vol II date / index
St. Henry II., Emperor, A.D. 1024. St. Plechelm, A.D. 714. St. Swithin, Bp. A.D. 862.
Swithin is still retained on this day in our almanacs, and at some public offices is a holiday.
He was of noble parentage, and also called Swithun, or in the Saxon language Swithum. He received the tonsure in the church at Winchester, and became a monk in the old monastery there, of which, after being ordained priest, he was made provost or dean. He studied grammar, philosophy, and theology. For his learning and virtue, Egbert, king of England, appointed him his priest, in which character he subscribed a charter to the abbey of Croyland, in 833. Egbert also committed to him the education of his son Ethelwolf, who on succeeding to the throne procured Swithin to be chosen bishop of Winchester in 852.
Tithes were established in England through St. Swithin, who prevailed on Ethelwolf to enact a law, by which he gave the tenth of the land to the church, on condition that the king should have a prayer said for his soul every Wednesday in all the churches for ever. Ethelwolf solemnized the grant by laying the charter on the altar of St. Peter at Rome, in a pilgrimage he made to that city, and by procuring the pope to confirm it.
St. Swithin died on the 2d of July, 862, in the reign of king Ethelbert, and he was buried, according to his own order, in the churchyard. Alban Butler, from whom these particulars are related, affirms the translation of his relics into the church a hundred years afterwards, and refers to the monkish historians for the relation of "such a number of miraculous cures of all kinds wrought by them, as was never known in any other place." His relics were afterwards removed into the cathedral of Winchester, on its being built under William the Conqueror. It was dedicated to the Holy Trinity, under the patronage of St. Peter, afterwards to St. Swithin, in 980, and was called St. Swithin's until Henry VIII. ordered it to be called by the name of the Holy Trinity.
Among the notable miracles alleged to have been worked by St. Swithin is this, that after he had built the bridge at Winchester, a woman came over it with her lap full of eggs, which a rude fellow broke, but the woman showed the eggs to the saint, who was passing at the time, and he lifted up his hand and blessed the eggs, "and they were made hole and sounde." To this may be added another story; that when his body was translated, or removed, two rings of iron, fastened on his grave-stone, came out as soon as they were touched, and left no mark of their place in the stone; but when the stone was taken up, and touched by the rings, they of themselves fastened to it again.* 
St. Swithin's Day.
"If it rains on St. Swithin's day, there will be rain the next forty days afterwards." The occasion of this old and well-known saying is obscure. In Mr. Douce's interleaved copy of Brand's "Popular Antiquities," there is a printed statement "seemingly cut out of a newspaper" cited, in the last edition of Mr. Brand's work, thus:—"In the year 865, St. Swithin, bishop of Winchester, to which rank he was raised by king Ethelwolfe, the dane, dying, was canonized by the then pope. He was singular for his desire to be buried in the open churchyard, and not in the chancel of the minster, as was usual with other bishops, which request was complied with; but the monks, on his being canonized, taking it into their heads that it was disgraceful for the saint to lie in the open churchyard, resolved to remove his body into the choir, which was to have been done with solemn procession on the 15th of July. It rained, however, so violently on that day, and for forty days succeeding, as had hardly every been known, which made them set aside their design as heretical and blasphemous: and, instead, they erected a chapel over his grave, at which many miracles are said to have been wrought."
Also in "Poor Robin's Almanac" for 1697, the saying, together with one of the miracles before related, is noticed in these lines:—
"In this month is St. Swithin's day;
On which, if that it rain, they say
Full forty days after it will,
Or more or less, some rain distill.
This Swithin was a saint, I trow,
And Winchester's bishop also.
Who in his time did many a feat,
As popish legends do repeat:
A woman having broke her eggs
By stumbling at another's legs,
For which she made a woful cry,
St. Swithin chanc'd for to come by,
Who made them all as sound, or more
Than ever that they were before.
But whether this were so or no
'Tis more than you or I do know:
Better it is to rise betime,
And to make hay while sun doth shine,
Than to believe in tales and lies
Which idle monks and friars devise."
The satirical Churchill also mentions the superstitious notions concerning rain on this day:—
"July, to whom, the dog-star in her train,
St. James gives oisters, and St. Swithin rain."
The same legend is recorded by Mr. Brand, from a memorandum by Mr. Douce: "I have heard these lines upon St. Swithin's day:—
"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 't will rain na mair.["]
Ben Jonson, in "Every man out of his humour," has a touch at almanac-wisdom, and on St. Swithin's power over the weather:—
"Enter Sordido, Macilente, Hine.
"Sord.—(looking at an almanac)—O rare! good, good, good, good! I thank my stars, I thank my stars for it.
"Maci.—(aside)—Said I not true! 'tis Sordido, the farmer,
A boar, and brother, to that swine was here.
"Sord. — Excellent, Excellent, Excellent! as I could wish, as I could wish!—Ha, ha, ha! I will not sow my grounds this year. Let me see what harvest shall we have? June, July, August?
"Maci.—(aside)—What is't, a prognostication raps him so?
"Sord.—(reading)—The xx, xxi, xxii days, Rain and Wind; O good, good! the xxiii and xxiv Rain and some Wind: the xxv, Rain, good still! xxvi, xxvii, xxviii, wind and some rain; would it had been rain and some wind; well, 'tis good (when it can be no better;) xxix inclining to rain; inclining to rain? that's not so good now: xxx and xxxi wind and no rain: no rain? 'Slid stay; this is worse and worse: what says he of Saint Swithin's? turn back, look, Saint Swithin's: no rain?—O, here, Saint Swithin's, the xv day; variable weather, for the most part rain, good; for the most part rain: why, it should rain forty days after, now, more or less, it was a rule held, afore! was able to hold a plough, and yet here are two days no rain; ha! it makes me muse."
Gay, whilst he admonishes against falling into the vulgar superstition, reminds his readers of necessary precautions in a wet season, which make us smile, who forbear from hats to loop and unloop, and do not wear wigs:—
Now, if on Swithin's feast the welkin lours,
And every penthouse streams with hasty showers,
Twice twenty days shall clouds their fleeces drain
And wash the pavements with incessant rain.
Let not such vulgar tales debase thy mind;
Nor Paul nor Swithin rule the clouds and wind[.]
If you the precepts of the Muse despise,
And slight the faithful warning of the skies,
Others you'll see, when all the town's afloat,
Wrapt in the embraces of a kersey coat,
Or double bottomed frieze: their guarded feet
Defy the muddy dangers of the street;
While you, with hat unlooped, the fury dread
Of spouts high streaming, and with cautious tread
Shun every dashing pool, or idly stop,
To seek the kind protection of a shop.
But business summons; now with hasty scud
You jostle for the wall; the spattered mud
Hides all thy hose behind; in vain you scour
Thy wig, alas! uncurled, admits the shower.
So fierce Electo's snaky tresses fell,
When Orpheus charmed the rigorous powers of hell;
Or thus hung Glaucus' beard, with briny dew
Clotted and straight, when first his amorous view
Surprised the bathing fair; the frighted maid
Now stands a rock, transformed by Circe's aid.
Dr. Forster, in his "Perennial Calendar," cites from Mr. Howard's work on the climate of London the following—
"Examination of the popular Adage of 'Forty Days' Rain after St. Swithin' how far it may be founded in fact."
The opinion of the people on subjects connected with natural history is commonly founded in some degree on fact or experience; though in this case vague and inconsistent conclusions are too frequently drawn from real premises. The notion commonly entertained on this subject, if put strictly to the test of experience at any one station in this part of the island, will be found fallacious. To do justice to popular observation, I may now state, that in a majority of our summers, a showery period, which, with some latitude as to time and local circumstances, may be admitted to constitute daily rain for forty days, does come on about the time indicated by this tradition: not that any long space before is often so dry as to mark distinctly its commencement.
The tradition, it seems, took origin from the following curcumstances. Swithin or Swithum, bishop of Winchester, who died in 868, desired that he might be buried in the open churchyard, and not in the chancel of the minster, as was usual with other bishops, and his request was complied with; but the monks, on his being canonized, considering it desgraceful for the saint to lie in a public cemetery, resolved to remove his body into the choir, which was to have been done with solemn procession, on the 15th of July: it rained, however, so violently for forty days together at this season, that the design was abandoned. Now, without entering into the case of the bishop, who was probably a man of sense, and wished to set the example of a more wholesome, as well as a more humble, mode of resigning the perishable clay to the destructive elements, I may observe, that the fact of the hinderance of the ceremony by the cause related is sufficiently authenticated by tradition; and the tradition is so far valuable, as it proves that the summers in this southern part of our island were subject a thousand years ago to occasional heavy rains, in the same way as at present. Let us see how, in point of fact, the matter now stands.
In 1807, it rained with us on the day in question, and a dry time followed. In 1808, it again rained on this day, though but a few drops: there was much lightning in the west at night, yet it was nearly dry to the close of the lunar period, at the new moon, on the 22d of this month, the whole period having yielded only a quarter of an inch of rain; but the next moon was very wet, and ther fell 5.10 inches of rain.
In 1818 and 1819, it was dry on the 15th, and a very dry time in each case followed. The remainder of the summers occurring betwixt 1807 and 1819, appear to come under the general proposition already advanced: but it must be observed, that in 1816, the wettest year of the series, the solstitial abundance of rain belongs to the lunar period, ending, with the moon's approach to the third quarter, on the 16th of the seventh month; in which period there fell 5.13 inches, while the ensuing period, which falls wholly within the forty days, though it had rain on twenty-five out of thirty days, gave only 2.41 inches.
I have paid no regard to the change effected in the relative position of this so much noted day by the reformation of the calendar, because common observation is now directed to the day as we find it in the almanac; nor would this piece of accuracy, without greater certainty as to a definite commencement of this showery period in former times, have helped us to more conclusive reasoning on the subject.
Solstitial and Equinoctial Rains.—Our year, then, in respect of quantities of rain, exhibits a dry and a wet moiety. The latter again divides itself into two periods distinctly marked. The first period is that which connects itself with the popular opinion we have been discussing[.] It may be said on the whole, to set in with the decline of the diurnal mean temperature, the maximum of which, we may recollect, has been shown to follow the summer solstice at such an interval as to fall between the 12th and 25th of the month called July. Now the 15th of that month, or Swithin's day in the old style, corresponds to the 26th in the new; so that common observation has long since settled the limits of the effect, without being sensible of its real causes. The operation of this cause being continued usually through great part of the eighth month, the rain of this month exceeds the mean by about as much as that of the ninth falls below it.
As regards St. Swithin and his day, it may be observed, that according to bishop Hall when Swithin died, he directed that "his body should not be laid within the church, but where the drops of rain might wet his grave; thinking that no vault was so good to cover his grave as that of heaven." This is scarcely an exposition of the old saying, which, like other old sayings, still has its votaries. It is yet common on this day to say, "Ah! this is St. Swithin; I wonder whether it will rain?" An old lady who so far observed this festival, on one occasion when it was fair and sunshiny till the afternoon, predicted fair weather; but tea-time came, and—
"there follow'd some droppings of rain."
This was quite enough. "Ah!" said she, "now we shall have rain every day for forty days;" nor would she be persuaded of the contrary. Forty days of our humid climate passed, and many, by their having been perfectly dry, falsified her prediction. "Nay, nay," said she, "but there was wet in the night, depend upon it." According to such persons St. Swithin cannot err.
It appears from the parish accounts of Kingston upon Thames, in 1508, that "any householder kepying a brode gate" was to pay to the parish priest's "wages 3d." with a halfpenny "to the paschall:" this was the great wax taper in the church; the halfpenny was towards its purchase and maintaining its light; also he was to give to St. Swithin a halfpenny. A holder of one tenement paid twopence to the priest's wages, a halfpenny to the "paschall;" likewise St. Swithin a halfpenny.
Rain on St. Swithin's day is noticed in some places by this old saying, "St. Swithin is christening the apples.["]
Small Cape Marigold. Calendula pluvialis.
Dedicated to St. Swithin.
Notes [all notes are Hone's unless otherwise indicated]:
1. Golden Legend. [return]