St Swithun, the eggs, and other stories

So: St Swithun. A most convenient saint about whom very little can be proved but much has been invented. And I am left wondering if poor St Swithun was a victim of high, if holy, commerce. His most famous antemortem miracle concerned reconstituting some eggs, I believe. A poor old woman had set her eggs on a bridge and builders of a nearby church broke them. Whereupon St Swithun, a bishop of Winchester, made them whole once more. Mock not: it’s a useful skill.

But posthumous miracles? Swithun seemed to have a little more invested in these. He had asked to be buried outside the north wall of the cathedral, where rain drops would fall on his grave and the feet of passers by would tramp over it. But 100 years after he died, the powers that were deigned that he should be moved to a shrine inside the church. I have not come across the reason for this move. The conspiracy theorist in me knows that churches with saints and relics made money from pilgrims traipsing across the land to pay homage in early times; and I wonder if Swithun, holed up inside, might be easier to monetise than Swithun outside in the airy cathedral grounds.

Whatever the reason, a sort of meteorological haunting ensued. The moment the saint was moved inside, if it rained on St Swithun’s bridge, Winchester on his saints day – 15 July – it would rain thereafter constantly for 40 days and 40 nights.

Or so the story goes.

So I was going home on a back road and passed a little chapel-like church on a stream I have been meaning to visit, and the gate was open and I screeched into the car park like something out of Mad Max, alarming a goodly lady who had been about to close up ready for a funeral happening tomorrow. The name of the church: St Swithun’s. It is one thousand years old.

Do I have five minutes to explore, I asked, and she graciously acquiesced. Armed with my camera and a beautiful little hand written church guide, I engaged in Extreme Exploring. It is a pocket-handkerchief church, a little pepper pot diminutive place sat comfortably on a perfect winding English stream. It nestles in the village of Headbourne Worthy. It has a tower which dates back to 1230 and walls which come from the original building of 1030. And my whistlestop tour gave me two reasons to return as soon as possible.

One is a brass on the north wall of the chancel commemorating a Winchester scholar, John Kent. He stands in simple mediaeval dress with a speech bubble coming from his mouth. It reads: “My song shall always be of the lovingkindness of the Lord”. I have of late been thinking much about lovingkindness, and its use as a solvent to anger and bitterness. It is not to be underrated.

The second is even more striking than the three mediaeval bells, or the Rood over the vestry door, or even the mediaeval glass window depicting St Mattew. For if you walk through the 13th century door to the vestry and look down, you will see tiles which have an inscription: “Have mynde”.

I do not have pictures of either of these, and so must return to the little church to secure them and renew my acquaintance with the holy egg-reconstituter and rainmaker. A more self effacing and perfect corner of the world I could not hope to find.

I concluded my five-minute ecclesiastical dash, and thanked the good lady, and resolved to return when the swans were on the stream.

4 thoughts on “St Swithun, the eggs, and other stories

  1. What a precious find! The stories you weave are remarkably compelling, and since I cannot visit myself, thank you for such worthy detail, Kate. I do find myself curious about why St. Swithun was moved indoors. I suppose there’s a time limit as to our final wishes holding against a bureaucratic and perhaps more expedient change in status. Hope you can visit again soon.

    1. Hi Debra, quite! The stories are just lying around here on the ground to pick up…I’m off to take another look tomorrow, and perhaps I’ll take a look at his tomb once again, where it lies now in the darkest corner of the cathedral crypt!

    1. I think so too CG đŸ™‚ I feel I might choose just the same ones! There is never a mediaeval historian around when you need one – we need someone who has trawled through the archives of the cathedral….

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