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St George's News

Waterlooville's Parish Magazine

St Swithun

St. Swithin's day if it dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithin's day if it be fair
For forty days 'twill rain nae mair.

Very little is known of the life of St. Swithin (or more correctly St. Swithun). His biography was first written long after his death and there is hardly any mention of him in documents written during his lifetime. Swithun was one of the two trusted counsellors of Egbert, King of the West Saxons, serving as the king's chaplain and helping him in matters ecclesiastical. He was entrusted with the education of the King's son, Ethelwulf, and it was probably the king's influence that resulted in him being elected to the Bishopric of Winchester in succession to Helmstan. His consecration by Ceolnoth, Archbishop of Canterbury, seems to have taken place on 30th October, 852. He died on 2 July, 862. On his deathbed Swithun begged that he should be buried outside the church. His wishes were granted and he was buried in a 'vile and unworthy place, where his grave was trampled on by every passenger, and received the droppings from the eaves'. His grave became, increasingly, the scene of miracles. Afterwards a small and beautiful chapel was erected there to his honour. (This original grave, along with the minster itself, was excavated in the 1960s. St. Swithun, however, was long gone.)

The story goes that, some nine years after his death, the monks tried to move Swithun inside the Old Minster, but Swithun did not approve of his removal from exposure to the elements. There was a loud clap of thunder followed by a great storm. This, it seems, is the origin of the old wives' tale that if it rains on St Swithun's Day it will rain for the next 40 days, and, if fine, it will be followed by 40 days of fine weather. However, according to the Meteorological Office, this is nothing more than a myth. It has been put to the test on 55 occasions when it has been wet on St Swithun's Day, and 40 days of rain did not follow any of them. In fact, there are several saints' days that are supposed to be followed by periods of wet or fine weather depending on the state of play on the day. And it doesn't happen on any of these, either.

About a hundred years later, however, Swithun appears to have changed his mind, for Bishop Aethelwold reported that he had had visions which led him to transfer Swithun's body into the Old Minster. On 15th July 971, screens were placed round the grave and St. Swithun was ceremoniously exhumed without any noticeable resistance on his part, the bishop himself wielding the spade. By a strange coincidence, it was at this time that Bishop Aethelwold instigated an ambitious plan to turn the Old Minster into a shrine-church centred around St. Swithun's relics. The building was extended, so as to enclose the saint‘s original grave beneath a huge crossing tower. In 974, King Edgar donated a magnificent gold and silver feretory (a portable bier or shrine, variously adorned, used for containing relics of saints) in which St. Swithun's body could be placed. It was studded with precious jewels and depicted scenes of Christ's Passion, Resurrection and Ascension. On 30th October, therefore, Swithun was translated once more. His head was placed in a separate shrine kept in the sacristy upon the altar 'in a space with a locked door, which could be described as a "chamber" or vestibule, and was guarded by a watcher or sacrist'. The main shrine is believed to have been placed on an altar over the original grave. Three years later, Aethelwold had this area of the Minster completely rebuilt with a massive alteration to the cathedral to accommodate the many pilgrims visiting not only St. Swithun's shrine, but those of St. Birinus and St. Birstan too. But Swithun was not left in peace. His head was taken to Canterbury Cathedral by Alphege when he was elevated from Bishop of Winchester to Archbishop of Canterbury in 1006. Later, an arm was taken to Peterborough Abbey, which is now a Cathedral.

Then the Normans arrived and started the building of the present Winchester Cathedral to the south of the Old Minster. St. Swithun was on the move once more. On his feast day in 1093, his feretory was carried into the still incomplete new building, and the very next day Bishop Walkelin ordered the demolition of the Old Minster. The feretory was probably placed behind the High Altar. In the mid-12th century he was on the move again, this time on to a large platform built for the purpose by Bishop Henry of Blois in the eastern apse of the Norman Cathedral. Although this area has been much remodelled, it is still known as the Feretory or Feretory Platform. Beneath it is the 'Holy Hole', a small passage which enabled pilgrims to crawl from outside the cathedral to a spot directly underneath St. Swithun's shrine. Bishop Henry also surrounded Swithun with the bones of various Saxon Kings and Bishops in lead coffers, which he had removed from their 'lowly place' of burial.

In 1192 Bishop Reinald was asked to supervise the building of the Domkirke, or Cathedral, in Stavanger, Norway, so that the Norwegian king would have somewhere suitable in which to be married. Not surprisingly, the Cathedral was built in the Anglo-Norman style. It is also dedicated to St. Swithun. A local tradition has it that Bishop Reinald took some relics, including an arm of Swithun, to Stavanger. Unfortunately, no such relics exist today - if they were there they disappeared during the reformation of the Norwegian church.

No one, it seems, could let poor Swithun rest in peace. During the next 400 years the interior of Winchester cathedral was remodelled again and again, which meant even more moves for Swithun (or such parts of him which still remained). He finished up sandwiched between the chantry chapels of Bishops Waynflete and Bishop Beaufort. But worse was to come. In 1538, during the reign of King Henry VIII, the shrine was destroyed. Before its destruction, the Shrine of St. Swithun in Winchester Cathedral was perhaps the second most popular place of pilgrimage in Medieval England. However, despite its popularity in times gone by, no illustrations or detailed descriptions of the shrine have survived. The form, style and even site of this holy relic remain controversial. Today, a modern shrine stands in the usual spot reserved for a saint's relics behind the High Altar, on the same site as the shrine demolished in 1538.

St. Swithun's feast day is not 2nd. July, the anniversary of the day he died, but 15th. July, the anniversary of his translation into the Minster by Bishop Aethelwold.

Bill Hutchings

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