St Hugh of Lincoln


Swans and cathedrals, tied to Lincoln thanks to one man. Hugh of Lincoln.

Early Life:

Born in Avalon to a Burgundian noble family around 1140, Hugh entered the religious life at the age of 8, when he and his father entered the Augustinian Monastery of Villard-Benoît following the death of his mother. After successfully rising through the ranks in the Carthusian order the far side of the channel, in the 1170s he was made prior at Witham Charterhouse, Somerset, at the behest of King Henry II of England.

Hugh at Lincoln

In 1186 he was anointed bishop of Lincoln at Westminster Abbey. One of his actions in this new rank rifled royal feathers. Hugh excommunicated a royal forester and refused his seat at court.  Nevertheless he reportedly won the kings favour again soon using only wit and charm.

One of the things that makes Hugh so significant to Lincoln was the impact that he had on the City’s most famous Landmark, the Cathedral or Minster. Hugh oversaw the rebuilding of the cathedral after the earthquake of 1185. As they rebuilt the nave the masons worked from the east end to join up with the West Front. Interestingly, the mason’s calculations were slightly ‘off’, and the centre of the arch did not align. This imperfection adds a fascinating layer to the history of the great building and is definitely a point of interest on your visit to the Cathedral. 

(image from Lincolnshire Pride magazine)

As bishop, Hugh was noted for his intelligence and kindness. He was well educated and improved the cathedral school during his time there. He had a scholarly interest in Hebrew and condemned popular violence towards the Jewish population of Lincoln. Sadly, Hugh’s tolerance was unusual for the era, Jewish people in Medieval England suffered severe persecution from the majority catholic population. False rumours of child sacrifice (see ‘Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln’) and cruel scapegoating made them a target for violence and discrimination, culminating in Edward I’s Edict of Expulsion on the 18th of June 1290, banishing all Jews from England. It was not until Oliver Cromwell overturned the edict in 1657 that Jews were permitted to return to England. 

How do we know so much about one man from so long ago?

A Carthusian Monk named Adam wrote the ‘Magna Vita Sancti Hugonis’ (The Life of Saint Hugh) about Hugh of Lincoln, which is how we know so much about him. The practice of writing the lives of saints is called Hagiography and is a genre of primary source in its own right. Hagiography, or a ‘Saints Life’, is a fairly formulaic account of the  life of a saint and emphasises their saintly status, often including their ‘miracles’, which can mean the reliability is questionable. Hugh’s Saints life was probably written around 1340, some 140 years after his death, so one must always consider the reliability of such a source in historical context.

Interestingly, it is from Hugh’s saint’s life that we know of Hugh’s unlikely friendship with his pet swan. The swan is said to have appeared at Hugh’s Bishop’s palace in Stowe upon Hugh’s installation as Bishop of Lincoln. It remained there as a companion to Hugh and reportedly grieved for Hugh when he died in 1200.  

Despite dying in London, Hugh was interred at Lincoln, with the English and Scottish Kings attending his funeral. Only twenty years later, Hugh was canonised on the 16th of February 1220. Hugh’s long lasting legacy can be seen throughout the cathedral, in particular, ‘St Hugh’s choir’ boasts impressive seating and organ. 

Hugh is the patron saint of swans and sick children, and while we don’t suggest popping down to the paediatric unit but we can recommend a visit to the Brayford pool, which is home to a small colony of swans. Sadly, due to the development of the area around the Brayford pool, the number of swans had dwindled from 200 to less than 40. Indeed, legend has it that when there are no swans in the Brayford the Cathedral will fall over. So, while you can, you’d better make the most of the cathedral – and be nice to the swans – the cathedral’s depending on it!

Written by Hannah Watson


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