St Swithin's Day 2018: Who was the British saint and why is he associated with the weather?

UK

St Swithin’s Day falls every 15 July and honours an Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Winchester.

The saint is thought to have been born in Wessex in 800, served as the cathedral city’s prelate and died in 862. Little else is known of his life, although it has been suggested he briefly served as tutor to the young Alfred the Great.

He is popularly associated with a miracle in which he came to the aid of an elderly woman who had dropped a basket of eggs, picking up the cracked shells and handing them back to her restored to their proper state.

According to British folklore, the weather on Swithin’s midsummer feast day will hold for a further 40 days. 

The superstition originates from the exhumation of his remains in 971, a century after his death. The saint had been buried in the Old Minster outside Winchester Cathedral at his request so that the deceased might hear the patter of “the sweet rain of heaven” and the footsteps of passing worshippers, but his bones were dug up by order of Bishop Ethelwold and rehoused in a lavish shrine commissioned in his memory by King Edgar.

Swithin, a naturally humble man in life, disapproved of the gesture and is said to have cursed the land from beyond the grave, the oath marked by the onset of a sudden storm.

He was thereafter thought to control the weather, the superstition recorded in a 12th century 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 ‘twill rain na mair”

At the time of writing – at the height of a stifling summer heatwave – that seems perfectly plausible. It is hard to believe it will ever rain in Britain again, however much gardeners and allotment devotees might pray to the saint to end the drought.

The day has been used in art and literature as the stage for the wistful remembrance of lost love, notably by Billy Bragg in his song “St Swithin’s Day” from Brewing Up with Billy Bragg (1984) and by David Nicholls in his hit novel One Day (2009), the latter inspired by the song.

Like our belief that the weather will hold, we dare to dream love will last forever and that life on earth amounts to more than a transient waking dream.

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