life was yet doubtful, his obedience to one who was still his superior was a certain duty, and not a “sinful act”, as thinks his modern Protestant biographer. Realizing that his vow, made without proper deliberation and under strongest emotion, was not binding, he returned to the Grande Chartreuse as a novice in 1153. Soon after his profession the prior entrusted him with the care of a very old and infirm monk from whom he received the instruction necessary to prepare him for the priesthood. He was probably ordained at thirty, the age then required by canon law. When he had been ten years a Carthusian he was entrusted with the important and difficult office of procurator, which he retained till the year 1180, leaving the Grande Chartreuse then to become prior of Witham in England, the first Carthusian house in that country. It was situated in Somerset and had been founded by Henry II in compensation for his having failed to go on the crusade imposed as a penance for the murder of St. Thomas of Canterbury.
The first two priors had succumbed to the terrible hardships encountered at the new foundation, where the monks had not even a roof to cover them, and it was by the special request of the English king that St. Hugh, whose fame had reached him through one of the nobles of Maurienne, was made prior. His first attention was given to the building of the Charterhouse. He prepared his plans and submitted them for royal approbation, exacting full compensation from the king for any tenants on the royal estate who would have to be evicted to make room for the building. Long delay was occasioned by the king’s parsimony, but the Charterhouse, an exact copy of the Grande Chartreuse, was at last finished. Henry placed the greatest confidence in St. Hugh, frequently visiting Witham, which was on the borders of Selwood forest, one of the monarch’s favourite hunting-places. The saint was fearless in reproving Henry’s faults, especially his violation of the rights of the Church. His keeping of sees vacant in order to appropriate their revenues, and the royal interference in elections to ecclesiastical posts evoked the sternest reproach from St. Hugh.
In May, 1180, Henry summoned a council of bishops and barons at Eynsham Abbey to deliberate on the affairs of the state in general. The filling of vacant bishoprics was determined on, and, among others, the canons of Lincoln, who had been without a bishop for about sixteen years, were ordered to hold an election. After some discussion, their choice fell on the king’s nominee, Hugh, prior of Witham. He refused the bishopric because the election had not been free. A second election was held with due observance of canon law — this time at Lincoln, and not in the king’s private chapel — and Hugh, though chosen unanimously, still refused the bishopric till the prior of the Grande Chartreuse, his superior, had given his consent. This being obtained by a special embassy in England, he was consecrated in St. Catherine’s chapel, Westminster Abbey, on 21 September, 1181, by Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury. He was enthroned in Lincoln cathedral on 29 Sept. The new bishop at once set to the work of reform. He attacked the iniquitous forest laws and excommunicated the king’s chief forester. In addition to this, and almost at the same time, he refused to install a courtier whom Henry had recommended as a prebendary of Lincoln. The king summoned him to appear at Woodstock, where the saint softened the enraged monarch by his ready wit, making him approve of his forester’s excommunication and the refusal of his prebend’s stall. He soon became conspicuous for his unbounded charity to the poor, and it was long remembered how he used to tend with his own hands people afflicted with leprosy then so common in England. He was a model episcopate. He rarely left the diocese, became personally acquainted with the priests, held regular canonical visitations, and was most careful to chose worthy men for the care of souls; his canons were to reside in the diocese, and if not present at Lincoln were to appoint vicars to take their place at the Divine Office. Once a year he retired to Witham to give himself to prayer, far from the work and turmoil of his great diocese.
In July, 1188, he went on an embassy to the French king, and was in France at the time of Henry’s death. He returned the following year and was present at Richard I’s coronation; in 1191 he was in conflict with Longchamp, Bishop of Ely and justiciar, whose unjust commands he refused to obey, and in 1194-5 was a prominent defender of Archbishop Geoffrey of York, in the dispute between that prelate and his chapter. 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’s reign, and he put down popular violence against them in several places. In Richard I Hugh found a more formidable person to deal with than his predecessor had been. His unjust demands, however, he was resolute in opposing. In a council held at Oxford, in 1198, the justiciar, Archbishop Hubert, asked from the bishops and barons a large grant of money and a number of knights for the king’s foreign wars. Hugh refused on the ground that he was not bound to furnish money or soldiers for wars undertaken outside of England.
His example was followed by Herbert of Salisbury, and the archbishop had to yield. Richard flew into one of his fits of rage, and ordered the confiscation of Hugh’s property, but no one dared to lay hands on it. The saint journeyed to Normandy, met Richard at Chateau-Gaillard and, having won the monarch’s forgiveness and admiration by his extraordinary courage, proceeded to rebuke him fearlessly for his faults — his infidelity to his wife, and encroachments on the Church’s rights. “Truly”, said Richard to his courtiers, “if all the prelates of the Church were like him, there is not a king in Christendom who would dare to raise his head in the presence of a bishop.” Once more St. Hugh had to oppose Richard in his demands. This time it was claim for money from the chapter of Lincoln. Crossing again to Normandy he arrived just before the king’s death, and was present at his obsequies at Fontevrault. He attended John’s coronation at Westminster in May, 1199, but was soon back in France aiding the king in the affairs of state. He visited the Grande Chartreuse in the summer of 1200 and was received everywhere on the journey with tokens of extraordinary respect and love. While returning to England he was attacked by a fever, and died a few months afterwards at the Old Temple, the London residence of the bishops of Lincoln. The primate performed his obsequies in Lincoln cathedral, and King John assisted in carrying the coffin to its resting-place in the north-east transept.
In 1220 he was canonized by Honorius III, and his remains were solemnly translated in 1280 to a conspicuous place in the great south transept. A magnificent golden shrine contained his relics, and Lincoln became the most celebrated centre of pilgrimage in the north of England. It is not known what became of St. Hugh’s relics at the Reformation; the shrine and its wealth were a tempting bait to Henry VIII, who confiscated all its gold, silver and precious stones, “with which all the simple people be moch deceaved and broughte into greate supersticion and idolatrye”. St. Hugh’s feast is kept on 17 November. In the Carthusian Order he is second only to St. Bruno, and the great modern Charterhouse at Parkminster, in Sussex, is dedicated to him.
Like most of the great prelates who came to England from abroad, St. Hugh was a mighty builder. He rebuilt Lincoln cathedral, ruined by the great earthquake of 1185 and, though much of the minister which towers over Lincoln is of later date, St. Hugh is responsible for the for the four bays of the choir, one of the finest examples of the Early English pointed style. He also began the great hall of the bishop’s palace. 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.