Winchester Cathedral Let Him Down

Today is St Swithin’s Day, commemorating the English saint-bishop, quite obscure in life but after his death famed as patron of Winchester cathedral and as a miracle-worker (and reference figure for a terrific song by Billy Bragg). Most of all, he became one of the best-known weather forecasters (along with hairy caterpillars and Punxsatawney Phil).
The lore says

St. Swithin’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithin’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain nae mair.

I was wondering whether St Swithin (or “Swithun,” since, back in the tenth century, people weren’t fussy about spelling) restricted his weather forecast to England, or whether he reflected the tendency of expansionist English thinking and simply assumed that everything that applied to England applied also to other realms in the British Isles. Swithin’s own sphere of experience and interest seems to have focused solely on Winchester, but the concluding line of the quatrain sounds a lot like a Scottish pronunciation. Why should our weather be controlled by someone who may never have travelled north of the Thames?
In other words, it’s raining today in Scotland, and forty days is a long time.

9 thoughts on “Winchester Cathedral Let Him Down

  1. In olden times you mother at elementary shcool principaled by a true Brit learned a son which began, “In olden times St Swithin’s chimes/ rang (something) every hour/ from out the old grey tower/ etc. Alas I can’t send the tune which I remember better than the words. I could do it in solfege, but it would take me too long away from St. Andrew’s!!!

  2. I hate to say it, but it can indeed rain here for forty days straight. Probably not in the summer though. And I do indeed think St Swithin’s jurisdiction must be limited to Englandshire.

  3. I’m told that the jet stream shifts right around this time which the scientific community chooses to identify as the reason rather than the true reason involving the miraculous powers of the saint.

    Interestingly enough, it’s widely believed among Anglo-Saxonists that the big to-do over Swithun made by the monastic reformers during the English Benedictine revival was, in part, an apology for kicking the Canons out of Westminister…

  4. My father was born on St Swithun’s day. The rhyme is usually taken as meaning some rain every day for forty days – trust me, it can easily do this in Scotland. As everybody will by now have told you, it always rains for the Glasgow Fair. Generally we have great weather up to the solecist and autumn thereafter.

  5. I guess I was in a hurry. Your mother, not you! And Swithun’s chimes rang could it be blithely every hour? It is stuck in my mind as improbable as it seems.

  6. Now I’m fascinated, Mom, ’cause I can’t find a trace of that rhyme/song on the web. And the idea that something might not be on the web, somewhere, sets my neurons and my stubbor-researcher traits tingling.

  7. Margaret, the Google Queen, found the lyric you were discussing. Here’s what she came up with:


    Stage Lyrics


    Harry B. Smith

    (page 141)

    The Bells of St. Swithin’s

    (From Robin Hood)

    In olden times
    St. Swithin’s chimes
    Tolled blithely ev’ry hour
    From out the old gray tower.
    ‘Neath Swithin’s shade
    A lovely maid
    Lived in a cottage bower,
    As fair as any flower.
    She heard the chimes through all the day ;
    She heard them call the folk to pray ;
    She learned to love their roundelay
    From old St. Swithin’s tower.

    Ring on, bell;
    For wedding song or funeral knell,
    Your message to each hearer tell.
    Ye chimes.
    Ding, dong, dong !
    Of joy or grief may be your song.
    If mirth or pain
    Be your refrain,
    Still ring, ye bells, and sing.

    A youth there came
    With love aflame
    To that sweet maiden’s bower
    Beneath St. Swithin’s tower.
    With smile and sigh
    He bade her fly,
    Nor heed what clouds might lower —
    True love’s enough for dower.
    A little space with him she strayed,
    When warningly those chime bells played:
    ” Turn back, turn back, O gentle maid.
    His love will last an hour.”

    Ring on, bell ;
    For wedding song or funeral knell.
    Your message to each hearer tell,
    Ye chimes.
    Ding, dong, dong !
    Of joy or grief may be your song.
    If mirth or pain
    Be your refrain.
    Still ring, ye bells, and sing.


    Does this sound right?

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