As you know I write these columns a couple of weeks in advance, and the past few days have been particularly wet, with thunder storms and torrential rain sweeping the country.
Although I’m not a massive fan of a rainy day, I do love to watch a good storm and downpour from the comfort and safety of my own window. On 15th July it was St Swithin’s Day (sometimes spelled ‘Swithun’) and there is a famous old rhyme that enlightens us on what’s in store weatherwise for the coming weeks.
St Swithin’s Day, if thou be fair,
For 40 days, ‘twill rain near mair;
St Swithin’s Day, if thou bring rain,
For 40 days it will remain.
The reason for the rhyme lies in the tale of the death of this notable saint. St Swithin was a highly respected man of intelligence and piety, and is recorded as being an advisor to the ninth century kings Egbert and Ethelwulf at a time when Wessex was one of the most powerful kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon Britain. He was renowned for his goodness, and his drive to restore old churches and build new ones, as well as his devotion to the needy. In AD852 he was made Bishop of Winchester, a post he held until his death in AD863.
According to the legend, on his death bed, he begged to be buried outdoors in a simple grave in the shadow of Winchester Cathedral where the rain would be allowed to fall upon him and ordinary folk could visit his final resting place.
His wish was granted, and yet, in later years, subsequent bishops felt this was not an appropriate burial place for such a revered man. On July 15th AD872, work began on digging up his coffin so that it could be placed in what they considered a far more appropriate setting within the hallowed walls of the cathedral.
However, a huge and unrelenting downpour hampered efforts, and the rain continued for 40 days and 40 nights until the project was abandoned altogether. And so his grave remained where it was for another hundred years. But then, a second attempt was made to move it in AD971 after he had been made patron saint of Winchester Cathedral. Just like before, a torrential downpour began, lasting for another 40 days and nights. But they did finally manage to complete the task and St Swithin’s remains were interred within the sacred walls of the great church.
As was common in that time, the body parts of saints were considered to possess miraculous properties, and were often removed and distributed to religious centres across the country in the belief that these qualities would be bestowed upon the communities within which they were held. St Swithin’s head was apparently sent to Canterbury Cathedral, while an arm ended up in Peterborough. Unfortunately I can’t tell you what happened to the rest of his limbs, nor whether they yet remain in Winchester (but someone reading this might be able to enlighten us!).
Although this story dates back over a thousand years, the first written accounts didn’t appear until much later, including one in the famous ‘Poor Robin’s Almanac’, a collection of satirical writings by various authors dating from the 17th century. Therefore, as with all such things, no-one can be certain of the truth of the tale. It is interesting to note that similar stories of wet and dry spells occur throughout northern Europe, including an almost identical one from France connected to St Medard, whose feast day is celebrated on 8th June, and another to the Flemish saint Godelieve, whose feast day is 6th July. Saints who influence the forecast are known as the ‘weather saints’ and, not surprisingly, there are a fair few of them. No doubt a quick search on the Internet will throw up a saint responsible for almost any weather event you can think of.
There is another element to the connection of St Swithin with rain. Apple-growers used to believe that if rain fell on the fruit on the saint’s feast day of 15th July, then the crop wold be a good one.
So if you have an apple tree and it rained upon it on 15th July, do let me know how your crop performs for the rest of the season!
This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 23rd July and the Gazette & Herald on 21st July 2021