Swithun, the Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Winchester died today. It is difficult to get reliable historical facts about him,
but he still has a remarkable impact on English folklore and popular culture on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Vita S. Swithuni of Lantfred and Wulfstan, written about 1000, hardly contains any biographical fact; it seems that the most reliable source is a late eleventh-century hagiography ascribed to Goscelin of St Bertin's, a monk who came over to England with Hermann, bishop of Salisbury from 1058 to 1078. However even the reliability of this is questioned, as it is hagiographical and now seen as an adulatory and an idealized biography of a founder, usually for the purposes of promoting a local cult. However, it is foolish to totally dismiss hagiographic works, as they can incorporate a record of institutional and local history, and evidence of popular cults, customs, and traditions. Historical Analysis would begin with the work of Voltaire and Hume in the 18th Century.
England was not yet an unified country and Swithin was born in the Kingdom of Wessex, which was ruled by Egbert. He was ordained by Helmstan, bishop of Winchester and his good deeds and good name reached the king's ears, and he appointed him tutor of his son, Æthelwulf and considered him one of his chief friends. Under Æthelwulf, Swithun was appointed bishop of Winchester, he was a popular bishop known for his piety and his zeal in building new churches or restoring old ones. At his request Æthelwulf gave the tenth of his royal lands to the Church. Swithun made his diocesan journeys on foot; when he gave a banquet he invited the poor and not the rich. William of Malmesbury adds that, if Bishop Ealhstan of Sherborne was Æthelwulf's minister for temporal matters, Swithun was the minister for spiritual matters. However, his enduring legend is due to events after his death on 2 July 862.
With his dying breath Swithun is said to have requested that his final resting place be outside, where his grave could easily be reached by both members of the parish and the rainfall from the heavens. A hundred years later a monastic reform movement was well established and Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, decreed that Swithun was to be the patron saint of the restored Cathedral at Winchester where an impressive shrine was built for him. His body was removed from its simple grave and interred in the new Cathedral. According to legend, forty days of terrible weather followed, suggesting St Swithun was none too happy with the new arrangements! Ever since, it has been said that the weather on 15 July supposedly determines the weather for the next forty days, as noted in the popular Elizabethan verse: “St Swithin’s day if thou dost rain For forty days it will remain St Swithin’s day if thou be fair For forty days will rain na mair”
There is of course little proof to support the superstition and the Met. Office has recorded data across a number of years which disproves it. It was clearly disproved in 1924 when 13.5 hours of sunshine in London were followed by 30 of the next 40 days being wet, and 1913 when a 15-hour rainstorm was followed by 30 dry days of 40. It is though that this superstition may have evolved from pagan beliefs around the changing weather of the Midsummer period. Today we understand the patterns of wind currents that bringing weather fronts across the British Isles are known as jet streams. About 10 miles high and flowing from west to east, when the jet stream falls to the north of Britain, high pressure systems (usually associated with clear skies and calm weather) are able to move in. In contrast, when the jet stream lies over or beneath the British Isles, arctic air and low pressure weather systems are more common and bring cloudy, rainy and windy weather..
An interesting story that persists of his posthumous miracles is his appearance to Queen Emma mother or Edward the Confessor. This was on the night before her ‘ordeal’, a trial for her supposed adultery with Aelfwine, former Bishop of Winchester, which involved walking across hot blades at Winchester Cathedral St Swithun is supposed to have told Queen “I am Saint Swithun whom you have invoked; fear not, the fire shall do you no hurt.” The following day, the Queen was able to walk barefoot across the blades completely unharmed. Swithin has had an unusual impact on popular culture in Britain and North America. In Anglican/Episcopal circles, a generic name for "any church" is "St Swithin's", or sometimes "St Swithin's in the Swamp," frequently stated to be a parish in the also generic "Diocese of Woppitysplash." In Virginia Woolf's final novel, Between the Acts, a character called Mrs Swithin prays for sunshine whilst fingering a crucifix. In the more recent bestseller One Day by David Nicholls, the two main characters repeatedly meet on St Swithen's Day over a period of twenty years. Across the Atlantic. St Swithins day has been mentioned in the Simpsons episode and the Sopranos. A shrine to the Saint remains in the modern Winchester Cathedral to this day.