St. Swithun’s Day

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 no more.

St. Swithin, statue, Stavanger Domkirke Photo: Nina Aldin Thune

St. Swithin, statue, Stavanger Domkirke
Photo: Nina Aldin Thune

Ah yes, 15th July. St. Swithun’s Day. It came and went. Needless, to say, it rained.

St. Swithun, or Swithin, was an Anglo-Saxon bishop of Winchester (nowhere near Cambridge), who died c.862. Little is known of his life or ministry (he may have accompanied Alfred the Great on the King’s visit to Rome), but a series of miracles are associated with his shrines and memory (notably, the restoration of a basket of eggs), and after his death his body was gradually dismembered, this being the common fate of saints, and distributed around the kingdoms of England. His head is in Canterbury, there is an arm in Peterborough (not far from Cambridge, if you are feeling especially devout), and so on.

You can pray to him if you are caught in a drought.

These are my St. Swithin facts.

It is not peculiar that we still rely on miraculous portents to predict the weather (St. Swithun’s, Groundhog Day, etc.). What is science, after all, but our own version of the miraculous? And the St. Swithun’s day rhyme may anyway be rooted in observational meteorology: weather patterns over the UK tend to be set early in summer and then persist. It is all something to do with the jet steams (miraculous rivers of air in the sky).

And a rhyme can very well be a simple store of memory. We do not want explanations: we only want to know where we stand. Not least English teachers, who in the summer are reduced to apologising for the weather on a daily basis. Unless they are James, of course, who, like Samuel Pepys boasts of the pleasure of rain in summer:

‘A wonderful dark sky and shower of rain this morning. At Harwich a shower of hail as big as walnuts.’
Samuel Pepys 1666 (Essex)