‘In this month is St. Swithin’s Day,
On which, if that it rain, they say,
Full forty days after it will,
Or more or less, some rain distil.
This Swithin was a saint, I trow,
And Winchester’s bishop also,
Who in his time did many a feat,
As popish legends do repeat:
A woman having broke her eggs,
By stumbling at another’s legs,
For which she made a woful cry.
St. Swithin chanced for to come by,
Who made them all as sound or more,
Than ever that they were before.
But whether this were so or no,
‘Tis more than you or I do know.
Better it is to rise betime,
And to make hay while sun doth shine,
Than to believe in tales and lies,
Which idle monks and friars devise.’
In the next century, Gay remarks in his Trivia
‘Now if on Swithin’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.
Let not such vulgar tales debase thy mind;
Nor Paul nor Swithin rule the clouds and wind!’
Poor Robin’s Almanac for 1697
It is one of the best known of British pieces of folk tradition; one that everyone knows, everyone says and indeed everyone dreads – the association of rain with St Swithun’s Day.
It is perhaps as held strongly by some as William Hone, records in his 1780-1842 Everyday Book:
“An old lady who so far observed this festival, on one occasion when it was fair and sunshiny till the afternoon, predicted fair weather; but tea-time came, and—
“there follow’d some droppings of rain.”
This was quite enough. “Ah!” said she, “now we shall have rain every day for forty days;” nor would she be persuaded of the contrary. Forty days of our humid climate passed, and many, by their having been perfectly dry, falsified her prediction. “Nay, nay,” said she, “but there was wet in the night, depend upon it.” According to such persons St. Swithin cannot err.”
Right as rain?
The earliest mention appears to be from a 14th century manuscript held in Emmanuel college Cambridge which reads:
“In the daye of Seynte Swithone rane ginneth rinigge Forti daws mid ywone,”
(On St Swithin’s day it begins raining and usually continues for 40 days.)
Such a viewpoint seemed fairly entrenched for in 1336 a Robert de Graystane:
“In 1315…on the day after the anniversary of the moving of St Swithin’s body namely the 15th July, such was the deluge of rain, that rivers overflow their banks to an awesome degree, submerging crops,,and rushing through houses, drowning women and children.”
By Poor Robin’s almanac it appears to be well established, crystalised in the 1813 copy of Brand’s popular antiquities of Great Britain states:
“The common adage regarding St. Swithin, as every one knows, is to the effect that, as it rains or is fair on St. Swithin’s Day, the 15th of July, there will be a continuous track of wet or dry weather for the forty days ensuing.
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.’
Rain fire and brimestone
But why? Robert Chambers in his 1864 Book of Days informs us that:
“St. Swithin, bishop of Winchester, was a man equally noted for his uprightness and humility. So far did he carry the latter quality, that, on his death-bed, he requested to be buried, not within the church, but outside in the churchyard, on the north of the sacred building, where his corpse might receive the eaves-droppings from the roof, and his grave be trodden by the feet of the passers-by. His lowly request was complied with, and in this neglected spot his remains reposed till about a hundred years afterwards, when a fit of indignation seized the clergy at the body of so pious a member of their order being allowed to occupy such a position; and on an appointed day they all assembled to convey it with great pomp into the adjoining cathedral of Winchester. When they were about to commence the ceremony, a heavy rain burst forth, and continued without intermission for the forty succeeding days. The monks interpreted this tempest as a warning from Heaven of the blasphemous nature of their attempt to contravene the directions of St. Swithin, and, instead of disturbing his remains, they erected a chapel over his grave, at which many astounding miracles were performed. From this circumstance, it is stated, arose the popular belief of the anniversary of the attempted translation of St. Swithin being invested with a prophetic character in reference to the condition of the weather for the ensuing six weeks.”
How true this is unclear, we know that Swithin, or Swithun, was born in Winchester, probably around 800A.D., and became a monk of the abbey there gaining favour Egbert, king of Wessex, who intrusted him with the education of his son and successor, Ethelwulf. Nothing that is known of him suggests he would be associated with raining! What is more likely is that it records some longer pagan belief regarding the meteorologically prophetic character of day around St. Swithin’s. This is certainly supported by the fact that in France, St. Médard’s Day (June 8), and the day of Saints Gervais and Protais (June 19), not too far off from July have the following ascribed to them:
‘S’il pleut le jour de Saint Médard,
Il pleut quarante jours plus tard;
S’il pleut le jour de Saint Gervais et de Saint Protais,
Il pleut quarante jours apres.’
Rain on one’s parade
Robert Chambers in his 1864 Book of Days appears curious to discover more and states:
“The question now remains to be answered, whether the popular belief we have been considering has any foundation in fact, and here the observations at Greenwich for the 20 years preceding 1861, must be adduced to demonstrate its fallacy. From these we learn that St. Swithin’s Day was wet in 1841, and there were 23 rainy days up to the 24th of August; 1845, 26 rainy days; 1851, 13 rainy days;- 1853, 18 rainy days; 1854, 16 rainy days; and, in 1856, 14 rainy days. In 1842, and following years, St. Swithin’s Day was dry, and the result was in 1842, 12 rainy days; 1843, 22 rainy days; 1844, 20 rainy days; 1846, 21 rainy days; 1847, 17 rainy days; 1848, 31 rainy days; 1849, 20 rainy days; 1850, 17 rainy days; 1852, 19 rainy days; 1855, 18 rainy days; 1857, 14 rainy days; 1858, 14 rainy days; 1859, 13 rainy days; and, in 1860, 29 rainy days. It will thus be seen, by the average of the fore-going 20 years, that the greatest number of rainy days, after St. Swithin’s Day, had taken place when the 15th of July was dry. It is, indeed, likely enough that a track of wet weather, or the opposite, may occur at this period of the year, as a change generally takes place soon after midsummer, the character of which will depend much on the state of the previous spring. If this has been for the greater part dry, it is very probable that the weather may change to wet about the middle of July, and vice versa”. But that any critical meteorological influence resides in the 15th, seems wholly erroneous.”
Despite this debuttle of the custom, it continues to be referred to in 1832 A Henderson’s Scottish Proverbs states:
“if St Swithin greats (weeps), the weather will be foul for forty days.”
In 1882 People’s Friend states in a November edition of 1882 stated:
“People not ordinarily superstitious are still found who cling to the old belief ‘if on St Swithin’s it does rain, for Forty days it will remain.”
1892 C.M. Yonge Old Womans Outlook
“If Swithin’s day be fair and clear, it betides a happy year; if Swithin’s day be dark with rain, Then will be dear all sorts of grain.”
In 1986 a man c 50s in Richmond Yorkshire when asked stated
‘If it rains on St. Swithin’s Day, it will rain for forty days and forty nights -I’ve known since childhood.”
But a folklorist does not need to find written examples this is one of the few pieces of folklore which is known by everyone it seems and so I looked up to the sky on the said day…it was clear and so far 16 days later its kept dry…and there has been a heatwave..but does the adage work that way as well?