Saint of the Day – 2 July – Saint Swithun (c 800-863) Bishop of Winchester, Miracle-worker – born in c 800 at Wessex, England and died on 2 July 862 of natural causes. Patronages – Hampshire, Winchester, Winchester Cathedral and Diocese, Southwark,the weather, against drought.
He was born in the kingdom of Wessex and educated in its capital, Winchester. He was famous for charitable gifts and building churches. Very little is known for certain about the life of Winchester Cathedral’s first Patron Saint. Some biographies of Swithun state that he was once Prior of Winchester. We do know that he was one of the chief advisors of Egbert, King of the West Saxons and was responsible for the education of Egbert’s son, Ethelwulf. Egbert’s influence procured the post of Bishop of Winchester, which he took up in 852, below is Winchester Cathedral today, obviously, no longer Catholic.
Only one miracle is attributed to Swithin while he was alive. An old lady’s eggs had been smashed by workmen building a church. Swithin picked the broken eggs up and, it is said, they miraculously became whole again.
When Swithun’s health failed in 862 and he lay near death, asked that his body be buried outside his Cathedral, rather than within it, as was customary. He wanted passers-by to walk upon his grave and raindrops from the eaves of the Cathedral to fall upon his resting place. Although his wishes were granted, his grave did not long lie undisturbed. In 931 Bishop Ethelwulf had Swithun disinterred and reburied within the walls of the new Church.
Shortly after, miracles were reported at Swithun’s tomb, which became a popular attraction for pilgrims. So clamorous were the voices reporting these miracles that Swithun’s cult was recognised, which further added to the allure of his shrine. Swithin’s feast day is celebrated in England on 15 July which is the date of the removal of his remains, not the usual day of his entry into life.
The translation of St Swithun’s relics was accompanied by ferocious and violent rain storms that lasted 40 days and 40 nights and are said to indicate the saint’s displeasure at being moved. This is the origin of the legend. that if it rains on Saint Swithin’s feast day, the rain will continue for 40 more days.
Saint Swithun’s day, if thou dost rain,
For forty days it will remain.
Saint Swithun’s day, if thou be fair,
For forty days ’twill rain nae mair.
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. Yet, still his bones could not rest, for on 15 July 1093 his remains were once more dug up and reburied with great ceremony within the new Cathedral built by Bishop Walkelin. There they remained until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538, when the shrine was destroyed by Henry VIII’s men. A modern representation of it now stands on the site.
Below are extracts from the story of St Swithun as told by Ælfric, the homilist and hagiographer, writing in English in the 990s. Ælfric had been educated under St Æthelwold at Winchester and he gives us a detailed picture of how the cult of Swithun developed at Æthelwold’s instigation.
“In the days of the noble king Edgar, when by the grace of God, Christianity was thriving among the English people under that king, God revealed St Swithun, showing by many signs that he is glorious.
His deeds were not known until God himself made them known and we do not find written in books, in what manner the Bishop lived in this world, before he went to Christ.
Such was the carelessness of those who knew him in life, that they did not write about his deeds and conduct, for the benefit of future generations, who did not know his virtue but God, nonetheless, made known his life with manifest miracles and wonderful tokens.
This Swithun was Bishop of Winchester, that is, over Hampshire, a blessed servant of God, there were eight Bishops between him and St Æthelwold.
Now, as we said before, nothing about his life is known to us, except that he was buried at his episcopal seat, to the west of the church and a tomb was built over him, until his miracles revealed that he was especially blessed by God.
Æthelwold, the venerable and blessed Bishop, who in those days was Bishop of Winchester, commanded all his monks who lived in the Minster that every time a sick person was healed, they should all go in procession to the Church and praise in song, the merits of the Saint Swithun and glorify God because of the Saint’s holiness. They began to do this straightaway and sang the song of praise, until it grew tiresome for them to have to get up so often – sometimes three times a night, sometimes four – to sing the Te Deum, when they could have been asleep. At last, they all left off singing the hymn because the bishop was busy with the king and did not know that they had ceased their custom of singing.
But then St Swithun himself appeared to a certain good man in a dream, richly attired and said, “Go to the Old Minster and say to the monks that God is greatly displeased by their grumbling and sloth, that everyday they see the miracles of God performed among them but they do not want to praise the Saviour with hymns, as the Bishop commanded the brothers to do. Tell them, that if they do not sing the hymn, the miracles will soon cease bu,t if they sing the Te Deum for the miracles, as often as sick people are healed there, then so many wonders will be performed among them, that no one alive will be able to remember when any man saw such wonders anywhere.
The man woke up from his sweet sleep and mourned that he could no longer see and enjoy the beautiful light which he had seen accompanying Swithun. Nonetheless, he got up and quickly went to Bishop Æthelwold and told him all this. Æthelwold straightaway sent a message from the King’s court to the monks and said that they should sing the Te Deum just as he had set down for them and that anyone who neglected to do this, should heavily atone for it by fasting for seven nights continuously. Afterwards, they always kept this custom, as we have very often seen for ourselves – and we have often sung that hymn with them.
… We cannot write, nor recount in words, all the miracles that the holy man Swithun performed, by the power of God, in the sight of the people, for prisoners in chains and for sick people, to show to everyone that they themselves may earn the kingdom of heaven by good works, just as Swithun did, who is now made glorious by his miracles. The old Church was hung all round with the crutches and stools of cripples who had been healed there, from one end to the other, on either wall – and, even so, they could not put half of them up. Such tokens declare that Christ is Almighty God, who revealed his Saint by such good deeds…“
“And if any church fell down, or was in decay,
St Swithin would anon amend it at his own cost.
Or if any church were not hallowed,
he would go thither afoot and hallow it.
For he loved no pride, ne to ride on gay horses,
ne to be praised ne flattered of the people…”
The Golden Legend