Monthly Archives: July 2022

Custom survived: St Swithin’s Day Weather predictions

Standard

‘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?

Custom contrived: Annual service at the St Benet’s abbey ruin, Norfolk

Standard

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It would be hard pressed to find a more evocative and romantic site for a religious nestled in the ruins of St Benet’s Abbey is not only spiritual but a functional one because St Benet’s is the only Abbey in Britain never to be dissolved at the Reformation. This means to all intense and purposes when the lands were given over to the newly established Bishop of Norwich, he also became the Abbot of the Abbey and the local vicar the Prior, a detail we shall explore later. Therefore, not only can the custom be seen as a service of remembrance but a service to allow the rights of the Bishop to continue. However, this would suggest a long history but that is not true. Indeed, if the press are anything to go by the service was established as a publicity event. The Sunday Mirror of the 02 July 1939 records:

“Abbey Holiday Worship – Holidaymakers will, on the first Sunday in August, be the first congregation at St Benets Abbey, Norfolk, since the Reformation…the Bishop of Norwich has already held special services in the holiday camps who would otherwise not have time for worship.”

Sail in

In this first service one of the key features of the service was established:

“The Bishop of Norwich, as Abbot of Benet will travel by boat to the ruined abbey standing far from any road, on the banks of the river Thurne”

In a 1953 account this had become:

“a fifty-year-old wherry. Solace, sitting up for’ard in his cope and golden vestments, with his pastoral crook in his hand.”  

Not much had changed except he now sailed down from Horning and not Wroxham as in the 1950s…and seeing the power of the wind on the day I attended I am sure that was a sensible decision! However, this has become perhaps the most picturesque part of the tradition, many people coming to see the 150 year old wherry, a boat once common on the broads, but now much rarer. When I arrived there I was kindly directed to the landing point which was further up from the main ruin. There was a more solid mooring near to this and at first I thought this was the most likely location, the Bishop then procession through the ruins making a very good picture. However, upon surveying the location it would have been a long procession…as it was a long way over rough grass to the site of the high altar of the abbey’s church now little more than low rubble walls.

The arrival time was 3.15 but as the time neared there was little sign of the Bishop, just a few excited false starts – one actual wherry and others sailing boats…then the boat sailed into view. The first thing that caught the eye being indeed the Bishop, holding on with a great deal of pose but also tenacity as the wind blew again the boat with some force…indeed I was surprised he did not lose his mitre to the water below. Greeting him at the bank were two men dressed in cloaks who were said to be of the order of St Benet thus keeping the Abbey’s association with an order alive.

Down among the ruins

One wonders if similar issues happened in 1953 when the event received national press due to its attendees, the Illustrated London News of the 8th August 1953 recorded a royal visit:

“QUEEN ELIZABETH THE QUEEN’S MOTHER, AND PRINCESS MARGARET SAIL TO THE SERVICE AT ST. BENET’S ABBEY. 

ON Sunday, August 2, after unveiling a memorial to the nine men of Sandringham village and estate who died in the last war. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother with Princess Margaret and the Princess Royal took luncheon up the Bure in his yacht Capricorn to attend the annual open-air service at the site of the ruined St. Benet’s Abbey. This service, for holiday-makers on the Broads, was taken by the Bishop of Norwich, who is the titular Abbot of St. Benet’s ; and for this service he had sailed down from Wroxham in a fifty-year-old wherry. Solace, sitting up for’ard in his cope and golden vestments, with his pastoral crook in his hand. The Bishop preached the sermon and a special prayer of thanksgiving was offered for the armistice in Korea. A farm-cart was used as the pulpit and there was a congregation of about a thousand. There were very many boats taking part in the journeys to and from the service, and during it white sails could be seen moving against the sky at all points of the horizon.”

Since then, the farm cart pulpit has been gone replaced by a mighty cross cut from the trees of the Sandringham estate. I was told by one of the attendees that at the time Prince Philip when asked if they could use a tree from the estate said of course yes, but was shocked when he saw the size of it. It certainly is an impressive place to hold a service twixt the rubble ruins and the long brown grass.

Once the Bishop reached the ruined church the choir and local vicar joined him at the ruined gateway to process down the aisle and to the altar. The service continued a similar vein as a usual Anglican service, with the choir sounding very angelic as their sound drifted across the ruins and there was even a collection at the ruined doorway…easily avoidable if you wanted to unlike others!

However ,there were some more unique features of the service focused on its association with the order and rule of St Benet. Firstly there was a reading from the Prologue of the rule of St Benedict. Then the members of the community of St. Benet’s gathered at the cross facing the Bishop – called as he can be the Abbot and read the traditional Act of commitment, probably unique, of which the following were particularly unusual:

“Abbot: As the present day Community of St Benet’s, will you continue to foster the ancient traditions of worship, prayer and hospitality, upon which the Abbey was founded.” Community: With the help of God, we will.

Abbot: Will you support and pray for the Abbot in his ministry, and each other in mutual fellowship?” Community: With the help of God, we will.”

The service also had the Prayer of St Benedict and the Nunc Dimittis sung by the community with the choir. Then the service finished with a blessing with local vicar, or Prior as he was called in the service sheet, telling us to go in peace and serve the Lord.

The annual service, very much an important fixture in the church calendar locally, is not only a picturesque one but one which connects us back to times before the Reformation and allows us to bring these ruins back to life again.

Custom demised: The Order of Free Gardener’s processions

Standard

During the middle of the 17th century in Scotland the Order of Free Gardeners was established a fraternal society with its main aim was the sharing of profession knowledge linked and mutual insurance. Furthermore like other organisations, it would process in July.

James Haig in his 1825 History of Kelso stated

“The Society of Gardeners, on the second Tuesday in the month of July, the day of their annual general meeting, parade the streets, accompanied by a band of music, and carrying an. elegant device, composed of the  most beautiful flowers, which, on the company reaching the inn where they dine, is thrown from the window to the crowd, who soon demolish it in a scramble for the flowers.”

The group had also spread into England, in the border town of Berwick, John Fuller in his  1825 History of Berwick-upon-Tweed states that:

“The association of gardeners, which took place in 1796, had in his time a procession through the streets yearly. It was accompanied with music; and, in the middle of the procession, a number of men carried a large wreath of flowers. The different officers belonging to this institution wore their respective insignia, and the whole society dined together.”

Interestingly, some societies paraded with a costumed character usually one called ‘Old Adam’ or the Green Man but sometimes Jock in the Green a vernacular Jack in the Green. He was particularly seen during Haddington parade, where led the town piper and Jock carrying a bower of flowers representing the Garden of Eden.

Flowers were carried as indicated below:

“Free Gardeners’ Penicuik Centenary Year Walk 8th July 1922 Lady members who intend joining the procession and all children of Free Gardiners who are able to carry flowers, designs etc, are invited to attend a meeting….As the procession is to be filmed it is hoped Members will endeavour to make the Children’s Section a feature of this unique event.”

They carried also banners which hang from horizontal pole being held up by two vertical poles. These perhaps surprisingly were blue, rather than the more plant related green and had painted or embroidered decoration often with biblical scenes – Noah and his Ark or Adam and Eve. The members also wore highly decorative aprons as well as they processed.

When these processions demised is unclear, some friendly societies still process however. The two World Wars called up most of the members so is likely that this stopped the annual event. This and the economic crash of 1929 and the National Insurance Act of 1946 both weakened their monetary capacities and purpose, and thus by 1950s must had gone the last surviving into the 1980s. With them went the colourful processions and the flower scramble.