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In Norman times a chapel was built around St Swithun’s relics

Posted in Architecture, Customs, Historical articles, Religion, Saints on Tuesday, 31 July 2012

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This edited article about St Swithin originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 757 published on 17th July 1976.

Winchester Cathedral, picture, image, illustration

Winchester Cathedral by Cecil Aldin

July 15th is St. Swithin’s day and according to the old rhyme:

Saint Swithin’s day, if thou dost rain,
For forty days it will remain;
Saint Swithin’s day, if thou be fair,
For forty days ’twill rain no mair.

But who was St. Swithin and why should he have such a dramatic influence on the weather?

St. Swithin was a great church administrator and builder of churches, born towards the close of the eighth century. He entered Winchester monastery as a monk and eventually became Abbot and Bishop of Winchester.

It was St. Swithin who, while Bishop of Winchester, persuaded the king to pass a law transferring to the church a tithe, or tenth, of the produce of the royal estates. Gradually the payment of tithes became compulsory on all estates throughout the kingdom.

In 862, ten years after becoming bishop, St. Swithin died and was buried, at his own wish, in a humble grave outside the cathedral walls.

But this is not the end of the story. It was long after his death that the name of the saintly bishop became associated with the weather.

When William the Conqueror set about rebuilding Winchester cathedral, he decided that St. Swithin should be reburied in a magnificent tomb inside the cathedral.

On July 15th 1077 the work of reburial began. Hardly had a spade been stuck into the soil of the old grave when the skies opened and a blinding rainstorm made the workmen run for shelter.

It continued to rain for forty days and the reburial had to be abandoned. The rain was taken as a sign that St. Swithin did not want the fine tomb built for him. So the saint was left in peace in his humble grave, and a chapel was erected over it.

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