Heroes of the Faith

A cleric not afraid to ‘speak the truth to power’

September 2017: St Hugh of Lincoln - 12th Century Bishop

By David Harper AM

March 7 2017St Hugh of Lincoln’s deep spirituality, born of his formation in a monastic order devoted to silence, enabled him to confront and rebuke kings at a time when to do so was to risk one’s life, as the murder of Thomas á Beckett attests. David Harper AM, a retired judge of the Court of Appeal, Supreme Court of Victoria, reflects on a Christian great of 12th century England.

If we suppose, as we must, that some who have been canonised were saintly, we may with equal certainty conclude that some were more saintly than others. Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln between 1186 and 1200, is a case in point. John Ruskin, the great polymath of Victorian England, described him as the “most beautiful sacerdotal figure known to me in history”. In the opinion of one of his biographers, the Catholic theologian Herbert Thurston SJ, he was “the almost perfect representation of the Carthusian spirit”.

The Order of Carthusians is, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “the one form of communal religious life that has never required and never experienced reform”. Founded by St Bruno of Cologne in 1084, its principal monastery – the Grande Chartreuse – is situated in the valley of Chartreuse, north of Grenoble. The landscape is harsh. The monks live in solitary cells, and lead a solitary life. The silence is broken only by conversation during meals on Sundays and the principal holy days, and by long communal Sunday walks. Meat is never eaten, and on Fridays and other fast days the diet is limited to bread and water.

This was the order which Hugh joined at the age of 23, and in which he found a depth of spiritual nourishment unmatched anywhere else in a life devoted to the demands of his faith and his Church. His parents, William seigneur of Avalon (a district on the border of Dauphine and Savoy, close to Grenoble) and William’s wife Anna, were of the French nobility. Anna died when Hugh, born in 1140, was eight. His father then joined the priory of Villard-Benoit, taking Hugh with him. Herbert Thurston, whose admiration for Hugh is never constrained by a distaste for hyperbole, informs his readers that “the impression upon [Hugh] was so great that from that time his heart was closed forever to earthly joys and steadfastly turned towards the things of Heaven”.

This is a theme which Thurston pursues with unwavering persistence. But there seems to be no doubt of its underlying truth. Even when young, Hugh was influenced by a deeply felt connection to God. He was admitted to the diaconate at the age of 19, and about that time joined the Benedictines, where his reputation as a preacher of rare ability was established. Thurston says that his “powerful words pierced the hearts of his hearers”.

When, in 1163, Hugh left the Benedictines to enter the Grande Chartreuse, he immediately impressed his fellow monks with his innate spirituality. It was a significant occasion for him at an auspicious time for the Order. As his first biographer, Adam of Eynsham (a Benedictine monk and Hugh’s chaplain and constant associate during their time at Lincoln) wrote shortly after Hugh’s death, Hugh was instantly drawn to the Carthusians, in whom he found “serenity of heart, liberty of spirit, cheerful countenance and blameless conversation”. And the Order was then at the height of its reputation “for the rigid austerity of its rules and the earnest piety of its members”.

The austerity and piety of the Carthusians were the perfect succour for Hugh’s spiritual needs. Rigidity, however, was absolute only so far as it was necessary to maintain principle. Hugh instinctively recognised that one’s relations with one’s fellows cannot prosper in the absence of flexibility and the ability to compromise. Those with integrity know where and when to draw the line. Hugh had that capacity. It is a rare and almost priceless gift.

For Hugh, its blessings were nevertheless mixed. By the time of his ordination as a priest in 1170 he had become entirely devoted to the austere discipline of a strictly monastic life. But the qualities of humility, piety, decency and diffidence on the one hand, and courage, and firmness in the maintenance of principle on the other, cannot when combined escape notice even when the person endowed with them is a monk. His fellow monks allowed Hugh only ten years during which he could without the cares of higher office give exemplary devotion to the calling from which the deep spiritual fulfilment he craved was most readily derived.

Three years after his ordination, Hugh was elected procurator of the Grande Chartreuse. The office gave him authority over not only the lay brothers of the monastery, but also over its servants. He could no longer, however, retreat to his cell as formerly dictated by both his vows and his will. Thurston says that “in temporal affairs, which were now his province, he displayed a rare talent, and an accuracy of judgment, which made his advice valuable to all”. He was, according to Thurston, as firm as he was kind, and the strength of his character was as conspicuous as the goodness of his heart. “But”, Thurston continues, “with all this he was equally remarkable for an unstained purity of soul, which fulfilled to the very letter his own idea of a perfect Christian.”

Purity of soul has never been ascribed to Henry II, King of England and ruler of much of France. His influence on the development of English law was substantial and beneficial. He was, however, capricious and tyrannical. These were characteristics with which he generously endowed his sons Richard I and John. He failed, nevertheless, to include intelligence in their inheritance.

Hugh was to come to know each of these monarchs well. Despite the volatility of each, Hugh’s delicate relationships with all three were managed by him with extraordinary adroitness, tact, humour and firmness. He deserves to be remembered, amongst much else, as a great medieval diplomat.

This element of Hugh’s career can be traced to 29 December 1170. On that day, Thomas á Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered. Henry II was widely considered to be heavily implicated, and accepted at least some responsibility. As a self-imposed penance, he promised much. In keeping with his general notions of monarchical discretion, he delivered little. One example is his vow to establish, in Thomas’ memory, a Carthusian monastery at Witham, in Somerset. Monks were despatched from the Grande Chartreuse. But they arrived at Witham before Henry had purchased the land. Temporary and unsatisfactory dwellings were constructed. The monks, lacking leadership, struggled unsuccessfully against Henry’s indifference. In 1180, in the face of an imminent collapse of the entire endeavour, Henry – with the consent of Dom Jancelyn, the head of the Carthusians – turned to Hugh. He, according to Adam of Eynsham, responded directly: “My Lord King, so long as a single penny remains unpaid of what is justly due to these poor people, I refuse to take possession of Witham.” The purchase money materialised.

Hugh’s governance of the new monastery, and his manipulation of Henry, were masterful. Having paid for the land, Henry evinced a disinclination to pay for the monastery’s construction. Hugh demanded an audience. Eschewing flattery or adulation – these were weapons which Henry deflected with the skill of long practice – Hugh chose the right moments and means to reprove, rebuke and entreat. He also charmed. The funds for construction were granted. And Hugh became someone in whom Henry thereafter reposed great trust.

Robert, Bishop of Lincoln, had died in 1167. The appointment of his successor was delayed; the Angevin kings, being entitled to diocesan revenues when a see was vacant, took care to avoid haste in the process of appointment. It was 1173 before Henry replaced Robert with Geoffrey, one of Henry’s illegitimate sons. The Pope intervened: Geoffrey had never taken holy orders. Geoffrey’s reluctant resignation followed in 1181. Walter of Coutances was consecrated in 1183, but departed in 1185 on being made Archbishop of Rouen. Lincoln became vacant again.

Other dioceses were also without bishops. In May 1186, Henry, together with Baldwin (Archbishop of Canterbury) and other bishops gathered at the Abbey of Eynsham to consider replacements. Hugh was nominated for Lincoln. His election was unanimous. He refused to accept it. “The regular election of a bishop” he told Henry, “ought to take place not in the palace of a king, or even in a council of bishops summoned by him, but in the chapter house of the cathedral of the diocese… I consider the election just held to be null and void.” Moreover, as a monk Hugh felt bound by his vow of obedience to the Carthusians. Dom Jancelyn had been instrumental in his appointment as Prior of Witham; and Prior he would remain until ordered otherwise.

The order came. It required Hugh to accept the result of a fresh – but again unanimous – election, this time by the canons of Lincoln. Hugh was consecrated in Westminster Abbey on 21 September 1186. Each year thereafter he returned to Witham for at least a month, where the resumption of the life of an ordinary monk reconnected him with that which he cherished most.

In between times he discharged the duties of his office with energy, effectiveness and sacramental grace. He cultivated excellent relations with his priests while eliminating abuses of the priestly office. He appointed as Chancellor of the diocese a noted scholar, who transformed Lincoln into the greatest centre of ecclesiastical learning in Britain. He threw aside the traditional antipathy to lepers and was a regular visitor to their hospitals. He intervened effectively to protect the Jews of Lincoln in a serious dispute with anti-Semitic locals. He gave a third of the diocesan revenues for the relief of poverty. Another considerable portion was used to rebuild the cathedral, which in 1185 had been seriously damaged in an earthquake. Hugh’s choir and the great transepts are acknowledged masterpieces of innovative medieval architecture.

At the same time, he also managed his monarchs. Henry counted his forests among the chief glories of his realm. His foresters were ruthless in protecting them from foraging peasants. “Violence is their law, rapine is their glory” was the pithy characterisation of Adam of Eynsham. Hugh agreed. He took such exception to the behaviour of Henry’s chief forester towards the poor of the diocese that he excommunicated him. Henry was furious. When, however, the king attempted to retaliate by appointing one of his courtiers as a canon of the cathedral, something to which he knew Hugh would rightly object as beyond his power, Hugh refused to allow the courtier to assume the office. Only ecclesiastics, he told the king, were acceptable. In the resultant face-to-face confrontation, an outraged Henry again succumbed to the charmingly resolute diplomat. The king not only surrendered on both the excommunication and the appointment, but continued Hugh’s retainer as a principal adviser.

Nobody else in England would have attempted what Hugh achieved. But this triumph was merely the precursor of similar successful confrontations with both Richard and John. Like their father, they trusted Hugh’s judgment, and vowed to adhere to it. Like their father, however, their disdain for the proprieties sometimes overcame all else. The pattern established under Henry continued under his sons. Hugh rebuked; Richard and John accepted the rebuke; but often forgot the message.

As the 12th century drew to a close Hugh, wearied by the temporal demands of an office he never sought, lost the will to live. Much had been asked of him by the diocese and the monarchs which he managed with a combination of skill and holiness unique in the English medieval period. When he died on 16 November 1200 his reputation was at least as exalted as that of Thomas á Beckett. The kings of England (John) and Scotland (William) were among his pallbearers. He was canonised by Pope Honorius III on 17 February 1220.

To read this and other articles in full, subscribe to TMA.