Monday, July 15, 2013


Swithun (or Swithin, Old English 'Swithun' died c. 862) was an Anglo-Saxon bishop of Winchester and was subsequently patron saint of Winchester Cathedral.

His historical importance as bishop is overshadowed by his reputation for posthumous miracle-working. According to tradition, the weather on his feast day (15 July) will continue for forty days.  The precise meaning and origin of Swithin's name is unknown, but it is largely considered to mean 'Pig Man'.   Another possible meaning is "strong".

Swithun was Bishop of Winchester from his consecration in October 852 or October 853 until his death on 2 July sometime between 862 and 865.  However, he is scarcely mentioned in any document of his own time.  His death is entered in the Canterbury manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 861. His signature is appended to the witness lists of several Anglo-Saxon charters.  More than a hundred years later Swithun was adopted as patron of the restored church of Winchester and his body was transferred from its almost forgotten grave to Aethelwold's new basilica on 15 July, 971, and according to contemporary writers, numerous miracles preceded and followed the move.

Swithun, Benedictional of St. Aethelwold Winchester, 10th century, British Library:

Swithun's feast day in England is 15 July and in Norway (and formerly in medieval Wales) on 2 July. He was moved from his grave to an indoor shrine in the Old Minster at Winchester in 971.  His body was probably later split between a number of smaller shrines.  His head was certainly detached and, in the Middle Ages, taken to Canterbury Cathedral.  Peterborough Abbey has an arm  His main shrine was transferred into the new Norman cathedral at Winchester in 1093.  He was installed on a 'feretory platform' above and behind the high altar.  The retrochoir was built in the early13th century to accommodate the huge numbers of pilgrims wishing to visit his shrine  "holy hole" beneath him.  His empty tomb in the ruins of the Old Minster was also popular with visitors.  The shrine was only moved into the retrochoir itself in 1476.  It was demolished in 1538 during the English Reformation.  A modern representation of it now stands on the site.

The name of Swithun is best known today for a British weather lore proverb, which says that if it rains on Saint Swithun's day, 15 July, it will rain for 40 days.

St Swithun's day if thou dost rain for forty days it will remain
St Swithun's day if thou be fair for forty days 'twill rain nae mare

A Buckinghamshire variation has:

If on St Swithun's day it really pours, you're better off to stay in doors.

Swithun was originally buried out of doors. rather than in his cathedral, apparently at his own request. William of Malmesbury recorded that the bishop left instructions that his body should be buried outside the church where it might be subject to the feet of passers-by and to the raindrops pouring from on high, which has been taken as indicating that the legend was already well known in the 12th century.  In 971 it was decided to move his body to a new indoor shrine, and one theory traces the origin of the legend to a heavy shower by which, on the day of the move, the saint marked his displeasure towards those who were moving his remains.  This story, however, lacks proof and cannot be traced further back than the 17th or 18th century at most.  There are many variations given about this legend but Swithun is regarded as one of the saints to whom one should pray in the event of drought.

I had not heard of St Swithun until Phil mentioned it to me on the weekend.  I said it would be 15th on Monday and he said "Oh, that's Swithun's Day.  Did you know about the legend of what the weather is doing on that day?"  Of course I didn't and was I surprised that he knew about it?  No,  as he knows about so many things and of course, having come from England, he remembered it.  I looked it up and found the story fascinating enough to blog about it.  Hope you find it interesting too.


  1. Who do you pray to in order to get the rain tap turned off if I may ask? St Swithun has been working overtime here.

  2. Oh dear Delores, I have no idea. Hopefully the rain will cease sooner than later. It is raining here now as well but we really and truly need it and it IS, of course, our winter.

  3. Yes Buttons, I found it so. I always enjoy interesting facts from history.