FEATURE image: The shrine of Saint Swithun (or Swithin) in Winchester Cathedral in England, The official name of the old minster or mynster ( from monasterium) is the Cathedral Church of Holy Trinity, Saint Peter, Saint Paul, and Saint Swithun. Since July 15, 971 the shrine at the grave of St. Swithun has been inside Winchester Cathedral. “St Swithun’s Shrine” by Lawrence OP is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
St. Swithun (c.800-c.863) is a name from Old English which means “Strong Bear Cub.” Swithun was a late 9th century bishop of the royal city of Winchester in England. Only a few important facts are known in history about Swithun – one is that he became Winchester’s 18th bishop in 852. Prior to that, Swithun was apparently a secular clerk with a reputation for virtue and learning. In addition to the few remaining historical facts, there are important surviving artifacts as well as a treasury of lore associated with this medieval figure living in the days of the Saxons and Angles, Vikings and Jutes in southern England.
Swithun, who was attached to the West Saxon Court, was responsible for educating Æthelwulf (“Noble Wolf”), the king’s son, who became the father of Alfred the Great (c. 848-899). King Alfred had a reputation for learning and for being a gracious, level-headed king in a raucous time. Swithun is credited for some of the royal court’s civilized culture which encouraged education, improved the legal system, reformed the military structure, and added to the ordinary people’s overall quality of life. These improvements helped make Swithun beloved in his lifetime.
Wessex under Alfred’s leadership was the only one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to survive the Danish attacks (the Vikings and Jutes) of the 9th century. Significantly, England in the 10th century was unified under Æthelwulf’s and Alfred’s line.
Miracle of Broken Egg Shells.
Bishop Swithun was a builder as well as one of the original contributors to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of Old English annals. Humble miracles were attributed to Swithun in his lifetime and after his death. One of the most charming and which is memorialized in the modern shrine marker is the “miracle of broken eggshells.” On St. Swithun’s bridge in Winchester – a bridge has crossed the River Itchen into the city of Winchester since around 500 A.D. – a woman rushing to market encountered the saint, dropping her basketful of eggs and breaking them all in the process. After the saint stooped down to pick them up, he returned the eggs to the woman fully restored.
When Swithun died in 862 or 863, the charismatic personality was buried per his request in the cathedral churchyard. Swithun wanted passers-by to be able to walk over his grave and for the rain to fall upon it. Over 100 years later, on July 15, 971, the remains of St, Swithun, who was regarded as the patron saint of the city of Winchester, were moved to inside the old minster to a magnificent shrine on the high altar.
There is a tale that when Saint Swithun’s remains were moved from the simple grave outside to a resplendent one inside the cathedral, he was so discombobulated by it that it rained torrents on that day of July 15, 971 as a result – and for the next 40 days. It is not precisely known, however, how Swithun became directly associated with the stormy weather. “If on St. Swithun’s day it really pours, You’re better off to stay indoors” was one English ditty. It is the case that a few earlier saints in France had similar meteorological tales that were told about them.
‘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 na mair.’
One of the positive outcomes to this summer deluge is that St. Swithun became patron saint of apples as these begin to appear in glorious abundance in the late summer and early fall.
Jane Austen on her deathbed in Winchester writes her last poem about St. Swithun and is herself buried in the cathedral.
Three days before her death on July 18, 1817, in Winchester, 41-year-old novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) wrote a short poem, her last, about Winchester, rainy weather, and St Swithun’s Day. From the poem it is evident that Jane Austen, who had sought medical help for her health in Winchester beginning in May 1817, knew she was dying when she wrote her witty, playful verse. Austen wrote the poem at 8, College Street, just steps from the Cathedral. Austen was 16 miles from Chawton, her home, also in (East) Hampshire, when she died. Following her death, Jane Austen was buried in Winchester Cathedral less than a week after she wrote the poem.
“When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of Saint Swithin
And that William of Wykeham’s approval was faint.
The races however were fixed and determined
The company came and the Weather was charming
The Lords and the Ladies were satine’d and ermined
And nobody saw any future alarming.–
But when the old Saint was informed of these doings
He made but one Spring from his Shrine to the Roof
Of the Palace which now lies so sadly in ruins
And then he addressed them all standing aloof.
‘Oh! subjects rebellious! Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are dead
But behold me immortal! By vice you’re enslaved
You have sinned and must suffer, ten farther he said
These races and revels and dissolute measures
With which you’re debasing a neighboring Plain
Let them stand–You shall meet with your curse in your pleasures
Set off for your course, I’ll pursue with my rain.
Ye cannot but know my command o’er July
Henceforward I’ll triumph in shewing my powers
Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry
The curse upon Venta is July in showers–“