Monday, November 17, 2008
The Swan of Stow
Today the Episcopal Church honors St. Hugh of Lincoln. Born in 1140 in Burgundy, he was really "Hugh of Avalon". In his youth he joined the Canons of St. Augustine, but in 1165 he opted for a much stricter religious life with the Carthusian monks at Grande Chartreuse. If you've seen the movie Into Great Silence you have some idea of how he lived. Ten years later the king of England, Henry II (though one wonders how he even heard of a hermit monk stashed away in a French monastery), invited him to become the prior at the recently founded Carthusian Charterhouse at Witham, Somerset. Apparently the English Carthusians hadn't gotten the hang of eremetical life so well because the monastery was already in need of reform. Hugh must have shaped them up because he was still there in 1168 when he was persuaded to become the Bishop of Lincoln, then the largest diocese in England. Hugh brought great energy to the post, though he was strict and not always easy to get along with. He recruited able and gifted counsellors for key posts, revived the Lincoln schools, and in 1192 began the repair and expansion of Lincoln Cathedral. He was quite visible around his diocese, extensively visiting his people and the clergy in the parishes, preaching and teaching zealously. In a relatively short time Hugh brought efficiency and stability to the flourishing diocese. Ecumenically, he also saw to it that the local Jewish community was spared from ridicule and persecution.
Hugh especially loved outcast and oppressed people. Contrary to folks whom most others then, and probably we now, avoided/would avoid literally "like the plague", Hugh compassionately reached out to those afflicted with leprosy, to the sick, and to the poor. His biographer, Adam, a monk of Eynsham, tells us that Hugh would wash and dry the lepers' feet, sit with them, teach them, console and encourage them, and embrace and kiss them one by one. To get some sense of how repugnant this might have been, Adam, in the biography, exclaims with remarkable candor: "Have pity, sweet Jesus, on the unhappy soul of the narrator! I cannot conceal...how much I shuddered not merely to touch but even to behold those swollen and livid, diseased and deformed faces with the eyes either distorted or hollowed out and the lips eaten away!..."
Though Hugh never totally alienated the king, he crossed swords (probably not literally) many times with the monarch, as well as with other civil honchos of the realm, particularly the chief forester of the kingdom whom Hugh excommunicated. As you might expect, the king was not at all amused. Foresters, it seems, were particularly abusive and violent towards the countryfolk, extorting and maltreating them, in defiance of the Church's opposition.
You probably noticed the large swan in the picture above, taken at Lincoln Cathedral on a pilgrimage in 2007. The legend goes that Hugh, good monk that he was and desirous of peace and silence, would often hang out at one of his get-aways at Stow Park, about nine miles northwest of Lincoln, where he revelled in the company of birds and other wildlife and nature. So happens that around the time of Hugh's enthronement as Bishop, a swan -- a BIG swan -- appeared on the lake and immediately proceeded to drive off all the other lake inhabitants. Besides being big, "Über-Swan" was also mean and ferocious. Hugh's charges, for some reason, wanted to present the swan to Hugh (I'll leave it to you to speculate on the motives!), and for unexplained reasons Bubba Swan allowed itself to be captured. We're told that upon his arrival in Hugh's presence the swan ate bread from his hand with apparent gusto and satisfaction. After that, the swan and Hugh were BFFsF (apologies to Paris Hilton! - Best Favorite Friends Forever). Only when Hugh would take off for his pastoral visitations would Mega Swan head back to the lake and wreak its usual havoc on others, human and animal -- except for the bailiff who brought it food! Whenever Hugh would return from his trips, there would be the swan waiting for him. Arrogating to itself the position of Hugh's bodyguard, the swan jealously threatened anyone who came near Hugh, even his companions, with beak and wings and a shrieking cry: a constant embarrassment to the Bishop's chaplain! If a person managed to get on Rambo Swan's enemy list, only Hugh's direct order would move the bird to tolerate that person.
The swan apparently had exquisite long-term memory, as good or better than an elephant's. One time Hugh had to be away for two whole years. No one else knew when he'd return, except for ESP Swan who somehow sensed it on some inner radar, and raised holy hell just prior to Hugh's appearance at Stow Park. He greeted his master with outspread wings, then disappeared into the house with Hugh to stay with him, munching on his daily portion of bread, cut up into a finger's length, we're told. (Finger sandwiches with afternoon tea?) Their friendship lasted for 15 years.
Apparently, six months before Hugh's death, the swan fell into a deep funk, and for the first time upon Hugh's arrival at Stow Park, the swan made no sign of recognition or greeting and stayed out in the middle of the lake. After several days it allowed itself to be captured and brought into the house, but it stood around, listless, dejected, and, well...sad. That visit was the last time Hugh and the swan saw one another, for Hugh died in London on November 17, 1200.
The swan outlived St. Hugh by several years, but never cozied up to anyone else as a friend. We don't know what Hugh called the swan during his lifetime: some simply refer to it as "the swan of Stow". Nevertheless, it has attained historical notoriety and fame, along with its master, through sculpture, painting, and writing.