uring the reigns of John (1199-1216) and Henry III (1216-72),
Hugh of Northwold, the village’s greatest son, was an
important prelate at a time when abbots and bishops were among the most powerful men in the land. Starting as a Benedictine monk, he became the eleventh Abbot of Bury St. Edmunds in 1215, a day or two before the signing of Magna Carta, after a long tussle with King John as to who should have the right to make the appointment. The monks considered this to be such an important event that they left a full account of the controversy in their Abbey records. In their account they described him as “vir mirae simplicitatis et mansuetudinis”
(a man of outstanding simplicity and gentleness). These qualities, combined with a virtuous determination to stick to his guns, at first commended him to the young Henry III, who saw him made Bishop of Ely and used him as an ambassador from time to time. One of his diplomatic missions was to conclude a contract of marriage between Henry and Eleanor, daughter of Raymond of Provence. Later there were occasional quarrels, marked by gentle firmness on Hugh’s side and ill temper on the King’s. But Henry and his son Prince Edward were among the guests when Bishop Hugh presided over the dedication of his beautiful new Presbytery at Ely Cathedral in 1253.
Hugh had been consecrated as the eighth Bishop of Ely in 1229, but retained the dress and way of life of a monk. From the start he was a generous builder and beautifier of churches. A mediaeval chronicler remarked that Hugh “was much commended for his house keeping and liberality unto the poore, which may well seeme strange, considering the infinite deale of money spent by him in building of his church and houses.”
It is reasonable to conjecture that the building of the present Northwold church, the oldest parts of which date from the 1220s, and Hugh’s promotion, first as Abbot of St. Edmunds in 1215 and then as Bishop of Ely in 1229 were no mere coincidence. The reign of Henry III was, after all, the period of Hugh’s maximum power over the wealth of the church in East Anglia. So we may say that one of Hugh’s first acts as Bishop of Ely was likely to have been to give money to build a church in the village from which he took his name. The heraldic emblem on the shield held by an angel on the hammer beam above the pulpit includes a Bishop’s mitre. A contemporary described him as “the flower of the Benedictine order, shining brilliantly as an abbot among abbots and as a bishop among bishops; profuse in his hospitality, and at table maintaining a calm cheerfulness which attracted all beholders.” He died in 1254. His tomb can be found in his own Presbytery at Ely.