St. Hugh, a monk of the Grande Chartreuse, was sent to England to be Prior of a monastery recently founded by King Henry II, at Witham in Somerset. When he got there he found that its land had been provided by driving poor peasants off their holdings; these now lived in the woods, troublesome and discontented, and had already made life miserable for two former Priors. Hugh had been sent for because he had the name of being tough and shrewd, and likely to succeed where others had failed.
The first thing he did at Witham was to go to the King and tell him he had done an injustice to the peasants, and unless it was righted his monks could not keep the monastery.
To everybody’s amazement, the King listened and arranged for the dispossessed to be well compensated with other land elsewhere.
Not only so, but he took such a liking to this fearless Prior that when the See of Lincoln fell vacant he got the reluctant St. Hugh elected to fill it. The new Bishop came to his Cathedral for enthronement not riding but walking on his bare feet. Instead of the usual banquet to the nobles and clergy of the district, he insisted on inviting all the poor as well, and the keeper of Stowe Park was thunderstruck when he was told to kill three hundred deer for the feast in place of the usual thirty.
One of his first tasks at Lincoln was to rebuild the Cathedral which had fallen in an earthquake just before he came. He was not content with making the plans, but loved to roll his sleeves up and carry a few baskets of stone himself.
As Bishop he defended the poor more stoutly than ever; he denounced the cruel forest-laws and once he excommunicated the chief Royal forester for oppressing some poor labourer, nor did the King’s intercession make any difference until the forester had made amends. To the King, St. Hugh said: ‘The poor men who are tortured by your foresters will enter heaven while you and your foresters have to stay outside’ (foris stare ” a play on words).
King Richard came to the throne and demanded a tax for a war with France. St. Hugh condemned the tax and went to Normandy to see the King, who refused to speak to him or give him the kiss of peace. But St. Hugh insisted on giving the kiss, and then, with perfect good-humour and sweetness, talked to the King about his conscience.
‘Every day,’ he said, ‘I hear complaints of the oppression of poor men, the innocent wronged, and crushing taxes levied on the people. Not only that, but I hear also that you are unfaithful to your wife.’
The King was furious, and the saint, still smiling and calm, left him.
Truly,’ said the King later, ‘if all prelates were like that one, not a King in Christendom would dare to raise his head in the presence of a Bishop!’
Jordan de Turri, a rich man in the City of London, had defrauded two orphans. St. Hugh was appointed by the Pope as judge in the case. Jordan came arrogantly to the trial surrounded with his rich friends, who made a noisy demonstration to intimidate the Bishop.
‘You are powerful,’ said St. Hugh, ‘and you can get your way. But I can write to the Pope and tell him there is one man in England that disputes his jurisdiction, and his name is Jordan de Turri.’
In the end the case was settled by Jordan making full restitution.
Another interesting fact is that St. Hugh defended the Jews against persecution. Twice he faced and quelled angry mobs intent on a pogrom, and he exposed the current atrocity-stories about Jews murdering Christian children.
St. Hugh died on November 16, 1200. During his illness they wanted him to make his will.
‘All I have belongs to the Church,’ he said. ‘But to prevent disputes after my death I here solemnly bequeath all my goods to the poor of Christ.’
– Rev. F.H. Drinkwater, Catechism Stories Part III: The Commandments (1939)