St Swithun

Bishop of Winchester

From Winchester Cathedral
From Winchester Cathedral
Swithun was born about AD 800. He was educated at the Old Minster in Winchester. Egbert, king of Wessex 802-39, chose Swithun as his chaplain and entrusted him with the education of Ethelwulf, who became king in 839. In 852 Ethelwulf made Swithun bishop of Winchester. During Swithun’s ten years’ episcopate Wessex became the most important kingdom of England. At the same time came the first Vikings attacks in the south of England. At times they even sailed upriver from Southampthon and disturbed the peace at Winchester.

Swithun was famous for his charitable gifts and for building churches and bridges. The church of St Swithun Winchester is itself built upon a bridge. On the Great Screen in Winchester Cathedral you can see a nineteenth century statue of the saint, which shows him holding a bridge in his hands. An ancient poem preserved by Thomas Warton says:

Seynt Swithun his bushupricke to all goodness drought
The town also of Wychestre he amended inough
Ffor he lette the stronge bruge (i.e. bridge) withoute the tonne arere
And found thereto lym and ston and workmen that were there.

Surviving documents show that Swithun was involved in decisions and reforms of great significance, not only to the Church but to English land-law as well. The legislation which set aside tithes (a tenth of all produce or income) for the upkeep of the Church and its ministrations dates back to Swithun’s time. The very act (854) has Swithun’s signature on it, along with that of king Ethelwulf and his son Alfred.

St Swithun's tombstone was a gift from Stavanger at the anniversary in 1971
St Swithun’s tombstone was a gift from Stavanger at the anniversary in 1971
Swithun died 2 July 863. He was buried in the cemetery, just outside the west door of the Old Minster. After Ethelwold became bishop of Winchester (964) and introduced monks to form the first monastic cathedral chapter in England, Swithun’s relics were translated into the cathedral. This took place 15 July 971. The occasion was marked by many cures claimed as miraculous, and heavy rainfall, believed to be yet another manifestation of St Swithun’s power. Even today it is often said that if it rains on St Swithun’s day it will rain for the following forty days.

St Swithin’s day, gif ye do rain,
For forty days it will remain;
St Swithin’s day an ye be fair
For forty days t’will rain nae mair

The translation was carried out as part of extensive building operations which included enlarging the Old Minster westwards, making Swithun’s original tomb the centre of a “shrine-church” with transepts on either side. After the Normans built a new cathedral at Winchester, Swithun’s body was translated into it in 1093. His shrine remained a popular goal for pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages.

A ceremonial 14th century cope showing St Swithun surrounded by raindrops.
A ceremonial 14th century cope showing St Swithun surrounded by raindrops.
About 1125, the monk Reinald was called from Winchester to build a cathedral in Stavanger, Norway, and become its first bishop. He brought with him St Swithun’s arm. This was the new cathedral’s first and most prominent relic. In 1517 Bishop Hoskuld made an inventory of the Stavanger Church, in which St Swithun’s arm is mentioned first.

The cult of St Swithun was at its most popular when Reinald brought the arm relic to Stavanger. There is every reason to think that the cult was already known in Norway, perhaps firmly established. But the building of a cathedral in his name, and the presence of a shrine containing the saint’s arm must have given the cult a tremendous boost in popularity.

Swithun’s name has survived on Norwegian wooden calendar-staffs and in several place-names, not least in and around Stavanger. The calendar-staffs mark 2 July (the date he died) as Syftesok (i.e. Swithun’s wake). We know little about how that day and the St Swithun’s day proper (15 July) was celebrated in Norway before the Reformation.