St. Swithin's Day

Introduction
St Swithin's Day, if it does rain
Full forty days, it will remain
St Swithin's Day, if it be fair
For forty days, t'will rain no more

Celebrated (or berated as the case may be!) on July 15th, weather sayings pertaining to St. Swithin's Day are probably the most infamous weather sayings in the UK. St. Swithin died 862 and was buried outside Winchester Cathedral so that he could 'feel' the raindrops when he was dead. However, when he was canonised a tomb was built inside the cathedral and July 15th 971 was the day his body was to be moved. Legend has it that a storm, breaking the end of a long dry spell, on the 15th and rain on each of the subsequent 40 days led to the monks taking this as a sign of 'divine displeasure' and left his body where it was.

There is, however, some evidence to suggest that St. Swithin's remains were, in fact, moved on or around 15th July 971 and no evidence exists to support 40 days of bad weather. Following the Norman conquest St Swithin's remains were then moved to a new shrine and new cathedral in Winchester. There was a large St. Swithin's cult in the Middle Ages though and this is where the legends and sayings surrounding his day are likely to have come from. During Henry VIII's reign this shrine was destroyed in an attempt to try and end these legends and sayings about St. Swithin. This probably guaranteed the sayings immortality and they have continued to be passed down through the ages!

This is the most famous of all the weather related saints' days in the UK. The legend originally only concerned rain, but later related to 40 days of similar weather. There is very little truth behind these sayings, and since 1861 there has neither been 40 dry nor 40 wet days following a dry or wet St. Swithin's Day.  In fact on average about 20 days with some rain and 20 rain free days can be expected between July 15th and August 24th, and of course it goes without saying that the weather on July 15th is independant of conditions for the following 40 days.

However, the summers of 1983, 1989, 1990 and 1995 were near misses. During these summers July 15th was dry over southern England, as were 38 of the following 40 days and on those days on which rain fell, it was only light rain. Meanwhile, in 1976 38 of the 40 days after July 15th were also dry, but on July 15th itself late evening thunderstorms affected parts of southern England, around 25mm rain being dumped on Luton, for example, in just one hour. So 1976 was either a spectacular failure or a near success depending on how you look at it! As for wet weather, Philip Eden reports that in 1985 it rained on July 15th in Luton and then rained on 30 of the subsequent 40 days.

Still, the perpetrators of the sayings surrounding St. Swithin's Day during the Middle Ages were obviously aware that summer weather patterns are usually quite well established by mid July and will then tend to persist until late August, a fact backed up by the fact that similar sayings exist around the same time of year in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and France. It would seem that the sayings surrounding St. Swithin's Day perhaps ought not to be taken completely literally but that a grain of truth does lie behind them. Maybe the sayings should be updated to read, "St. Swithin's Day, if it does rain, 40 days staying unsettled, St. Swithin's Day, if it fair, 40 days staying settled.". Not quite the poetic punch as the rhyme at the top of the page but you get the idea!!!!

As mentioned in the paragraph above some of the UK's northwestern European neighbours have similar sayings based around the idea of 40 days of similar weather (ie wet or dry) after a given day. For example the French have St. Medard's Day and St. Protase's Day on the June 8th and 19th respectively. The Germans have the Day of Seven Sleepers on June 27th whilst the Belgians have St. Godelieve on July 27th. Meanwhile, the Dutch clearly like to hedge their bets with sayings surrounding St. Henricus on July 15th ("Met St. Henricus droog, zeven weken droog. Met St. Henricus regen, veertig dagen duurt die zegen." - Dry on St. Henricus, 7 weeks dry. Rain on St. Henricus, 40 days rain.") and St. Magriet on July 20th ("Is het droog weer op St. Margriet, dan regent het dertig of veertig dagen niet." - Dry on St. Margriet, dry for 30 or 40 days - and "Magriets regen brengt geen zegen." - Margriet's rain is no blessing.).

References/Sources
An articel by Philip Eden in The Daily Telegraph one summer between 1998 and 2000.
EDEN, P. 1995. Weatherwise, Macmillam, 323pp.
MARRIOTT, P. 1981. Red Sky at Night, Sheba Books, 376pp.

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Dan Suri, 14 July 2002