St Swithun’s arm

Winchester and Stavanger are forever linked by St Swithun’s arm, which in 1125 was taken from the holy man’s grave in Winchester and brought across The North Sea to the then new bishopric of Stavanger, to become its first and most prominent relic.

The first bishop of Stavanger was Reinald, and he came from Winchester where he was a Benedictin monk. Did he set out more or less on a mission and work his way up, or was he headhunted? I think the court and the bishop in Winchester was asked by the Norwegian king to send someone suitable to head the new bishopric. For a Norwegian king Winchester would be the natural place to recruit a bishop, even though the archbishopric for Scandinavia at that time was Lund – in Sweden.

Reinald brought St Swithun’s arm with him. He would not have done that if he was on a mission. And it must have been the whole arm, not just a bone from the arm, as some historians believe. (In Norwegian and Danish, the word bone singular and plural is spelt the same.) The prospect of having another cathedral dedicated to St Swithun must have been a tempting one for the people in charge at Winchester. It was the home of the Swithun cult, which at that time was at its very peak of popularity. Thomas Becket is the only English saint who has had more churches dedicated to him than St Swithun. Even though there are many St Swithun churches, there are only two cathedrals being thus dedicated.

An arm is an instrument, and it is a branch too. In heraldry it is the symbol of an industrious person. Someone must have wanted the two cities to have a close working relationship.

The holy man’s arm was accounted for in a church inventory as late as in 1517 but it disappeared during the Reformation.