Amy Steedman

Saint Hugh of Lincoln

Part 2 of 2

At his palace of Stow the Bishop found a new friend ready to welcome him, one of the kind of friends he specially loved. In the lake among the woods a wild swan had been seen to swoop down and take up its abode. It was so large and strong that it easily drove away or killed all the tame swans there, and then triumphantly beat the air with its great white wings over its new dominions, and cried aloud with a harsh shrill voice.

It seemed willing to be friendly with the servants, although it would allow no one to touch it, so with some difficulty it was enticed into the palace to be shown to the Lord-Bishop. Hugh, with his love for animals, soon made friends, and the swan came closer and closer, until it took some bread from his hand, and from that moment adopted him as a friend and master. It was frightened of nothing as long as Hugh was at hand, and it became so fiercely loving that no one dared come near the Bishop while the swan was on guard. Sometimes [170] when he was asleep, and it was needful for his servants to pass his bed to fetch something that was wanted, they dared not go near him, for the swan would spread its great snowy white wings in defence, looking like a very angry guardian angel, and if they came nearer, would threaten them with its strong beak. Harsh and disdainful to every one else, the curious creature was always gentle and loving towards Hugh, and would often nestle its head and long neck up his wide sleeve, and lay its head upon his breast, uttering soft little cries of pleasure. When the Bishop was away from home, the swan would never enter the palace, but even before his return was expected by others, there was a sound of a great beating of wings and strange cries from the lake among the woods.

"Now hark ye," the country people would say, "surely our Lord-Bishop is returning home. Dost thou not hear that strange bird preparing his welcome?"

No sooner did the luggage carts and servants begin to arrive than the swan would leave the lake and make its way with great long strides into the palace. The moment it heard its master's voice it ran to him, swelling its throat with great cries of welcome, and following at his heels wherever he went. Only at the end, when the Bishop's life was near its close and he came to Stow for the last time, his favourite had no welcome for him. Hiding itself among the reeds, it hung its head, and had all the ways of a sick creature. In some strange way it seemed to know that it was to lose its master, [171] and the shadow of his coming death seemed already to have fallen upon it.

People have wondered much at this curious friendship between Saint Hugh and the white swan, but they forget that for those of His servants who love and serve Him, God has said, "I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and with the fowls of heaven, and with the creeping things of the ground."

Troubles soon began for the Bishop in his new life. He had a keen sense of justice, and could not bear to see the weak treated unfairly by the strong, and one of his first acts was to punish the King's own chief forester for oppressing the poor.

That was a bold act, but worse was to follow when the new Bishop refused to give a place in the cathedral stalls to one of the King's favourite courtiers.

"The stalls are for priests, and not for courtiers," was the message he sent to Henry. "The King has plenty of rewards for those who fight his battles. Let him not take their offices from those who serve the King of Kings."

Henry was both hurt and angry, and ordered that the Bishop should come at once to him at Woodstock.

"He is both ungrateful and troublesome," said the King. "I will speak with him myself."

It was a sunny summer day when Hugh arrived at Woodstock, and he was told that the King was awaiting his arrival in one of the cool forest glades. There, under the trees, upon the green sward among [172] a company of courtiers, sat the King in a leafy bower. The sunbeams filtered through the interwoven branches and threw patches of gold upon the green, while the birds in the boughs overhead sang in royal concert. But the song of the birds was the only sound that broke the stillness. The King and his courtiers sat sternly silent, and never a figure moved nor a word of welcome was spoken when the Bishop came through the trees.

"Good morrow, your Majesty," said Hugh.

There was no answer. Every one sat silent, and no one as much as glanced at the Bishop. At length the King looked up and asked one of the attendants for a needle and thread. He had hurt one of his fingers, and the rag around it was loose. Very solemnly he began to sew, stitch, stitch, stitch, in unbroken silence, while the sunbeams danced and the birds sang.

A smile at last dawned on Hugh's face, for he began to guess what the silence meant. He was surprised, but not in the least afraid. Going round to where the King sat, he put both hands on the shoulders of the man who was sitting next to Henry and gently moved him to one side. Then he sat down in the vacant place, and with a mirthful look in his eyes, watched the King as he sewed in gloomy silence.

"How like your Highness is to your kinsfolk of Falaise," said the Bishop thoughtfully.

The King tried to look dignified, then stopped his stitching, and burst out into a peal of laughter, rolling from side to side. The rest of the company [173] were much amazed, but as soon as the King could speak he explained the joke.

"Know you," he said, "what sort of an insult this strange fellow has offered to us? I will explain it to you. Our great ancestor Duke William, the conqueror of this land, was born of a mother of no very high extraction, who belonged to a town in Normandy, namely Falaise. This town is very celebrated for its skill in leather-stitching. When, then, this scoffer saw me stitching my finger, straightway he declared me to be like the tanners of Falaise, and one of their kinsmen."

The Bishop's fearlessness and the good joke put Henry in a better temper, and he listened quietly to what Hugh had to say.

"I know well, sire," said the Bishop earnestly, "that you took great pains to get me made a bishop, and I would in return do my best to prove your choice a wise one. I acted justly in these matters, and because my actions were right I felt sure you would approve them."

The King nodded his head, and once more the Bishop's faith in him met its reward. The forester was ordered to be flogged, and never again while Hugh was bishop did any courtier apply for a stall in the cathedral.

Many a time in after days did Hugh cross the royal will and fall under the King's displeasure, but he never swerved from the right, and faced the royal wrath so fearlessly, that in the end he earned for himself the title of the "Hammer of Kings."

All the clergy and the poor around loved their [174] Bishop. Every one in trouble, the poor and the sick, came to him for help, and no one ever came in vain. But perhaps it was the children whom he specially loved. To people who did not understand that love, it seemed almost like a miracle to see how children were drawn towards him. Little faces brightened into smiles when they saw him; little sun-browned hands caught at his cloak as he passed, happy only if they might touch his robe. Even the babies, meeting his smile, stretched out their arms to go to him. It seemed as if he possessed some secret talisman to win their hearts. A miraculous secret the wise people called it, but children knew it was no secret at all, but just the old miracle of love.

Perhaps the saddest of all God's creatures in those days were the poor lepers, who lived apart and were shunned by every one because of their terrible sickness. And just because they were so sad and suffering, the good Bishop loved to go to them and try to help and comfort them. Through the sunny world of light and laughter these poor lepers passed along like gaunt grey shadows, with the one dreadful cry upon their lips, "Unclean, unclean." Men and women drew back shuddering when the grey shadows passed by, warned by the harsh clang of the lepers' bell. Even children hid their faces in terror, and though some kind hearts would give them food and help, there was no kind hand that would venture to touch the leper.

But Hugh had no fear of the sickness and no horror of these poor souls. His Master's touch [175] had healed many such an one in days gone by, and he felt that in touching them he "touched the hand of Him who touched the leper of old in Galilee." Gently and lovingly the Bishop tended the poor outcasts. He fed and clothed them, washed their weary painful feet, and often stooping down, he kissed their poor scarred cheeks. Perhaps above all it was the human touch they longed for, and looking into his kind eyes, they would have some faint idea of the wondrous love which the lepers of old had seen in the pitying eyes of our dear Lord Himself.

"Surely this is too much," said his clergy, watching their Bishop with shuddering glances. "What good can it do? We know of course that Saint Martin, of blessed memory, healed the leper with his kiss, but the miracle does not happen now."

The Bishop only looked at them with a quiet smile.

"Martin by his kiss brought bodily health to the leper," he said, "but the leper by his kiss brings health to my soul."

It was men's bodies as well as their souls that Hugh cared for, and it vexed him sorely to see how carelessly the poor bodies were treated when the souls had gone home to God. No matter how busy he was, he would put everything aside to pay the last honours to the dead. Once, on his way to dine with the King, he found the body of a poor beggar lying by the wayside, and at once stopped to bury it. Messengers came to bid him come at once, as the King was furious at his delay, but [176] the Bishop went on calmly with his work and bade them tell the King he need not wait for him. "I am occupied in the service of the King of Kings," he said: "I cannot neglect it."

Very soon after King Henry's death, trouble arose between the Bishop and the new King Richard. He of the lion heart could not understand how one of his own subjects dare disobey his orders, and when the Bishop of Lincoln refused to make the clergy pay to provide soldiers for foreign service, he ordered him to come and explain his disobedience in person.

Hugh started at once for France, where the King awaited his coming near Rouen. Richard was in the chapel, seated upon his royal throne, and the service had begun when the Bishop arrived. But Hugh went straight up to him and demanded the usual kiss. Richard answered never a word, but turned coldly away.

"Give me the kiss, my lord King," said Hugh, seizing the royal mantle and giving it a hearty shake.

"You do not deserve the kiss," said the King in a surly tone.

"Nay, but I do," answered Hugh, and he gave the robe a stronger shake, drawing it out as far as it would reach. "Give me the kiss."

King Richard was not at all accustomed to being shaken and spoken to in that tone of voice, but there was something about the man that even kings could not resist, and the kiss was given. Then Hugh went to kneel humbly in the lowest [177] place in the chapel, until the service was over and he could explain why he had refused to send the money demanded of him. And not only did he convince the King of his justice, but he went on to calmly reprove Richard for some of his faults, and suggest many improvements in his behaviour. The King listened meekly, and was heard to say afterwards: "If all bishops were like my lord of Lincoln, not a prince among us could lift up his head against them."

Time passed on and Richard died. Then John, the false and mean, reigned over England, and many a warning word did he hear from the lips of the good Bishop. But Hugh was nearing the end of his journey now, and with a thankful heart he prepared to lay down his arms after his long warfare in the service of God.

In the house belonging to the see of Lincoln at the old Temple, the faithful soldier and servant lay awaiting the messenger of the King of Kings.

"Prepare some ashes," he directed, "and spread them on the bare ground, in the form of a cross, and lay me there to die."

The weary body, clad in the rough hair-shirt, was laid on the cross, and, as the grey shadows of twilight gathered in the quiet room, the strains of the evening hymn came floating through the open window.

"Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace," chanted the choristers of Saint Paul's, and even as they sang, the prayer was answered. Only the worn-out body lay upon the cross of ashes; the [178] soul had indeed departed in peace, and the warfare of the faithful soldier was accomplished.

They carried the saint's body to Lincoln, and the whole countryside, rich and poor, high and low, came out to meet him, while King John and William of Scotland shared the honour of bearing him to his last resting-place.

"It may be observed," says the old chronicle, "that he who neglected kings to bury the dead, at his own burial was followed by kings."

The loving memory of Saint Hugh has faded and grown dim, perhaps, with passing years, but at Lincoln the great cathedral, which he helped to build with his own hands, speaks still in its strength and beauty of the bishop-saint, so strong in his steadfast courage, so beautiful in his tender love for the weak and helpless of the earth.