Weathering the weather – weather predictions in folklore

“St. Swithin’s Day if thou dost rain, for forty days it will remain.” – or so says an old Scottish proverb…

The 15th July marks the feast day of St Swithin (sometimes spelt St Swithun), an Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Winchester from 852-862CE. According to folklore, the weather following St Swithin’s Day is dictated by the characteristics of the weather on the day; as noted in the popular Elizabethan verse (best read in strong Scottish accent):

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 nae mare.

Some versions of the folktale are more specific, stating that the rain must fall on St Swithin’s bridge in Winchester for it to continue for forty days. So why the association with the weather? Well, first a little background is needed.

St Swithin shown in the Benedictional of St. Æthelwold, Winchester, 10th century. British Library.

It all begins with Swithin’s end

It’s recorded that on his death in 862CE, Bishop Swithin requested to be buried outside the cathedral, rather than indoors, as was usual for those in his office. According to William of Malmesbury, a historian writing in the 12th century, Swithin left instructions that his body be buried outside “where it might be subject to the feet of passers-by and to the raindrops pouring from on high”.

In the following years, his shrine was supposedly the site of numerous miracles, indicating, perhaps, that he was pretty pleased with his chosen resting place. There were reports of SO MANY miracles, in fact, that the later Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester ordered that all monks should stop what they were doing and head to the church every time a miracle happened. According to some stories, the monks soon got pretty fed up of this arrangement though, and began to ignore these orders. St Swithin, it seems, wasn’t best pleased about this, reportedly appearing in a dream to one or two monks, and threatening to stop the miracles if they didn’t start going again! You’d think that this story would have provided ample warning not to mess with the deceased saint’s plans, but…

St Swithin’s memorial shrine in the retrochoir of Winchester Cathedral

In 971CE the decision was made to relocate the saint’s body to a new shrine inside the cathedral. As the move began, folklore tells us that heavy rain began to fall – a sure sign that Swithin wasn’t pleased with the relocation! The story of this aptly timed rain shower (and its persistence for a further 40days!) became associated with the saint’s day forever more (or ‘forever mare’ if you’re Elizabethan).

Just tall tales?

As with many a good story, when we try to trace back to a factual origin we begin to run into some difficulties! Strangely, the tale about the rain can’t be definitively traced to one source, and chroniclers writing as late as the 12th century give no mention of such an event ever taking place. So where did the story of the rain come from? It’s possible that the legend springs from a particularly heavy rainstorm recorded on St Swithin’s Day in 1315, which came to be associated with the retelling of the story. It could also be that this was mixed in with long-standing pagan beliefs regarding the swift change of weather around midsummer; beliefs with some sound scientific basis as it turns out! According to the Royal Meteorological Society:

“The middle of July tends to be around the time that the jet stream settles into a relatively consistent pattern. If the jet stream lies north of the UK throughout the summer, continental high pressure is able to move in, bringing warmth and sunshine. If it sticks further south, Arctic air and Atlantic weather systems are likely to predominate, bringing colder, wetter weather”

St. Medard from Les Images De Tous Les Saincts et Saintes de L’Année, 1636, by Jacques Callot. Metropolitan Museum of Art

In fact, St Swithin isn’t the only saint said to hold influence over the weather at this time of year. Across Europe, saints such as St. Medard and St. Gervase and St. Protais in France have similar weather associations on their days on 8th and 19th June, along with the Seven Sleepers’ Day in Germany on the 27th June, and St. Godelieve in Flanders on 6th July. So perhaps St Swithin just seemed the closest fit for our own understanding of this weather phenomenon…

Weather folklore in Huntingdonshire

We have our own folktales associated with St Swithin’s Day, as well as other more widely experienced weather phenomena. Behaviour of the sky, birds and mammals have also been closely studied as a method of prediction since ancient times. The Romans in particular looked to the birds to help predict favourable or unfavourable events. This practice was known as “taking the auspices”, leading to the words ‘auspicious’ and ‘inauspicious.’

Cuthbert Bede in his ‘Notes and Queries’ of 1852-1871 records that St Swithin’s Day was vital to the apple crop in Cambridgeshire, stating that “no apples were deemed fit to eat before this date, and when ripe, they would not keep unless St Swithin rained on them” (Bede 1865).

Tebbutt, in his fantastic book ‘Huntingdonshire Folklore’, records other weather-related folktales, including foggy mornings in March foretelling floods in May, a dark and moonless Christmas Day portending a fine harvest, and rhymes involving the moon:

Near full moon and misty sunrise
Bodes fair weather and cloudless skies.

Another rhyme from Glatton and Stamford centred on St Paul’s Day on the 25th January goes:

If St Paul’s Day be fair and clear
It doth betide a happy year;
If blustering winds do blow aloft
Then wars will trouble our realm full oft;
And if by chance to snow and rain
Then will be dear all sorts of grain.

Tebbutt also records the behaviour of certain birds as being an important omen in St Neots. It was said that rain would come following jackdaws sitting on the highest pinnacles of St Neots church, and that rooks building nests high or low foretold a wet or dry summer. Cats or dogs seen eating grass, and the call of a green woodpecker were also known to be foretellers of rain.

So, we’ll be keeping a keen eye on the rooks, jackdaws, cats and dogs next week as St Swithin’s Day draws closer! You can read more on the folklore of Huntingdonshire in our blog post on folk medicine