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On the Kalendar: Swithun, Bishop of Winchester

July from Les Petites Heures d'Anne de Bretagne

“July”, kalendar page from Les Petites Heures d’Anne de Bretagne (The Little Hours of Queen Anne of Bretagne), by the Maître des Triomphes de Pétrarque. From Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris (France).

Swithun was Bishop of Winchester in the mid-9th century. He is not mentioned much in the documents of his own time; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does note his death in 861. A century later, when Dunstan and Æthelwold of Winchester were inagurating their church reforms, they adopted Swithun as the patron of the restored church. His body was transferred from an obscure grave to the new basilica on 15 July, reportedly leaving a trail of miracles in its wake.

Following the revival of interest in Swithun, a number of miracles were attributed to him. Perhaps the most famous miracles are the miracle of the egg-woman and the ordeal of Queen Emma. In the first, Swithun is reported to have restored a woman’s basked of eggs that had been maliciously broken by some workmen. The story of Queen Emma’s ordeal is a little more complicated. Emma was wife to two kings, Æthelred the Unready, and Cnut the Great. (Cnut deposed Æthelred, and married Emma to solidify his claim to the throne.) Some time around 1044, the Archbishop of Canterbury accused Emma of having an affair with Ælfwine, the Bishop of Winchester. To prove her innocence, Emma was ordered to walk across nine red-hot ploughshares placed on the pavement of the nave of Winchester Cathedral. (Tellingly, there is no indication Æalfwine was subjected to any comparable ordeals.) Swithun appeared to Emma in a dream the night before the ordeal and told her she would survive the ordeal—and she did. Her son, King Edward, proclaimed her innocence and sent the Archbishop into exile.

Swithun is one of those weather saints, whose feast is said to be a harbinger of future meteorological conditions. Swithun had originally asked to be buried outside his church, “where it might be subject to the feet of passers-by and to the raindrops pouring from on high”, and so his feast day is a predictor of rain. In the usual proverb,

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain nae mare

Swithun died on 2 July, but his feast day is 15 July, the date of the translation of his relics.

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