St. Swithin and predicting English weather in the summer

By , July 19, 2009 4:00 am

English summer weather and the legend of St. Swithin’s Day

England, it is sometimes said, doesn’t have climate,  it has weather. There is quite a lot of truth in this – while it is obviously colder and darker in the winter than in the summer, on any given day it could be bright and sunny in December, or grey and pouring with rain in August.

So over the years, a large number of myths, legends and signs have been said to foretell what the weather will be.

There is an old legend, trotted out  every year, that the summer’s weather can be predicted by observing what happens on St. Swithin’s saint’s day, 15th July.

Stained glass window of William of Malmesbury, who wrote about St. Swithin in the 12th century

Stained glass window of William of Malmesbury, who wrote about St. Swithin in the 12th century

If it rains on St. Swithin’s Day, the tradition says, it will rain every day for the next 40 days.

Not great news for London, as it rained pretty heavily on 15th July this year. Oh, and it’s rained every day since, so far!

A traditional version of the weather forecasting properties of St. Swithin’s Day says:

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 na mair

In the 18th century, John Gay recorded the ancient tradition thus:

Now if on Swithun’s feast the welkin lours
And every penthouse streams with hasty showers,
Twice twenty days shall clouds their fleeces drain
And wash the pavement with incessant rain.

A plan of Winchester Cathedral from 1911 - St. Swithin was Bishop of Winchester

A plan of Winchester Cathedral from 1911 - St. Swithin was Bishop of Winchester

Who was St. Swithin / St. Swithun / St. Swithhun?

St. Swithin (the most common spelling) was an Anglo-Saxon, and was bishop of Winchester from 852 AD until he died in 862.

In 9th century records, not a lot is said about him. He was one of the two main advisors of Egbert, King of Wessex. He signed a few charters which are still extant, and his death was reported in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, and that’s about it.

There are a lot more sources about him from the 10th century, but how much they actually knew and how much was just more or less made up is anyone’s guess!

Winchester Cathedral is still dedicated in part to him – to the Holy Trinity, St. Peter, St. Paul and St. Swithin.

How the legend came about

William of Malmesbury, an 11th and 12th century historian, wrote about St. Swithin in his 1125 book Gesta pontificum Anglorum (Deeds of  English Bishops). William said that, when dying, St. Swithin said, “ubi et pedibus praetereuntium et stillicidiis ex alto rorantibus esset obnoxius”, or that he should be buried outside the Catherdral, where passers-by  could walk and raindrops fall on him. This indicates that the rain-forecasting potential of the saint was already know by the 12th century.

In the 10th century, over 100 years after his death, St. Swithin’s body was “translated”,  or moved. Most of his body was buried in a new shrine to him in Winchester Cathedral, but later his head went to Canterbury, and an arm to Peterborough Abbey.

It is supposed to have rained heavily on the date of the translation of St. Swithin’s relics, and the legend may originate from this.


Any truth in this saying?

Malmesbury Abbey, where William of Malmesbury was a monk

Malmesbury Abbey, where William of Malmesbury was a monk

To some extent, yes. Obviously, it’s not the case that the 15th July sets out the weather for the next 40 days for sure.

But there is a pattern whereby the weather in mid-July sets the stage for what is to follow.

The jet-stream’s position, for example, greatly affects British weather in the summer, and its position is often fixed by mid-July for several weeks thereafter.

So the weather for a week either side of St. Swithin’s Day is indeed a general indication of what the rest of the summer’s weather may be like.


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