Prior Hugh
It did not require much talent to see that the first requisite of the foundation was a little money, and consequently we find ten white pounds paid from the Exchequer to the Charterhouse brethren, and a note in the Great Life to say that the king was pleased with Hugh's modesty, and granted him what he asked for. Next there was a meeting of all who had a stake of any kind in the place, who would be obliged to be removed lest their noise and movement should break the deep calm of the community. It was put to each to choose whether he would like a place in any royal manor, with cottage and land equal to those they gave up, or else to be entirely free from serfdom, and to go where they chose. It is noteworthy that some chose one alternative, some the other, not finding villeinage intolerable. Next came the question of compensation for houses, crops, and improvements, that the transfer might be made without injustice but with joy on both sides. Here Henry boggled a little. "In truth, my lord," said the prior, "unless every one of them is paid to the last doight for every single thing the place cannot be given to us." So the king was forced to do a little traffic, which he considered to be a dead loss, and acquired some very old cottages with rotten rafters and cracked walls at a handsome price. The salesmen liked this new business; it filled their pockets, and they blessed the new influence. This good merchant had traded so as to gain both justice and mercy, but he tackled the king once more, with twinkling eye. "Well, my lord king, you see I am new and poor, yet I have enriched you in your own land with a number of houses." The king smiled. "I did not covet riches of this nature. They have made me almost a beggar, and I cannot tell of what good such goods may be." Hugh wanted this very answer. "Of course, of course," he rejoined, "I see you do not reck much of your purchase. It would befit your greatness if these dwellings were handed over to me, for I have nowhere to lay my head." The king opened his eyes and stared at his petitioner. "Thou wouldst be a fine landlord. Dost thou think we cannot build thee a new house? What on earth shouldest thou do with these?" "It does not befit royal generosity to ask questions about trifles. This is my first petition to thee, and why, when it is so small, should I be kept waiting about it?" The king merrily answered, "Hear the fellow! Almost using violence too, in a strange land. What would he do if he used force, when he gets so much out of us by words? Lest we should be served worse by him, he must have it so." The cat was soon out of the bag. Each house was presented back to the man who had sold it, either to sell or to remove as he chose, lest in any way Jerusalem should be built with blood.

Then the building began, but no more; for the ten white pounds did not go far, and the workmen angrily and abusively asked for wages. A deputation went off to Henry, who was collecting troops and dismissing them, ordering, codifying, defending, enlarging and strengthening his heterogeneous empire. Now he was on one side of the sea, now on the other. He promised succour, and the brethren brought back -- promises. The work stopped, and the Prior endured in grim silence. Another embassage is sent, and again the lean wallets return still flabby. Then the brethren began to turn their anger against the Prior. He was slothful and neglectful for not approaching the king in person (although the man was abroad and busy). Brother Gerard, a white-haired gentleman, "very successful in speaking to the great and to princes," fell upon his superior for glozing with a hard-hearted king and not telling him instantly to complete the buildings under pain of a Carthusian stampede. Not only was the Order wronged, but themselves were made fools of, who had stuck so long there without being able even to finish their mere dolls' houses. Brother Gerard himself would be delighted to din something into the King's ears in the presence of his prior. To this all the brethren said "Aye." Hugh gratefully accepted their counsel, and added, "All the same, Brother Gerard, you will have to see to it that you are as modest as you are free in your discourse. It may well be, that in order to be able to know us well, that sagaciously clever and inscrutable minded prince pretends not to hear us, just to prove our mettle. Doubtless he knows that it belongs to that perfection which we profess to fulfil, that lesson of our Lord which tells us, 'In your patience ye shall possess your souls,' and that too of most blessed Paul, 'In all things let us shew forth ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience.' But much patience is assured in this, if much longsuffering bears with much gentleness much that opposes and thwarts. For patience without longsuffering will not be much, but short; and without gentleness will merely not exist." So said, Hugh Gerard and old Ainard (a man of immense age and curious story) set out to the king. They were all received like angels, with honour, polite speeches, excuses, instant promises, but neither cash nor certain credit. Then Gerard fumed and forgot the advice of his superior, and broke out into a furious declaration that he was off and quit of England, and would go back to his Alpine rocks, and not conflict with a man who thought it lost labour to be saved. "Let him keep the riches he loves so well. He will soon lose them, and leave them to some ungrateful heir or other. Christ ought not to share in them; no, nor any good Christian." These, and harsher words, too, were Gerard's coaxes. Poor Hugh used often, in after life, to remember them with horror. He got red and confused. He told his brother to speak gentlier, to eschew such terms, or even to hold his tongue: but Gerard (of holy life, grey head, and gentle blood) scolded on without bridle. Henry listened in a brown study. Neither by look, nor word, did he appear hit. He let the monk rate, kept silence and self control, and when the man had talked himself out, and an awkward silence reigned, he glanced at Hugh's confused and downcast face. "Well, good man," he said, "and what are you thinking about within yourself? You are not preparing to go off too, and leave our kingdom to us, are you?" The answer came humbly and gently, but with perfect manliness. "I do not despair of you so far, my lord. I am rather sorry for all your hindrances and business, which block the salutary studies of your soul. You are busy, and when God helps, we shall get on well with these health-giving projects." Henry felt the spell at once; flung his arms round Hugh, and said with an oath, "By my soul's salvation, while I live and breathe, thou shalt never depart from my kingdom. With thee I will share my life's plans, and the needful studies of my soul." The money was found at once, and a royal hint given. The demon blood of the Angevins, which frightened most men, and kept Henry in loneliness, had no terrors for Hugh; and Henry could hardly express the pleasure he felt in a rare friendship which began here. He loved and honoured no other man so much, for he had found a man who sympathised with him without slavishness, and whose good opinion was worth having. This close friendship, combined with physical likeness, made it generally believed that Hugh was Henry's own son. Hugh did not always agree with the king, and if he felt strongly that any course was bad for king and kingdom would say so roundly in direct words of reproof, but withal so reasonably and sweetly that he made "the rhinoceros harrow the valleys" after him, as his biographer quaintly puts it, glancing at Job. The counsel was not limited to celestial themes. Hugh checked his temper, softened his sentences, and got him to do good turns to churches and religious places. He unloosed the king's rather tight fist, and made him a good almsgiver. One offence Hugh was instant in rebuking -- the habit of keeping bishoprics and abbacies vacant. He used also to point out that unworthy bishops were the grand cause of mischiefs in God's people, which mischiefs they cherished, caused to wax and grow great. Those who dared to promote or favour such were laying up great punishments against the Doomsday. "What is the need, most wise prince, of bringing dreadful death on so many souls just to get the empty favour of some person, and the loss of so many folk redeemed by Christ's death? You invoke God's anger, and you heap up tortures for yourself hereafter." Hugh was for free canonical election, with no more royal interference than was required to prevent jobbery and quicken responsibility.

The two friends visited each other often, and the troubles of Henry's last years were softened for him by his ghostly friend. It is quite possible that Hugh's hand may be traced in the resignation of Geoffrey Plantagenet, the king's dear illegitimate son, who was (while a mere deacon) bishop-elect of Lincoln from 1173 to 1181. From the age of twenty to twenty-eight he enjoyed the revenues of that great see without consecration. The Pope objected to his birth and his youth. Both obstacles could have been surmounted, but Geoffrey resigns his claims in the Epiphany of the latter year, and gets a chancellorship with five hundred marks in England and the same in Normandy. His case is a bold instance of "that divorce of salary from duty" which even in those times was thoroughly understood.

There is a story, one might almost say the usual story, of the storm at sea. The king with a fleet is between Normandy and England, when a midnight storm of super-Virgilian boisterousness burst upon them. After the manner of Erasmus' shipwreck, every one prays, groans, and invokes both he and she saints. The king himself audibly says, "Oh, if only my Charterhouse Hugh were awake and instant at his secret prayers, or if even he were engaged with the brethren in the solemn watch of the divine offices, God would not so long forget me." Then, with a deep groan, he prayed, "God, whom the William Prior serves in truth, by his intervention and merits, take kindly pity upon us, who for our sins are justly set in so sore a strait." Needless to say the storm ceased at once, and Henry felt that he was indeed upon the right tack, both nautically and spiritually. Whatever view we take of this tale (storms being frequent, and fervent prayers of the righteous availing much), the historic peep into King Henry's mind is worth our notice. The simplicity and self-abasement of his ejaculation shew a more religious mind than some would allow to him.

Anyhow, the prior was hard at work. He soon transformed the "weeps" into stone. He built the two houses, the friary for the lay brethren and the monastery for the monks. He prayed, read, meditated and preached. His body slept, but his heart woke, and he repeated "Amens" innumerable in his holy dreams. On feast days, when the brethren dined together, he ate with them, and then he had the meal sauced with reading. If he ate alone, he had a book by his trencher of dry bread rarely garnished with relishes. A water pot served him for both flagon and tureen. He allowed himself one little human enjoyment. A small bird called a burnet made friends with him and lived in his cell, ate from his fingers and his trencher, and only left him at the breeding season, after which it brought its fledged family back with it. This little friend lived for three years with the prior, and to his great grief came no more in the fourth. The learned have exhausted their arts to discover what a burnet can be, and have given up the chase. Some would have him to be a barnacle goose, others a dab-chick or coot -- none of which can fairly be classed as aviculae small birds. Burnet is brown or red brown, and rather bright at that. We have it in Chaucer's "Romaunt of the Rose" [4756]:

"For also welle wole love be sette
Under ragges as rich rochette,
And else as wel be amourettes
In mournyng blak, as bright burnettes."

Consequently if the reader likes to guess (in default of knowledge) he might do worse than think of the Robin Redbreast as a likely candidate. He is called in Celtic Broindeag, is a small, friendly, crumb-eating, and burnet bird, and behaves much as these ancient legends describe. The name burnet still survives in Somerset.

Not only the burnet bird felt the fascination of the prior, but monks drew towards Witham and men of letters also. Men of the world would come to be taught the vanity of their wisdom; clergy whose dry times afflicted them found a rich meal of Witham doctrine well worth the spare diet of the place. The prior by no means courted his public, and the Order itself was not opened at every knuckle tap. Even those who were admitted did not always find quite what they wanted. We read of one man, a Prior of Bath, who left the Charterhouse because he "thought it better to save many souls than one," and returned to what we should call parish work. Alexander of Lewes, a regular Canon, well versed in the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), found the solitude intolerable to his objective wits. He was not convinced of the higher spirituality of co-operative hermitages. He found it too heavy to believe that there was no Christendom outside the Charterhouse plot, and no way of salvation except for a handful of mannikins. Alexander, with stinging and satiric terms, left in a huff, followed by acrimonious epithets from his late brethren. He became a monk at Reading, and filled a larger part upon a more spacious stage, and yet would have most gladly returned; but the strait cell was shut to him relentlessly and for ever. Andrew, erst sacristan of Muchelney, was another who left the Order for his first love, but his dislike of the life was less cogently put. It was not exactly that the prior could not brook opposition: but he hated a man who did not know his own mind, and nothing would induce him to allow an inmate who eddied about.

The Charterhouse now had ecclesiastical independence. The bishop's power ended outside its pale. Bruton Convent could tithe the land no more, nor feed their swine or cattle there, nor cut fuel, instead of which the rectory of South Petherton, and its four daughter chapelries, was handed over to this bereaved convent. This was in April, 1181. This transaction was some gain to the game-loving king, for the Withamites ate neither pork nor beef, and so the stags had freer space and more fodder.

But nevertheless the monks' poverty was almost ludicrous. Hugh wanted even a complete and accurate copy of the scriptures, which he used to say were the solitary's delight and riches in peace, his darts and arms in war, his food in famine and his medicine in sickness. Henry asked why his scribes did not make copies. The answer was that there was no parchment. "How much money do you want?" asked the king. "One silver mark," was the ungrasping request. Henry laughed and ordered ten marks to be counted out and promised a complete "divine library" besides. The Winchester monks had just completed a lovely copy (still in existence). King Henry heard from a student of this fine work and promptly sent for the prior. With fair words and fine promises he asked for the Bible. The embarrassed monk could not well say no, and the book was soon in Hugh's hands. This Prior Robert shortly after visited Witham and politely hoped the copy was satisfactory. If not, a better one could be made, for great pains had been taken by St. Swithun's brethren to make this one agreeably to their own use and custom. Hugh was astonished. "And so the king has beguiled your Church thus of your needful labour? Believe me, my very dear brother, the Library shall be restored to you instantly. And I beg most earnestly through you that your whole fraternity will deign to grant pardon to our humility because we have ignorantly been the occasion of this loss of their codex." The prior was in a fright, as well he might be, at the shadow of the king's wrath. He assured Hugh that his monks were all delighted at the incident. "To make their delight continue, we must all keep quiet about the honest restoration of your precious work. If you do not agree to take it back secretly, I shall restore it to him who sent it hither; but if you only carry it off with you, we shall give him no inkling of the matter." So the Winchester monks got back their Bible, and Witham got the said Prior Robert as one of its pupils instead, fairly captured by the electric personality of the Carthusian.

Though Hugh's influence was very great, we must not quite suppose that the king became an ideal character even under his direction. There is an interregnum not only in Lincoln but in Exeter Diocese between Bishop Bartholomew and John the Chaunter, 1184-1186; one in Worcester between the translation of Baldwin and William de Northale, 1184-1186; and a bad one in York after the death of Roger, 1181, before King Richard appointed his half-brother Geoffrey aforementioned, who was not consecrated until August, 1191. But Hugh's chief work at Witham was in his building, his spiritual and intellectual influence upon the men he came to know, in the direction of personal and social holiness: and, above all, he was mastering the ways and works of England so sympathetically that he was able to take a place afterwards as no longer a Burgundian but a thorough son of the nation and the church. One instance may be given of his teaching and its wholesome outlook. He lived in an age of miracles, when these things were demanded with an insatiable appetite and supplied in a competitive plenty which seems equally inexhaustible, almost as bewildering to our age as our deep thirst for bad sermons and quack medicines will be to generations which have outgrown our superstitions. St. Hugh had drunk so deeply and utterly and with all his mind of the gravity and the humility which was traditional from the holy authors of the Carthusian Order, that "there was nothing he seemed to wonder at or to wish to copy less than the marvels of miracles. Still, when these were read or known in connection with holy men, he would speak of them gently and very highly respect them. He would speak of them, I say, as commending of those who showed them forth, and giving proof to those who marvelled at such things, for to him the great miracle of the saints was their sanctity, and this by itself was enough for guidance. The heartfelt sense of his Creator, which never failed him, and the overwhelming and fathomless number of His mighty works, were for him the one and all-pervading miracle." If we remember that Adam, his biographer, wrote these words not for us, but for his miracle-mongering contemporaries, they will seem very strong indeed. He goes on to say that all the same, whether Hugh knew it or not, God worked many miracles through him, as none of his intimates could doubt, and we could rather have wished that he had left the saint's opinion intact, for it breathes a lofty atmosphere of bright piety, and is above the controversies of our lower plane.

The time was now coming when Witham had to lose its prior. Geoffrey (son, not of fair Rosamond, but of Hickenay) had resigned in January, 1182. After sixteen months' hiatus, Walter de Coutances, a courtier, was elected, ordained, and consecrated, and enthroned December, 1183; but in fifteen months he was translated to the then central See of Rouen and the wretched diocese had another fifteen months without a bishop, during which time (April 15, 1185, on holy Monday) an earthquake cracked the cathedral from top to bottom.{2}

In May, 1186, an eight-day council was held at Eynsham, and the king attended each sitting from his palace at Woodstock. Among other business done was the election, not very free election, to certain bishoprics and abbeys. Among the people who served or sauntered about the Court were the canons of Lincoln, great men of affairs, learned, and so wealthy that their incomes overtopped any bishop's rent-roll, and indeed they affected rather to despise bishoprics -- until one offered. The See of Lincoln had been vacant (with one short exception) for nearly eighteen years. It contained ten of the shires of England -- Lincoln, Leicester, Rutland, Northampton, Huntingdon, Cambridge, Bedford, Buckingham, Oxford, and Hertford. The canons chose three men, all courtiers, all rich, and all well beneficed, viz., their dean, Richard Fitz Neal, a bishop's bastard, who had bought himself into the treasurership; Godfrey de Lucy, one of their number, an extravagant son of Richard the chief justice; and thirdly another of themselves, Herbert le Poor, Archdeacon of Canterbury, a young man of better stuff. But the king declared that this time he would choose not by favour, blood, counsel, prayer, or price; but considering the dreadful abuses of the neglected diocese he wished for a really good bishop, and since the canons could not agree he pressed home to them the Prior of Witham, the best man and the best-loved one. With shouts of laughter the canons heard the jest and mentioned his worship, his habit, and his talk, as detestable; but the king's eye soon changed their note, and after a little foolishness they all voted for the royal favourite. The king approves, the nobles and bishops applaud, my lord of Canterbury confirms, and all seems settled. The canons rode off to Witham to explain the honours they have condescended to bestow upon its prior. He heard their tale, read their letters. Then he astonished their complacency by telling them that he could understand the king's mind in the matter and that of Archbishop Baldwin, himself a Cistercian; but that they, the canons, had not acted freely. They ought to choose a ruler whose yoke and ways they could abide, and, moreover, they ought not to hold their election in the Court or the pontifical council, but in their own chapter. "And so, to tell you my small opinion, you must know that I hold all election made in this way to be absolutely vain and void." He then bade them go home and ask for God's blessing, and choose solely by the blessing and help of the Holy Ghost, looking not to king's, bishop's, nor any man's approval. "That is the only answer to return from my littleness. So go, and God's good angel be with you." They begged him to reconsider it, to see the king or the archbishop; but the prior was inflexible, and they left the Guest House in wonder not unmixed with delight. The king's man was not the pet boor they had taken him for, but single-eyed, a gentleman, a clever fellow, and a good churchman. The very men who had cried out that they had been tricked now elected him soon and with one consent; and off they post again to Witham.

This time he read the letters first, and then heard their tale and expressed his wonder that men so wise and mannerly should take such pains to court an ignoramus and recluse, to undertake such unwonted and uncongenial cares, but they must be well aware that he was a monk and under authority. He had to deal not with the primate and chief of the English Church in this matter, but with his superior overseas, and so they must either give up the plan altogether or undertake a toilsome journey to the Charterhouse; for none but his own prior could load his shoulders with such a burden. In vain they argued. A strong embassy had to be sent, and sent it was without delay, and the Chartreuse Chapter made no bones about it, but charged brother Hugh to transfer his obedience to Canterbury; and thus the burden of this splendid unhappy See was forced upon the shoulders which were most able to bear the weight of it.

One would be glad to know what Henry thought of it all, and whether he liked the tutoring his courtiers got and were about to get. The humour, shrewdness, tact, and piety combined must have appealed to his many-sided mind and now saddened heart. He had lost his heir and was tossed upon stormy seas, so perhaps he had small leisure to spare for the next act of the drama.


{2} The king crossed to Normandy the very next day, and it is possible that this was the date of the sea scene mentioned above.

chapter ii brother hugh
Top of Page
Top of Page