Swithun in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (BL Additional 49598, f.97v)
Today is St Swithun's Day, when the weather-gods obey the saint of Winchester - 'St Swithun's day if thou dost rain / For forty days it will remain', and all that. So let's look at a few extracts from an Old English homily for St Swithun's Day, written by Ælfric in the last decade of the tenth century.
Ælfric had a personal connection to Swithun's story, and in this homily he adds in one or two comments to remind us of it. Swithun was an obscure ninth-century Bishop of Winchester whose fame is almost entirely the work of Æthelwold, his successor at Winchester more than a century later. Winchester was the royal city of Wessex but it was surprisingly short on saints, so Æthelwold did his best to elevate some of his predecessors to that status, including Swithun and St Birinus (a better-attested saint, though his popularity never caught on as Swithun's did). On 15 July 971, Æthelwold had Swithun's remains translated to a new shrine inside the Old Minster, Winchester. Ælfric, who was educated at Winchester under Æthelwold and had a great respect for his bishop, would have witnessed much of this, and by the time he wrote about it, around 25 years later, he had come to see Æthelwold's time - his own youth - as a kind of golden age for the English church, when the king and holy bishops worked together and religion and peace flourished in the land. By the 990s, with the Vikings suddenly once more a pressing threat, this seemed to him like a bright but vanished world.
The opening of Ælfric's homily on Swithun, in an 11th-century manuscript (BL Cotton MS Julius E VII)
Today Swithun is really only famous for his weather-lore, because we know very little about what he did as Bishop of Winchester. (The weather-lore is a late development, not found in the Anglo-Saxon sources.) Ælfric didn't know either, as he tells us plainly:
On Eadgares dagum ðæs æðelan cynincges
þaþa se cristendom wæs wel ðeonde þurh God
on angel-cynne under ðam ylcan cynincge,
þa geswutelode God þone Sanct Swyðun
mid manegum wundrum þæt he mære is.
His dæda næron cuðe ærðan þe hi God sylf cydde,
ne we ne fundon on bocum hu se bisceop leofode
on þysre worulde ærðan þe he gewende to Criste.
Þæt wæs þæra gymeleast þe on life hine cuþon,
þæt hi noldon awritan his weorc and drohtnunge
þam towerdum mannum ðe his mihte ne cuðon;
ac God hæfð swa þeah his lif geswutelod
mid swutelum wundrum and syllicum tacnum.
Đes Swyðun wæs bisceop on Winceastre,
swa þeah ofer Hamtun-scire, gesælig Godes þeowa
and eahta bisceopas wæron betwux him and Sancte Æðelwolde.
Nu næs us his lif cuð, swa swa we ær cwædon,
butan þæt he wæs bebyrged æt his bisceop-stole
be westan þære cyrcan and ofer-worht syððan
oþþæt his wundra geswutelodon his gesælða mid Gode.
In the days of the noble king Edgar, when by the grace of God Christianity was thriving among the English people under that king, God revealed St Swithun, showing by many signs that he is glorious. His deeds were not known until God himself made them known, and we do not find written in books in what manner the bishop lived in this world before he went to Christ. Such was the carelessness of those who knew him in life, that they did not write about his deeds and conduct for the benefit of future generations who did not know his virtue; but God nonetheless made known his life with manifest miracles and wonderful tokens. This Swithun was Bishop of Winchester, that is, over Hampshire, a blessed servant of God; there were eight bishops between him and St Æthelwold. Now, as we said before, nothing about his life is known to us, except that he was buried at his episcopal seat, to the west of the church, and a tomb was built over him, until his miracles revealed that he was blessed by God.
Those miracles are the main subject of Ælfric's homily, showing how Swithun's holiness was revealed by visions and signs (you can read the full homily here). Ælfric goes on to describe how Swithun's existence was miraculously made known, leading to the moving of his body into the cathedral on 15 July, 971:
Þrym gearum ærðan þe se sanct into cyrcan wære gebroht
of ðære stænenan þryh þe stent nu wið-innan
þam niwan geweorce com se arwurða Swyðun
to sumum gelyfedan smyðe on swefne æteowiende
wurðlice geglencged and ðas word him cwæð to:
“Canst þu ðone preost þe is gehaten Eadzige
þe wæs of ealdan mynstre mid ðam oðrum preostum adræfed
for heora unþeawum þurh Æðelwold bisceop?”
Se smið þa andwyrde þam arwurðan Swyðune þus:
“Gefyrn ic hine cuðe, leof, ac he ferde heonon
and ic nat to gewissan hwær he wunað nu.”
Þa cwæð eft se halga wer to ðam ealdan smyðe:
“Witodlice he wunað nu on wincel-cumbe ham-fæst
and ic ðe nu halsige on þæs hælendes naman
þæt ðu him min ærende ardlice abeode
and sege him to soþan þæt Swiðun se bisceop
het þæt he fare to Æðelwolde bisceope
and secge þæt he ge-openige him sylf mine byrgene
and mine ban gebringe binnan ðære cyrcan
forðan þe him is getiþod þæt ic on his timan
beo mannum geswutelod. And se smið him cwæð to,
“La leof, Eadzige nele gelyfan minum wordum.”
Đa cwæð se bisceop eft, “Gange him to minre byrgene
and ateo ane hringan up of ðære þryh
and gif seo hringe him folgað æt þam forman tige,
þonne wat he to soðan þæt ic þe sende to him.
Gif seo hringe nele up þurh his anes tige
þonne ne sceall he nates hwon þinre sage gelyfan.
Sege him eac siððan þæt he sylf geriht-læce
his dæda and þeawas to his drihtnes willan
and efste anmodlice to þam ecan life.
Sege eac eallum mannum þæt sona swa hi
geopeniað mine byrgene þæt hi magon ðær findan
swa deorwurðne hord þæt heora dyre gold
ne bið nahte wurð wið þa fore-sædan maðmas.”
Se halga Swyðun þa ferde fram þam smiðe up
and se smið ne dorste secgan þas gesihðe ænigum menn
nolde beon gesewen unsoðsagul boda.
Hwæt ða se halga wer hine eft gespræc
and git þryddan siðe and swyðe hine þreade
hwi he nolde gehyrsumian his hæsum mid weorce.
Se smið þa æt nextan eode swa ðeah to his byrgene
and genam ane hringan earhlice swa ðeah
and clypode to gode þus cwæðende mid wordum:
“Eala þu drihten god, ealra gesceafta scyppend,
getiða me synfullum þæt ic ateo þas hringan
up of ðysum hlyde, gif se lið her on innan
seðe me spræc to on swæfne þriwa.”
He teah ða þæt isen up swa eaðelice of ðam stane,
swilce hit on sande stode, and he swyðe þæs wundrode.
He ða hit eft sette on þæt ylce þyrl
and þyde mid his fet and hit swa fæste eft stod
þæt nan man ne mihte hit þanon ateon.
þa eode se smið ge-egsod þanon
and gemette on cypincge þæs Eadzies mann
and sæde him gewislice hwæt Swyðun him behead
and bæd hine georne þæt he hit abude him.
He cwæð þæt he hit wolde cyðan his hlaforde
and ne dorste swa ðeah hit secgan æt fruman
ærþan ðe he beþohte þæt him ðearflic nære
þæt he ðæs halgan hæse forhule his hlaforde,
sæde þa be ende-byrdnysse hwæt Swyðun him bebead
þa onscunode se Eadsige Æðelwold þone bisceop
and ealle ða munecas þe on ðam mynstre wæron
for þære ut-dræfe þe he gedyde wið hi
and nolde gehyran þæs halgan bebod
þeah ðe se sanct wære gesib him for worulde.
He gebeah swa þeah binnan twam gearum
to þam ylcan mynstre and munuc wearð þurh god
and þær wunode oðþæt he gewat of life.
Geblætsod is se ealmihtiga god þe ge-eadmed þone modigan
and ða eadmodan ahæfð to healicum geðincþum
and gerihtlæcð þa synfullan and symle hylt ða godan
þe on hine hihtað forðan þe he hælend is.
Three years before the saint was brought into the church from the stone coffin which now stands inside the new building, the venerable Swithun appeared to a certain faithful blacksmith in a dream, richly adorned, and said to him: "Do you know the priest called Eadsige, who, with the other priests, was driven out of the Old Minster by Bishop Æthelwold because of their sinfulness?"
The smith answered venerable Swithun, "I knew him long ago, sir, but he went away from here, and I don't know for certain where he lives now."
Then the holy man spoke again to the old smith: "Truly, he is now settled at Winchcombe, and I command you now, in the Saviour's name, to swiftly tell him my message, and tell him truly that Bishop Swithun orders him to go to Bishop Æthelwold and say that he should open my tomb himself and bring my bones inside the church, because it has been appointed that in his time I should be made known to men."
And the smith said to him, "But, sir, Eadsige will not believe my words."
The bishop said, "Let him go to my tomb and pull a ring out of the coffin, and if the ring comes away at the first try, then he will know for certain that I sent you to him. If the ring will not come away by his effort alone, then he should not put any faith in what you have said. Tell him, also, that he should amend his behaviour and conduct to the will of his Lord, and hasten with a single purpose towards eternal life. And tell everyone that as soon as they have opened my tomb, they will find there a hoard so valuable that their precious gold will be worthless compared to those treasures."
The holy Swithun then left the smith. The smith did not dare to speak of that vision to anyone, not wishing to be thought a liar. But the holy man spoke to him again, and yet a third time, and severely challenged him why he would not obey him and put his commands into action. So the smith went to the tomb, and took hold of a ring on it - though he was terrified - and cried out to God, saying, "O Lord God, Creator of all things, grant to me, a sinful man, that I may be able to pull this ring out of the coffin, if he who has spoken to me three times in a dream lies within here."
He drew the iron out of the stone as easily as if it stood in sand, and he marvelled greatly at that. Then he placed it back in the same hole, and pressed it down with his foot, and it was again attached so fast that no one could pull it away.
The smith, awestruck, went out and found Eadsige's servant in the marketplace, and told him exactly what Swithun had told him, and asked him earnestly to tell it to Eadsige. The man said he would tell his lord, but he did not dare to tell him straight away. Then after a time he realised that it would not be good for him if he concealed the saint's commands from his lord, so he told him all that Swithun had commanded. Eadsige was angry with Bishop Æthelwold and all the monks in the monastery, because they had driven him out, and he would not heed the saint's commands, although that holy man [Æthelwold] was a kinsman of his. But, within two years, he returned to the monastery and became a monk, through God's grace, and lived there until his death. Blessed is Almighty God, who humbles the proud and exalts the humble to a high place, and corrects the sinful and ever protects the good who hope in him, because he is the Saviour.
This is a great story - Swithun granting his own sword-in-the-stone moment! After this a number of miraculous cures take place, and Bishop Æthelwold is convinced to follow the command of the vision and bring Swithun inside the cathedral.
Swithun at St-Swithun-upon-Kingsgate, Winchester
In another miracle-story, Ælfric concludes by mentioning his own involvement:
Æþelwold þa se arwurða and se eadiga bisceop
þe on ðam dagum wæs on Winceastre bisceop
bead his munecum eallum þe on ðam mynstre wunodon
þæt hi ealle eodon endemes to cyrcan
and mid sange heredon þæs sanctes mærða
and God mærsodon swa on þam mæran halgan,
swa oft swa ænig wan-hal mann wurde gehæled.
Þa dydon hi sona swa and sungon þone lofsang
oðþæt heora laðode eallum þæt hi swa oft arisan -
hwilon þrywa on niht, hwilon feower syðum -
to singenne þone lofsang þonne hi slapan sceoldon
and forleton ealle endemes þone sang
forðam þe se bisceop wæs bysig mid þam cynincge
and nyste butan hi sungon þone lof-sang forð on.
Hwæt ða se halga Swyðun sylf com on swefne
wundorlice geglencged to sumum godan menn and cwæð,
“Gang nu to ealdan mynstre and þam munecum sege
þæt Gode swyðe oflicað heora ceorung and slæwð
þæt hi dæg-hwamlice geseoð drihtnes wundra mid him
and hi nellað herian þone hælend mid sange
swa swa se bisceop behead þam gebroðrum to donne,
and sege gif hi nellað þone sang gelæstan
þonne geswicað eac sona ða wundra,
and gif hi þone lofsang willað æt þam wundrum singan
swa oft swa wanhale menn þær wurðað gerihte
þonne wurðaþ mid him wundra swa fela
þæt nan man ne mæg gemunan on life
þæt ænig man gesawe swylce wundra ahwær.”
þa awæcnode se wer of þam wynsuman slæpe
and swyðe be-sargode þæt he geseon ne moste
ne nan læncg brucan þæs beorhtan leohtes
þe he mid Swiðune hæfde ða gesewen.
He aras swaðeah and swiðe hraðe ferde
to Æþelwolde bisceope and him eall þis sæde.
Æþelwold þa asende sona to þam munecum
of cyninges hyrede and cwæð þæt hi sceoldon
þone lof-sang singan swa swa he ge-set hæfde
and se þe hit forsawe sceolde hit mid fæstene
seofon niht on an swarlice gebetan.
Hi hit heoldon þa syððan symle on ge-wunon
swa swa we gesawon sylfe for oft
and þone sang we sungon unseldon mid heom.
Æthelwold, the venerable and blessed bishop, who in those days was Bishop of Winchester, commanded all his monks who lived in the Minster that every time a sick person was healed they should all go in procession to the church, and praise in song the merits of the saint and glorify God because of the saint's holiness. They began to do this straightaway, and sang the song of praise, until it grew tiresome for them to have to get up so often - sometimes three times a night, sometimes four - to sing the Te Deum, when they could have been asleep. At last they all left off singing the hymn, because the bishop was busy with the king, and did not know that they had ceased their custom of singing.
But then St Swithun himself appeared to a certain good man in a dream, richly attired, and said, "Go to the Old Minster, and say to the monks that God is greatly displeased by their grumbling and sloth, that every day they see the miracles of God performed among them, but they do not want to praise the Saviour with hymns as the bishop commanded the brothers to do. Tell them that if they do not sing the hymn, the miracles will soon cease; but if they sing the Te Deum for the miracles, as often as sick people are healed there, then so many wonders will be performed among them that no one alive will be able to remember when any man saw such wonders anywhere."
The man woke up from his sweet sleep, and mourned that he could no longer see and enjoy the beautiful light which he had seen accompanying Swithun. Nonetheless he got up and quickly went to Bishop Æthelwold, and told him all this. Æthelwold straightaway sent a message from the king's court to the monks, and said that they should sing the Te Deum just as he had set down for them, and that anyone who neglected to do this should heavily atone for it by fasting for seven nights continuously. Afterwards they always kept this custom, as we have very often seen for ourselves - and we have often sung that hymn with them.
The replacement for the destroyed tomb of St Swithun in Winchester Cathedral
Ne mage we awritan ne mid wordum asecgan
ealle þa wundra þe se halga wer Swiðun
þurh God gefremode on ðæs folces gesihþe,
ge on gehæftum mannum ge on unhalum mannum,
mannum to swutelunge þæt hi sylfe magon
Godes rice geearnian mid godum weorcum
swa swa Swiþun dyde þe nu scinð þurh wundra.
Seo ealde cyrce wæs eall behangen mid criccum
and mid creopera sceamelum fram ende oð oþerne
on ægðrum wage þe ðær wurdon gehælede
and man ne mihte swa ðeah macian hi healfe up.
þyllice tacna cyþað þæt Crist is ælmihtig God
þe his halgan geswutelode þurh swylce wel-dæda...
We habbað nu gesæd be Swiðune þus sceortlice
and we secgað to soðan þæt se tima wæs gesælig
and wynsum on angel-cynne þaþa Eadgar cynincg
þone cristen-dom ge-fyrtðrode and fela munuclifa arærde
and his cynerice wæs wunigende on sibbe
swa þæt man ne gehyrde gif ænig scyp-here wære
buton agenre leode þe ðis land heoldon
and ealle ða cyningas þe on þysum iglande wæron,
cumera and scotta, comon to Eadgare
hwilon anes dæges eahta cyningas
and hi ealle gebugon to Eadgares wissunge.
þaer-to-eacan wæron swilce wundra gefremode
þurh þone halgan Swyðun, swa swa we sædon ær,
and swa lange swa we leofodon þær wurdon gelome wundra.
On ðam timan wæron eac wurð-fulle bisceopas:
Dunstan se anræda æt ðam erce-stole
and Aþelwold se arwurða and oðre gehwylce,
ac Dunstan and Aþelwold wæron drihtne gecorene
and hi swyðost manodon menn to godes willan
and ælc god arærdon Gode to cwemednysse
þæt geswuteliað þa wundra þe God wyrcð þurh hi.
We cannot write, nor recount in words, all the miracles that the holy man Swithun performed, by the power of God, in the sight of the people, for prisoners in chains and for sick people, to show to everyone that they themselves may earn the kingdom of heaven by good works, just as Swithun did, who is now made glorious by his miracles. The old church was hung all round with the crutches and stools of cripples who had been healed there, from one end to the other on either wall - and even so they could not put half of them up. Such tokens declare that Christ is Almighty God, who revealed his saint by such good deeds...
We have now spoken thus briefly of Swithun. We say, truly, that time was a blessed and happy one in England, when King Edgar fostered Christianity and built many monasteries, and his kingdom ever continued in peace, so that no ship-army was heard of, except that of the people who ruled this land. All the kings of the Welsh and Scots in this island came to Edgar in one day - that was eight kings - and they all submitted themselves to Edgar's rule. And, moreover, many miracles were performed through St Swithun, as we have said, and as long as we have lived frequent wonders have been done in that place. At that time there were worthy bishops, Dunstan the resolute, in the archbishopric, and Æthelwold the venerable, and others like them; Dunstan and Æthelwold were chosen of God, and they, most of all, exhorted men to do God's will, and advanced everything good, to the pleasure of God, as is testified by the miracles which God works through them.
This last paragraph is a reminder of the fraught times in which Ælfric was writing: the last decade of the tenth century, the reign of King Æthelred, when England was being attacked by Viking fleets. - hence his reference to the happy time when 'no ship-army was heard of'.) The reign of King Edgar, guided by Archbishop Dunstan and Bishop Æthelwold, was to Ælfric 'a blessed and happy time' of peace and prosperity, such as had faded under Edgar's unfortunate son Æthelred. He looks back to the example of Edgar, Dunstan and Æthelwold as an implicit rebuke to the king and bishops of his own days, but I think he might have been disappointed to know that a thousand years later - and only because of some weather-lore - Swithun's fame outshines any of the other three...