St Swithin's Day 2019: How a Saxon bishop's ire supposedly led to 40 days of rain

Telegraph Reporters
Tourists shelter from the rain in London under an umbrella featuring the Union Jack - © 2018 Bloomberg Finance LP

The thought of relentless rain for more than a month is an exhausting one – and even more disheartening over summer.

But according to folklore, there's a chance we may have to withstand constant poor weather for a month and a half, dampening our hopes of a hot British summer both metaphorically and literally.

According to tradition, whatever the weather is like on St Swithin's Day – whether rain or sunshine – it will continue for the next 40 days and 40 nights.

But where does the legend come from, what does the day's weather mean for the rest of summer – and (most importantly) is there any truth to it?

When is St Swithin's Day?

St Swithin's Day falls on July 15 every year. The feast day marks the date St Swithin's remains were moved from his grave outside the Old Minister of Winchester to inside the cathedral. 

Last year, the Met Office predicted that July 15 would be a dry, fine and very warm day in England. The south-east was forecast to be hot, with the country enjoying long spells of sunshine with only a little patchy cloud.

While Scotland and Northern Ireland saw some cloud and a slow-moving band of rain, it was still mostly light and patchy.

2018 also saw the hottest June on record for Northern Ireland and Wales, and the fourth for Scotland and England based on 24-hour mean temperatures, the Met Office said. 

Who was St Swithin?

St Swithin (or St Swithun) was an Anglo-Saxon bishop at Winchester Cathedral who died in 862. At that time, Winchester was the capital of the kingdom of Wessex. 

He is believed to have been a trusted counsellor of Egbert, King of the West Saxons, and educated his son Ethelwulf who appointed him bishop.

Very little is known about his life and there's hardly any mention of him in documents from the time that he lived. However he was famed for his charity and church building and was made patron saint of Winchester Cathedral about 100 years after his death.

He supposedly performed just one miracle during his lifetime - making an old lady's eggs whole again after workmen smashed them while building a church.

Swithin is derived from the Old English word for "strong" and St Swithin's symbols are raindrops and apples.

St Swithin Credit: Getty Images

Where did the legend originate?

As he lay on his deathbed St Swithin asked to be buried outside the Old Minster in Winchester, in a lowly grave where his body would be trodden and rained on.

However more than a century later, on July 15 971, Winchester monks moved his remains to an elaborate shrine inside the cathedral where pilgrims flocked, believing his bones to have miraculous healing properties.

But legend has it that St Swithin wasn't happy about his body being moved. On the day of the removal, ferocious and violent rain storms arrived lasting 40 days and nights which apparently represented his displeasure. 

There's still a memorial to St Swithin at Winchester Cathedral Credit: Andrew Matthews/PA

This story soon became folklore and now British people keep an eye on the weather on July 15. The superstition is expressed in the well-known rhyme. 

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

Nothing remains of St Swithin's shrine which was destroyed during King Henry VIII's Reformation, but there is a memorial to him at Winchester Cathedral.

Other western European countries observe a similar day, dedicated to different saints. 

In France, people keep watch for rain on July 19 (St Gervais' Day) and Germany's Seven Sleepers day (July 7) refers to the weather patterns over the next seven weeks.

What will the weather be like this year?

According to the Met Office's weather forecast, most parts of the UK will stay dry, bright and warm on Monday July 15, with some heavy showers expected to break out in western areas on Tuesday July 16.

Atlantic weather systems are predicted to bring wetter, windier spells to parts of the country later next week, particularly in the north and west, but they are likely to be interspersed with drier, brighter conditions.

Elsewhere, southern and southeastern areas are expected to remain dry and settled, while temperatures across the UK are likely to be warmer than average.

Is there any truth in St Swithin's day folklore?

Not really. The Met Office says there has not been a record of 40 dry or 40 wet days following St Swithin's Day since records began in 1861.

But, St Swithin's rhyme isn't the only popular British ditty connected to weather – after all, we are stereotypically fascinated by the forecast. 

You might have heard of "rain before seven, fine by eleven"; This refers to the UK's rapidly changing weather caused by the westerly flow off the Atlantic, according to the Met Office.

Rain early in the morning will have often moved on as midday approaches. Although this is sometimes true, it often isn't.

"Red sky at night, shepherd's delight. Red sky in the morning, shepherd's warning" is another often-quoted proverb. The rhyme originated to help shepherds predict the following day's weather - and this one is often more reliable.

Red sky in the evening indicates high pressure is on its way from the west, meaning good weather is approaching. Dust and small particles get trapped in the atmosphere by the high pressure and blue light scatters making the sky appear red. 

However, a red sky in the morning means the good weather has passed, and a low pressure system bringing rain and wind is likely to be on its way.

St Swithin's Day in literature

David Nicholls's One Day is a romantic novel that was turned into a 2011 film starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess.

The book opens on July 15 (St Swithin’s Day) in 1988 with the first encounter between two students, Dexter and Emma, in Edinburgh, then revisits these two characters, either separately or together, on the same date for the next 20 years (hence the title).

It could be tricksy, but in fact it proves to be a wonderfully effective device, providing a series of vivid snapshots of a relationship.

At the end of each chapter the reader is left wondering what will happen next, then suddenly a year has gone by and the situation has changed in ways that are often surprising but always entirely believable.

Nicholls has said that he wanted to “create the impression of looking through a photo album, so that the characters seem to change, yet remain the same.

"Twenty years is a substantial sprawl, so my initial instinct was to cover landmarks – births, marriages, deaths. Instead, I’ve taken one day at random – like a date on a bank statement.”