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St. Swithun

Born: c. 800 AD
Died: 2-Jul-862 AD
Location of death: Winchester, Hampshire, England
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Religion

Nationality: England
Executive summary: Bishop of Winchester

St. Swithun (or Swithin), Bishop of Winchester and patron saint of Winchester Cathedral from the 10th to the 16th century. He is scarcely mentioned in any document of his own time. His death is entered in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 861; and his signature is appended to several charters in Kemble's Codex diplomaticus. Of these charters three belong to 833, 838, 860-62. In the first the saint signs as "Swithunus presbyter regis Egberti", in the second as "Swithunus diaconus", and in the third as "Swithunus episcopus." Hence if the second charter be genuine the first must be spurious, and is so marked in Kemble. More than a hundred years later, when Dunstan and Ethelwold of Winchester were inaugurating their church reform, St. 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 Ethelwold's new basilica on the 15th of July 971, and according to contemporary writers, numerous miracles preceded and followed the translation.

The revival of St. Swithun's fame gave rise to a mass of legendary literature. The so-called Vitae Swithuni of Lantfred and Wulstan, written about AD 1000, hardly contain any germ of biographical fact; and all that has in later years passed for authentic detail of St. Swithun's life is extracted from a biography ascribed to Gotzelin, a monk who came over to England with Hermann, bishop of Salisbury from 1058 to 1078. From this writer, who has perhaps preserved some fragments of genuine tradition, we learn that St. Swithun was born in the reign of Egbert, and was ordained priest by Helmstan, bishop of Winchester (838 to circa 852). His fame reached the king's ears, who appointed him tutor of his son Adulphus (Aethelwulf) and numbered him amongst his chief friends. Under Aethelwulf he was appointed bishop of Winchester, to which see he was consecrated by Archbishop Ceolnoth. In his new office he was remarkable for his piety and his zeal in building new churches or restoring old ones. At his request Aethelwulf gave the tenth of his royal lands to the Church. His humility was such that he made his diocesan journeys on foot; and when he gave a banquet he invited the poor and not the rich. He built near the eastern gate of his cathedral city a bridge whose stone arches were so strongly constructed that in Gotzelin's time they seemed a work "non leviter ruiturus." He died on the 2nd of July 862, and gave orders that he was not to be buried within the church, but outside in "a vile and unworthy place."

William of Malmesbury adds that, as Bishop Alhstan of Sherborne was Aethelwulf's minister for temporal, so St. Swithun was for spiritual matters. The same chronicler uses a remarkable phrase in recording the bishop's prayer that his burial might be "ubi et pedibus praetereuntium et stillicidiis ex alto rorantibus esset obnoxius." This expression has been taken as indicating that the well-known weather myth contained in the doggrel lines--

St. Swithin's day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain;
St. Swithin's day if thou be fair
For forty days 'twill rain na mair--

had already, in the 12th century, crystallized around the name of St. Swithun; but it is doubtful if the passage lends itself by any straining to this interpretation. 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 (Hist. Dunelm. pp. XIII, 96-97). Another theory, more plausible, hut historically worthless, traces it to a heavy shower by which, on the day of his translation, the saint marked his displeasure towards those who were removing his remains. This story, however, cannot be traced further back than some two or three centuries at the outside, and is at variance with the 10th century writers, who are all agreed that the transtation took place in accordance with the saint's desire as expressed by vision. More probable is John Earle's suggestion that in the legend as now current we have the survival of some pagan or possibly prehistoric day of augury, which has successfully sheltered itself under the protection of an ecclesiastical saint. This view is supported by the fact adduced in Notes and Queries (1st series, XII, 137) that in France St. Médard (June 8) and St. Gervase and St. Protais (June 19) are credited with an influence on the weather almost identical with that attributed to St. Swithun in England. Similarly we have in Flanders St. Godelieve (July 6) and in Germany the Seven Sleepers' Day (June 27). Of other stories connected with St. Swithun the two most famous are those of the Winchester egg-woman and Queen Emma's ordeal. The former is to be found in Gotzelin's life (c. 1100), the latter in T. 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.

    Roman Catholic Bishop Winchester, 852-62 AD
    Exhumed failed attempt (15-Jul-970)

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