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 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