The Open-Air Saint

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The eyes of English men scan the sky uneasily today. For on this jewelled island we are still haunted by a thousand-year legend, a shred of ancient story which concerns that most merciless of Anglian elements: the rain.

St Swithun is commonly known for this one thing: that he wanted to be buried outside, his stone open to the sky, where people might walk over it every day. It seems Swithun cannot have been a solitary man. He craved the feet of pilgrims and tourists to keep him company through eternity.

I have some sympathy with him. Outside is natural: inside is so often man-made. Outside is open: inside enclosed. If one cannot get up like a revenant from one’s grave and walk again, why, then, at least one can sense the vitality of the living and the light of a mellow English sun.

How furious he must have been, then, when the monks of Winchester moved him inside.

He was attracting increasing numbers of pilgrims, and wresting the maximum amount of money from a pilgrim required enclosure. Now that Swithun was inside the monks had sole control of who could have access to the saint.

The day after he was moved there was a great clap of midsummer thunder; and then, it began to rain.

It rained for forty days and forty nights. And even today, if it rains on St Swithun’s day, we fear it will hail a deluge here in England.

They do not tell you the postscript to the story: that monks made the same decision to bring Swithin in. Bishop Aethelwold had some very convenient visions, in which he was told in no uncertain terms to transfer Swithun inside.

His subsequent post-mortem history is complicated. It includes many moves; his head made its way to Canterbury Cathedral, and his arm to Peterborough. He was moved inside the new cathedral Β in 1093, and the shrine moved numerous times before Henry VIII’s dissolution had it demolished.

His original grave was excavated in 1961.

But St Swithun was nowhere to be found.

Deep in the bowels of the Cathedral Crypt, though, his statue and sepulchre stand in the shadows, far from the sun. Perhaps Swithun is to blame not just for freak meteorological occurrences, but for a whole climate. If we put his baggage back into the sunlight, would we become Mediterranean?

May the sun shine on you – and us- today.

With thanks to a fabulous post on St Swihun’s Shrine from Britannia.com, which you can read in detail here

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28 thoughts on “The Open-Air Saint

  1. Alas for poor St Swithun and his fans, the British climate wasn’t Mediterranean before his demise — unless we count the distant geological past. It’s a great story though, and I was anticipating something on this from you after a recent post or two on Winchester, so thanks!

    We recently watched the bittersweet film version of ‘One Day’ (can you guess which day it refers to?) so this was fresh in the mind; I’ve always remembered it though because it’s the day after Bastille Day, a date commemorating a storming rather than a storm…

      1. Sorry if your Googling left you none the wiser! From Wikipedia: “One Day is a novel by David Nicholls, published in 2009. Each chapter covers the lives of two protagonists on 15 July, St. Swithin’s Day, for twenty years.” The screenplay for the film was also by Nicholls.

        But I’m glad you liked the Bastille Day link!

    1. I love olives. Perhaps all the olive- haters might move to the low countries, thus causing a welcome fall in property prices. Sounds like a win-win situation to me. Incidentally, for the first time ever, last Winter, I was able to overwinter my favourite geranium outside. Spooky.

  2. Mother was stationed at Winchester in the early part of the war and was shown all over the cathedral by one of the vergers…she was quite surprised to meet St. Swithin having no idea of his connection with Winchester…but I think was more interested in the memorial to the diver who played a major part in remaking the foundations which were waterlogged.

    1. Ah, yes- splendid chap. And what a life- diving into the murk under the cathedral to shore it up! I’d love to know what the fascination with building holy places on water meadows was. I’ve just learnt that Salisbury Cathedral was built on them too.

  3. Wondrous tale, indeed. Here’s hoping you had more pleasant weather. We’ve been frightfully stormy here with rain and thunder and such, and today, a bit cool. That ol’ polar vortex just doesn’t want to recede.:(

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