The Swan’s Bishop: A Look at the Life of St. Hugh of Lincoln

St. Hugh of Lincoln’s Feast Day is held on Nov. 17th in the Anglican liturgical calendar. Depictions of St. Hugh often include a picture of a beautiful white swan at his side. This comes from a story in his life, written by Adam of Eynsham, Hugh’s chaplain and friend, who reports that Hugh was a lover of animals. Often he was found in the gardens of his monastery in Lincoln with the wildlife that visited him. One of these, a wild swan with stark white feathers and a long neck, would eat from his hand and follow him wherever he went. The swan seemed to regard itself as Hugh’s guardian, because it would attack any who came near to him, and watched over him while he slept.

Hugh lived in medieval England eight hundred years ago, when kings saw bishops as serious political peers. Born in France, Hugh entered the Carthusian monkhood around the year 1160 when he was about 20 years old. Nearly twenty years later, he was sent by the Carthusians to be prior of the monastery in Lincoln, England. This monastery was built by King Henry II, as penance for murdering St. Thomas Beckett, and is where Hugh would become the swan’s bishop. But it was also where Hugh would become known as a bishop feared by kings and loved by the people of Lincoln and beyond.

Finding the living quarters of the monastery unacceptable for the monks, Hugh convinced Henry II to fund renovations that made Charterhouse more livable. His leadership and piety led the numbers of the humble establishment to grow. Next, Hugh set his sights on King Henry’s unjust hunting laws, which were a hardship for Hugh’s parishioners. So persuasive and diplomatic was Hugh, that King Henry changed his laws and even permitted Hugh to excommunicate one of the King’s foresters. Hugh advocated for the poor and resisted government oppression of its citizens through taxation, and served as a counselor and diplomat for King Henry II, King Richard I, and King John. He was an effective ambassador to France and improved relationships between the French and the English, though sadly on a return trip home from France as spiritual and political advisor, he caught sickness and died shortly after.

The most admirable component of Hugh’s time as bishop occurred in the reign of Richard I. In misguided response to to the Crusades happening abroad, religious persecution of Jews broke out in England. Hugh provided sanctuary for the persecuted Jews, standing against  angry mobs in the streets of Lincoln, and at the risk of his own life quelling these violent attacks.

Like the swan who watched over him, Hugh watched over his Christian flock and his Jewish countrymen with diligent devotion, fiercely protecting the poor, caring for the sick, and raising standards of education for children. King Richard I said of him, “Truly, 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.” St. Hugh of Lincoln stands as an example for the public service that Christians ought to provide, and in his dealings with kings, priests, monks, and the members of his diocese, steadfastly represented the power of the Gospel. The swan’s bishop lived with genuine faith in, and gave testimony to, the motto of his monastic order: “The Cross is steady while the world is turning.”

By Anthony G. Cirilla

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