Today is Saint Swithin’s Day. According to English tradition, if it rains today, it will continue to rain for the next forty days. If it is dry, the weather will stay fine.
Details of the life of Saint Swithin are a bit sparse. He was tutor to Æthelwulf, who later became King of Wessex, and possibly to his son Alfred, who grew up to be Alfred the Great. Æthelwulf made Swithin bishop of Winchester in the year 853. He oversaw the building and repair of a lot of churches and possibly the building of the first stone bridge there. Aside from that, we don’t know a great deal. There are a couple of, once well-known, miracles attached to the saint. The first, the Winchester egg woman, is less interesting than it sounds. A woman was crossing the bridge with a basket of eggs. She was jostled, dropped the eggs and they broke. Swithin took pity on her and made them whole again.
The second is supposed to have taken place in the year 1050, quite some considerable time after Swithin died. It is the story of ‘Queen Emma’s Ordeal’. Queen Emma’s family life was terrifically complicated, but I’ll just tell you that she was married to both King Æthelred the Unready and, later, his sworn enemy Cnut, so there were plenty of people about who didn’t like her. Long after both her husbands were dead, she was accused of being overly intimate with the Bishop of Winchester. A man named Ælfwine. To prove her innocence, and his, she was made to walk in bare feet over nine red hot plough shares that were laid out on the floor of the cathedral. She prayed before the shrine of Saint Swithin and he appeared to tell her that she would not be hurt. When she was guided over the plough shares, she didn’t feel a thing. There are a couple of things wrong with this story. In 1050, Emma was sixty-five, a grand old age in the eleventh century. So if she was intimately involved with a bishop, fair play to her. But secondly, and perhaps more significantly, Bishop Ælfwine had died in 1047.
But back to Saint Swithin. He died around 862 and was a humble man. On his deathbed he requested that his body be buried not inside the church, as one would expect for a bishop, but outside the north wall. He wanted his grave to be where it would be walked over by ordinary people and where the rain from the eaves of the church might drip down onto it. He was buried according to his wishes but, a little over a hundred years later, his body was dug up and moved inside the church by Bishop Dunstan. His saint’s day is not the day of his death, but the day of his translation, the day his body was moved to its new resting place, July 15th 971. According to the story, when they started to move him, it began to rain and continued raining for the next forty days. This was taken as a sign of his displeasure and, ever afterwards, the weather on that day has been thought by many to determine the weather for the next forty days.
It isn’t true of course. It has been disproved over and over. Also there is no real historical evidence that it did rain on that day. It seems to have been a splendid celebration, enjoyed by all. What is more likely, is that the saint’s day has been linked to some pagan belief about changing weather patterns in early summer. There are many saints dotted throughout northern Europe with a similar legend attached to them. I mentioned another weather story in connection with the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus last month. There is a saint in France called Medard, who was once kept dry during a storm by an eagle that flapped around his head. In Germany, they have a pair of saints looking after their weather, Gervase and Protase. In Belgium, there is a saint called Godelieve, she was strangled then drowned on the orders of her incredibly unpleasant husband, yet she too has a feast day which is said to predict the weather. All these saints are commemorated in either June or July. I think if this proves anything, it is that the weather in Northern Europe is unsettled and unpredictable and it always has been. But we have always wished we had some way of knowing whether the summer was going to be nice or not.