Hugh of Avalon was born in Avalon Castle in 1140, a year in which the great tempest of Stephen's misrule was raging. In France, Louis VII. has already succeeded his father, Louis VI.; the Moors are in Spain, and Arnold of Brescia is the centre of controversy. Avalon Castle lies near Pontcharra, which is a small town on the Bredo, which flows into the Isere and thence into the Rhone. It is not to be confused with Avallon of Yonne. The Alpine valleys about Pontcharra are lovely with flowers and waters, and have in them the "foot-prints of lost Paradise." Burgundy here owed some loyalty to the empire rather than to France, and its dukes tried to keep up a semi-independent kingdom by a balanced submission to their more powerful neighbours. The very name Hugh was an old ducal name, and there is little doubt that William de Avalon, Hugh's father, claimed kin with the princes of his land. He was a "flower of knighthood" in battles not now known. He was also by heredity of a pious mind. Hugh's mother, Anna, a lovely and wealthy lady, of what stock does not appear, was herself of saintly make. She "worshipped Christ in His limbs," by constantly washing the feet of lepers, filling these wretched outcasts with hope, reading to them and supplying their wants. She seems to have been a woman of intellectual parts, for though she died before Hugh was ten, he had already learned under her, if not from her, to use language as the sacrament of understanding and understanding as the symbol of truth. He had some grip of grammar and logic, and though he did not brood over "Ovid's leasings or Juvenal's rascalities," rather choosing to ponder upon the two Testaments, yet we may gather that his Latin classics were not neglected. The spiritual life of Grenoble had been nourished by a noble bishop, also Hugh, who had seen the vision of seven stars resting upon a certain plot of ground, which induced him to grant the same to St. Bruno, the founder of the Grande Chartreuse. Here he served himself as a simple monk, laying aside his bishop's robes, not a score of miles from Avalon. This Hugh was a religious and free thinking man, who, though he found evil a great metaphysical stumbling block to faith, yet walked painfully by the latter. He died in 1132 or thereabouts, and his life was most probably the occasion of our Hugh's name, and of much else about him.
The De Avalons had two other boys both older than Hugh: William, who inherited the lands, and Peter, who was settled by his brother Hugh at Histon, in Cambridge, but he does not seem to have made England his home. Hugh had also at least one cousin, William, on his mother's side, who attended upon him at Lincoln, and who (unless there were two of the same name) developed from a knight into an holy Canon after his great relative's decease. These relatives were always ready to lend a hand and a sword if required in the good bishop's quarrels. The last particularly distinguished himself in a brawl in Lincolnshire Holland, when an armed and censured ruffian threatened the bishop with death. The good Burgundian blood rose, and William twisted the sword from the villain's hand, and with difficulty was prevented from driving it into his body.
When the Lady Anna died, her husband, tired of war, power, and governance, distributed his property among his children. Under his armour he had long worn the monk's heart, and now he was able to take the monk's dress, and to "labour for peace after life, as he had already won it in life." So he took Hugh and Hugh's money with him, and went off to the little priory of Villarbenoit (of seven canon power), which bordered upon his own lands, and which he and his forbears had cherished. This little priory was a daughter of Grenoble (St. Hugh of Grenoble being, as we infer, a spiritual splendour to the De Avalons), and, not least in attraction, there was a canon therein, far-famed for heavenly wisdom and for scholarship besides, who kept a school and taught sound theology and classics, under whom sharp young Hugh might climb to heights both of ecclesiastical and also of heavenly preferment. Great was the delight of the canons at their powerful postulant and his son, and great the pains taken over the latter's education. The schoolmaster laid stress upon authors such as Prudentius, Sedulius, and Fulgentius. By these means the boy not only learnt Latin, but he also tackled questions of Predestination and Grace, glosses upon St. Paul, hymns and methods of frustrating the Arian. Above all, he was exercised in the Divine Library, as they called the Bible, taught by St. Jerome. Hugh was of course the favourite of the master, who whipt him with difficulty, and kept him from the rough sports of his fellow scholars, the future soldiers, and "reared him for Christ." The boy had a masterly memory and a good grip of his work, whether it were as scholar, server, or comrade. The Prior assigned to him the special task of waiting upon his old father. That modest, kind-hearted gentleman was getting infirm, and the young fellow was delighted to be told off to lead him, carry him, dress and undress him, tie his shoes, towel him, make his bed, cook for him and feed him, until the time of the old knight's departure arrived.
The dates of St. Hugh's life and ministrations must be taken with a grain of salt. The authorities differ considerably, and it is impossible to clap a date to some of the saint's way-marks without first slapping in the face some venerable chronicler, or some thought-worn modern historian. If we say with the Great Life that Hugh was ordained Levite in his nineteenth year, we upset Giraldus Cambrensis and the metrical biographer, who put it in his fifteenth; and Matthew Paris and the Legend, who write him down as over sixteen. Mr. Dimock would have us count from his entry into the canonry, and so counts him as twenty-four; Canon Perry and Father Thurston say "nineteenth year," or "nineteen." The Canons Regular of Villarbenoit seem to have been rather liberal in their interpretation of church regulations, but it is hardly likely that the bishop of Grenoble would so far stretch a point as to ordain a lad much below the canonical age, even if he were of a great house and great piety. Anyhow it is hardly worth while for the general reader to waste time over these ticklish points. It is enough to say that Hugh was ordained young, that he looked pink and white over his white stole and broidered tunic, and that he soon preached vigorously, warmly, and movingly to the crowd and to his old acquaintances. Sinners heard a very straightforward message, and holy persons were edified by the clever way in which he handled difficult topics, and in him they "blessed the true Joseph, who had placed his own cup in the mouth of his younger brother's sack." Indeed, he must have been a captivating and interesting young man, and since he was so strikingly like Henry II. of England that folks' tongues wagged freely about it, we may picture him as a young man of moderate height, rather large in the brow, with red brown hair, bright grey eyes, large chest, and generally of an athletic build and carriage. He had a face which easily flushed and told both of anger and a lively sense of humour.
He was the delight of his house, and of the people about, who welcomed him with enthusiasm when he came back after nearly forty years' absence. But most of all he was the apple of the eye to his old scholarly father prior, who loved him as his own soul. It is not wonderful that when one of the scanty brotherhood was called upon to take charge of a small country living, the "cell of St. Maximin," the zealous deacon was chosen to administer the same. The tiny benefice could hardly support one, with small household, but Hugh insisted upon having an old priest to share the benefice. A little parcel of glebe and a few vines, tended by honest rustics, were his. They were able by pious frugality to nourish the poor and grace the rich. The parishioners grew in holiness. The congregation swelled from many sources, and the sermons (of life and word) were translated into sound faith and good conversation. This experience of parish work must have been of the greatest value to the future bishop, for the tragedy and comedy of life is just as visible in the smallest village as it is in the largest empire. The cloister-bred lad must have learnt on this small organ to play that good part which he afterwards was called upon to play upon a larger instrument. One instance is recorded of his discipline. A case of open adultery came under his notice. He sent for the man and gave him what he considered to be a suitable admonition. The offender replied with threats and abuse. Hugh, gospel in hand, pursued him first with two and then with three witnesses, offering pardon upon reform and penance. No amendment was promised. Both guilt and scandal continued. Then Hugh waited for a festival, and before a full congregation rebuked him publicly, declared the greatness of his sin, handed him over to Satan for the death of his flesh with fearful denunciations, except he speedily came to his senses. The man was thunderstruck, and brought to his knees at a blow. With groans and tears he confessed, did penance (probably at the point of the deacon's stick), was absolved and received back to the fold; so irresistible was this young administrator who knew St. Augustine's advice that "in reproof, if one loves one's neighbour enough, one can even say anything to him."
But Hugh was ill at ease in his charge, and his heart burned towards the mountains, where the Grande Chartreuse had revived the austerities of ancient monasticism. It seemed so grand to be out of and above the world, in solitary congregation, with hair shirt, hard diet, empty flesh pot, and full library, in the deep silence and keen air of the mountains. Here hands that had gripped the sword and the sceptre were turned to the spade and lifted only in prayer. There were not only the allurements of hardship, but also his parents' faith and his own early lessons tugging at his heart strings. He found means to go with his prior into the awful enclosure, and the austere passion seized him. He told his heart's desire to an old ex-baron, who probably felt some alarm that a young gentleman who had campaigned so slightly in the plains of active life should aspire to dwell upon these stern hills of contemplation. "My dear boy, how dare you think of such a thing?" he answered, and then, looking at the refined young face before him, warned the deacon against the life. The men were harder than stones, pitiless to themselves and to others. The place dreary, the rule most burdensome. The rough robe would rake the skin and flesh from young bones. The harsh discipline would crush the very frame of tender youth.
The other monks were less forbidding. They warmly encouraged the aspiration, and the pair returned to their home, Hugh struggling to hide the new fire from his aged friend. But the old man saw through the artless cloakings and was in despair. He used every entreaty to save Hugh for the good work he was doing, and to keep his darling at his side. Hugh's affectionate heart and ready obedience gave way, and he took a solemn oath not to desert his canonry, and so went back to his parishing.
But then came, as it naturally would come to so charming and vigorous a lad, the strong return of that Dame Nature who had been so long forked forth by his cloistral life. A lady took a liking to this heavenly curate. Other biographers hint at this pathetic little romance, and cover up the story with tales of a wilderness of women; but the metrical biographer is less discreetly vague, and breaks into a tirade against that race of serpents, plunderers, robbers, net weavers, and spiders -- the fair sex. Still, he cannot refrain from giving us a graphic picture of the presumptuous she-rascal who fell in love with Hugh, and although most of his copyists excise his thirty-nine graphic lines of Zuleika's portrait, the amused reader is glad to find that all were not of so edifying a mind. Her lovely hair that vied with gold was partly veiled and partly strayed around her ivory neck. Her little ear, a curved shell, bore up the golden mesh. Under the smooth clear white brow she had curved black eyebrows without a criss-cross hair in them, and these disclosed and heightened the clear white of the skin. And her nose, too -- not flat nor arched, not long nor snub, but beyond the fineness of geometry, with light, soft breath, and the sweet scent of incense. Such shining eyes too: like emeralds starring her face with light! And the face, blended lilies and roses in a third lovely hue that one could not withdraw one's eyes from beholding. The gentle pout of her red lips seemed to challenge kisses. Shining as glass, white as a bell flower, she had a breast and head joined by a noble poised throat, which baited the very hook of love. Upon her lily finger she wore a red and golden ring. Even her frock was a miracle of millinery. This lovely creature, complete to a nail, much disturbed the mind of Hugh, and played her pretty tricks upon her unexercised pastor: now demure, now smiling, now darting soft glances, now reining in her eyes. But he, good man, was rock or diamond. At last the fair creature actually stroked his arm, and then Hugh was startled into a panic. His experience and training had not been such as to fit him to deal with situations of this sort. He fled. He cut out the skin of the arm where her rosy fingers had rested. He found it impossible to escape from the sight of many fair maids of Burgundy. Zuleika was fascinating enough, but his original Adam within (whom he called Dalilah) was worse. He forsook his post, broke his vow, and bolted to the Grande Chartreuse.
One modern biographer, who is shocked at his perjury to the prior, would no doubt have absolved him if he had married the lass against his canonic vows. Another thinks him most edifyingly liberal in his interpretation of duty. Is there any need to forestall Doomsday in these matters? The poor fellow was in both a fix and a fright. Alas! that duties should ever clash! His own view is given with his own decisiveness. "No! I never had a scruple at all about it. I have always felt great delight of mind when I recall the deed which started me upon so great an undertaking." The brothers of the Charterhouse gladly took him in, the year being about 1160, and his age about twenty, let us say; hardly an age anyhow which would fit him for dealing with pert minxes and escaping the witcheries of the beauty which still makes beautiful old hexameters.