Swithun (or Swithin, Old English: Swīþhūn, Latin: Swithunus; died 863 AD) was an Anglo-Saxon bishop of Winchester and subsequently patron saint of Winchester Cathedral. His historical importance as bishop is overshadowed by his reputation for posthumous miracle-working. According to tradition, if it rains on Saint Swithun's bridge (Winchester) on his feast day (15 July) it will continue for forty days. The name was originally spelt Swithhun (Old English: "strong bear-cub").[1]

Statue of Saint Swithun
in Stavanger Cathedral, Norway
Bornc. 800
possibly Hampshire
Died(863-07-02)2 July 863
Winchester, Hampshire
Venerated inRoman Catholic Church
Anglican Communion
Eastern Orthodox Church
Major shrineWinchester Cathedral. Parts survive in cathedral museum. Also modern replacement shrine.
Feast2 July (Norway)
15 July (England)
AttributesBishop, holding a bridge, broken eggs at his feet
PatronageHampshire; Winchester; Southwark; the weather

Recorded life

St Swithun was Bishop of Winchester from his consecration on 30 October 852 until his death on 2 July 863.[2] However, he is scarcely mentioned in any document of his own time. His death is entered in the Canterbury manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (MS F) under the year 861.[3] He is recorded as a witness to nine charters, the earliest of which (S 308) is dated 854.[4]

More than a hundred years later, when Dunstan and Æthelwold of Winchester were inaugurating their church reform, Swithun was adopted as patron of the restored church at Winchester, formerly dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul. His body was transferred from its almost forgotten grave to Æthelwold's new basilica on 15 July 971; according to contemporary writers, numerous miracles preceded and followed the move.

Traditional life

The revival of Swithun's fame gave rise to a mass of legendary literature. The so-called Vita S. Swithuni of Lantfred and Wulfstan, written about 1000, hardly contains any biographical fact; all that has in later years passed for authentic detail of Swithun's life is extracted from 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. According to this writer Saint Swithun was born in the reign of Egbert of Wessex, and was ordained priest by Helmstan, bishop of Winchester (838-c. 852). His fame reached the king's ears, and he appointed him tutor of his son, Æthelwulf (alias Adulphus), and considered him one of his chief friends.[5] However, Michael Lapidge describes the work as "pure fiction" and shows that the attribution to Goscelin is false.[6]

Under Æthelwulf, Swithun was appointed bishop of Winchester, to which see he was consecrated by Archbishop Ceolnoth. In his new office he was 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.[5]

Swithun's best known miracle was his restoration on a bridge of a basket of eggs that workmen had maliciously broken. Of stories connected with Swithun the two most famous are those of the Winchester egg-woman and Queen Emma's ordeal. The former is to be found in the hagiography attributed to Goscelin, the latter in Thomas Rudborne's Historia major (15th century), a work which is also responsible for the not improbable legend that Swithun accompanied Alfred on his visit to Rome in 856. He died on 2 July 862. On his deathbed Swithun begged that he should be buried outside the north wall of his cathedral where passers-by should pass over his grave and raindrops from the eaves drop upon it.[5]


Swithun's feast day in England is on 15 July and in Norway (and formerly in medieval Wales) on 2 July. He was moved from his grave to an indoor shrine in the Old Minster at Winchester in 971. His body was probably later split between a number of smaller shrines. His head was certainly detached and, in the Middle Ages, taken to Canterbury Cathedral. Peterborough Abbey had an arm.[7] His main shrine was transferred into the new Norman cathedral at Winchester in 1093. He was installed on a 'feretory platform' above and behind the high altar. The retrochoir was built in the early 13th century to accommodate the huge numbers of pilgrims wishing to visit his shrine and enter the 'holy hole' beneath him. His empty tomb in the ruins of the Old Minster was also popular with visitors. The shrine was only moved into the retrochoir itself in 1476. It was demolished in 1538 during the English Reformation. A modern representation of it now stands on the site.

The shrine of Swithun at Winchester was supposedly a site of numerous miracles in the Middle Ages. Æthelwold of Winchester ordered that all monks were to stop whatever they were doing and head to the church to praise God every time that a miracle happened. A story exists that the monks at some point got so fed up with this, because they sometimes had to wake up and go to the church three or four times each night, that they decided to stop going. St Swithun then appeared in a dream to someone (possibly two people) and warned them that if they stopped going to the church, then miracles would cease. This person (or persons) then warned the monks about the dream they had, and the monks then caved in and decided to go to the church each time a miracle happened again. [8]


Swithun is regarded as one of the saints to whom one should pray in the event of drought.[9]


Many churches dedicated to St Swithun can be found throughout the south of England, especially in Hampshire – see list St Swithun's Church (disambiguation). An example is St Swithun's, Headbourne Worthy, to the north of Winchester. This church is surrounded on three sides by a brook that flows from a spring in the village; the lych gate on the south side is also a bridge over the brook, which is unusual. Other churches dedicated to St Swithun can be found at Walcot,[10] Lincoln, Worcester[11] and western Norway, where Stavanger Cathedral is dedicated to him. He is also commemorated at St Swithin's Lane in the City of London (site of the former church of St Swithin, London Stone), St Swithun's School for girls in Winchester and St Swithun's quadrangle in Magdalen College, Oxford. In Stavanger, Norway, several schools and institutions are named “St Svithun” after him. It can be assumed that the fictitious St Swithin's Hospital in the British comedy series Doctor in the House, is also named after this Saint.


The name of Swithun is best known today for a British weather lore proverb, which says that if it rains on St. Swithun's day, 15 July, it will rain for 40 days.

St Swithun's day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun's day if thou be fair
For forty days 'twill rain nae mare

A Buckinghamshire variation has

If on St Swithun's day it really pours
You're better off to stay indoors.

Swithun was initially buried out of doors, rather than in his cathedral, apparently at his own request. William of Malmesbury recorded that the bishop left instructions that his body should be buried outside the church, ubi et pedibus praetereuntium et stillicidiis ex alto rorantibus esset obnoxius [where it might be subject to the feet of passers-by and to the raindrops pouring from on high], which has been taken as indicating that the legend was already well known in the 12th century.

In 971 it was decided to move his body to a new indoor shrine, and one theory traces the origin of the legend to a heavy shower by which, on the day of the move, the saint marked his displeasure towards those who were removing his remains. This story, however, cannot be traced further back than the 17th or 18th century. Also, it is at variance with the 10th century writers, who all agreed that the move took place in accordance with the saint's desire expressed in a vision. James Raine suggested that the legend was derived from the tremendous downpour of rain that occurred, according to the Durham chroniclers, on St. Swithun's Day, 1315.

John Earle suggests that the legend comes from a pagan or possibly prehistoric day of augury. In France, St. Medard (8 June), Urban of Langres, and St. Gervase and St. Protais (19 June) are credited with an influence on the weather almost identical with that attributed to St Swithun in England. In Flanders, there is St Godelieve (6 July) and in Germany the Seven Sleepers' Day (27 June). There is a scientific basis to the weather pattern behind the legend of St Swithun's day. Around the middle of July, the jet stream settles into a pattern which, in the majority of years, holds reasonably steady until the end of August. When the jet stream lies north of the British Isles then continental high pressure is able to move in; when it lies across or south of the British Isles, Arctic air and Atlantic weather systems predominate.[12][13] A similarly themed proverb exists in Swedish, in which a mild and rainy 30 November (St Andrew's day) means a cold Christmas period, and vice versa.[14]

The most false that the prediction has been, according to the Guinness Book of Records, were 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.[15]

See also


  1. Crook, John (2011), English Medieval Shrines, p. 83, footnote.
  2. Keynes, "Archbishops and Bishops", p. 549
  3. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (MS F).
  4. Lapidge, Cult of St Swithun, p. 4
  5. Webster, Douglas Raymund. "St. Swithin." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 20 May 2013
  6. Lapidge, Cult of St Swithun, p. 69
  7. Butler, Alban. The Lives of the Saints, Vol. VII, 1866
  8. Studies in the Early History of Shaftesbury Abbey, Dorset County Council, 1999
  9. McLeod, Jaime. "Today is St. Swithin's Day", Farmers' Almanac, 15 July 2011
  10. St. Swithin's, Walcot, Bath
  11. St. Swithun's, Worcester Archived 7 July 2013 at Archive.today
  12. The Times, Follow St Swithin: book a British break
  13. "St. Swithun's Day". Weather Online. Retrieved 23 May 2012.
  14. Anders slaskar, julen braskar from SMHI (Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute), accessed on 16 July 2015.
  15. Norris and Ross McWhirter. Guinness Book of records (1973 ed.). p. 76.


  • Andrew Godsell "Saint Swithin and the Rain" in "Legends of British History" (2008).
  • Keynes, Simon (2014). "Appendix II: Archbishops and Bishops 597-1066". In Lapidge, Michael; Blair, John; Keynes, Simon; Scragg, Donald (eds.). The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England (Second ed.). Chichester, UK: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 978-0-470-65632-7.
  • Lapidge, Michael (2003). The Cult of St Swithun. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-813183-6.

Further reading

  • Aelfric, and Geoffrey Ivor Needham. Lives of Three English Saints. N.Y.: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1966. Series: Methuen's old English library. 119 pages. OCLC: 422028061.
  • Blakely, Ruth Margaret. St. Swithun of Winchester: An Investigation into the Literature Relating to His Life, Legends and Cult. Thesis (FLA) -- Library Association 1981, n.d. OCLC: 557018780.
  • Bussby, Frederick. Saint Swithun: Patron Saint of Winchester. Winchester: Friends of Winchester Cathedral, 1971. OCLC: 7477761.
  • Davidson, George, and John Faed. Legend of St. Swithin: A Rhyme for Rainy Weather. London: Hamilton, Adams, 1861. OCLC: 16140471.
  • Deshman, Robert, "Saint Swithun in Early Medieval Art," in Idem, Eye and Mind: Collected Essays in Anglo-Saxon and Early Medieval Art Edited by Adam Cohen (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2010) (Publications of the Richard Rawlinson Center).
  • Fridegodus, A. Campbell, Eddius Stephanus, Wulfstan, and Lamfridus. Frithegodi monachi Breviloquium vitae Beati Wilfredi, et Wulfstani cantoris Narratio metrica de Sancto Swithuno. Turici: In Aedibus Thesauri Mundi, 1950. 183 pages. Notes: Fridegodus' work is a versification of the Vita Sancti Wilfredi I, usually attributed to Eddi. Wulfstan's work is a versification of Lamfridus' Miracula Sancti Swithuni. OCLC: 62612752.
  • Swithun, and John Earle. Facsimile of Some Leaves in Saxon Handwriting on St. Swithun, Copied by Photozincography, with Literal Translation and Notes. 1861. 20 pages. OCLC: 863315099.
  • Wolstanus Wintonensis, Michael Huber, and Lamfridus. S. Swithinus, miracula metrica, I. Text; beitrag zur altenglischen geschichte und literatur. Landshut: J. Thomann'sche buch-u. kunstdruckerei, 1905. 105 pages. Notes: Programm—Humanistisches Gymnasium Metten. A versification of Lantfred's work. OCLC: 669193.
  • Yorke, Barbara (1984). "The Bishops of Winchester, the Kings of Wessex and the Development of Winchester in the Ninth and Early Tenth Centuries". Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society. 40: 61–70.
  • Yorke, Barbara. "Swithun [St Swithun] (d. 863)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Christian titles
Preceded by
Bishop of Winchester
Succeeded by

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