SAINT SWITHUN, BISHOP OF WINCHESTER (+ 862)
By Vladimir Moss
Our holy Father Swithun (or Swithin) was born in Wessex early in the ninth century and educated at the Old Minster in Winchester. During the reign of King Egbert of Wessex (802-839), he was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Helmstan of Winchester (838- c.852). He was chosen by King Egbert to be his chaplain, and to be the educator of his son Ethelwulf, who became king in 839. On October 30, 852 he was consecrated Bishop of Winchester by Archbishop Ceolnoth of Canterbury.
In 853 King Ethelwulf sent his five-year-old son Alfred, the future founder of the All-English monarchy, on a pilgrimage to Rome. He was escorted by St. Swithun. Pope Leo IV endowed the young prince with the insignia and dignity of a Roman consul. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he even “consecrated Alfred as king and stood sponsor for him at confirmation, just as his father Ethelwulf had requested when he sent him thither.”
In 854 King Ethelwulf “determined to give a tenth part of the lands throughout all my kingdom to Holy Church”. This charter was signed, after the king, by St. Swithun. His signature is also on other royal gifts of land to the Church. William of Malmesbury says that, if Bishop Ealstan of Sherborne was Ethelwulf's minister for temporal matters, Saint Swithun was the minister for spiritual matters.
It was a very difficult time for the English people as the pagan Vikings invaded the land and spread death and destruction far and wide. In 860 a great naval force even stormed the city of Winchester itself, but was later defeated. Swithun not only protected the kingdom by his prayers, but is also credited with building the bridge over the River Itchen at the east end of the city. He built and restored many churches in his diocese, travelling everywhere on foot. When he gave a banquet, he invited the poor, not the rich.
Once, when he was visiting the workmen at the bridge, the saint saw a poor woman carrying eggs back home in her basket. She dropped the basket, and, to her great distress, the eggs broke. However, the holy bishop, taking pity on her, restored the eggs whole and unbroken to the basket.
It is at about this time that an Anglo-Saxon poem called Judith was composed; it has been described as “one of the noblest poems in the whole range of Old English Literature, combining the highest dramatic and constructive power with the utmost brilliance of language and metre”. Professor Cook of Yale University thinks that it was composed by St. Swithun himself in about the year 856 in gratitude for the deliverance of Wessex from the fury of the Vikings and dedicated to Judith, wife of King Ethelwulf. In the poem the Vikings are represented by the Assyrians, the English by the Jews, and Queen Judith by her namesake in the Bible story.
St. Swithun died on July 2, 862, and was buried in a simple grave outside the west door of the old cathedral, as he had requested, so that the rain and the feet of passers-by should tread on him. The grave was identified and marked by archaeologists in 1971.
For over a hundred years, his memory was forgotten. But the Lord did not wish this light to remain hidden under a bushel. And on July 15, 971 his relics were translated into the cathedral to the accompaniment of a greater outpouring of miracles than had ever been seen in Orthodox England.
About twenty years later, this event was recorded by Abbot Aelfric:- “For three years before the saint was translated into the church from the stone coffin which now stands inside the new building, he appeared in a vision to a certain faithful blacksmith, wonderfully arrayed, and said: ‘Do you know the priest Edsige, who with other priests was driven out of the old monastery by Bishop Ethelwold for their misconduct?’ The smith then answered the venerable Swithun as follows: ‘I knew him long ago, sir, but he left this place, and I do not know for certain where he is living now.’ Then the holy man said again to the old smith: ‘He is now living in Winchcombe. This is the truth. And now I adjure you in the name of Christ: go quickly and give this message, that Swithun the bishop has commanded him to go to Bishop Ethelwold and say that he must himself open my grave and bring my bones inside the church; for he has been counted worthy that in his time I should be made known to men.’ Then the smith said to him: ‘O sir, Edsige will not believe my words.’ Then the bishop said again: ‘Let him go to my grave and pull a ring out of the coffin; and if the ring yields at the first tug then he will know for certain that I have sent you to him. If the ring will not come away easily, then he will by no means accept what I say. And after that tell him that he must amend his ways in accordance with the will of the Lord, and hasten single-mindedly to eternal life. And tell everyone that as soon as they open my grave they will find such a valuable hoard that their precious gold will be as nothing in comparison.’ Then holy Swithun vanished from the smith’s sight.
“However, he did not dare to tell anyone about this vision, fearing to be regarded as an untruthful messenger. So the holy man spoke to him again, and yet a third time, and severely reproved him for not acting in obedience to his commands. Then at last the smith went to his burial-place, and, albeit fearfully, took hold of the ring, crying out to God: ‘O Lord God, the Creator of all things, grant me, a sinner, to pull this ring out of the lid, if he who spoke to me three times in a dream is really lying here inside.’ Then he pulled the iron out of the stone as easily as if it had stood in sand, and wondered greatly at what had happened. Then he put it back in the hole and pressed it in with his foot. Again it stuck so firmly that no one was able to pull it out. The smith went away awestruck, and in the market-place he met a serf of Edsige’s, to whom he related exactly what Swithun had commanded him to report it to his master.
“The serf consented, but at first did not dare to tell his master, until he felt that no good would come from concealing the saint’s command. Then he told him in order what Swithun had commanded. Now at that time Edsige avoided Bishop Ethelwold and all the monks who were in the minster because of his ejection by then. So he did not obey the saint’s command, although the saint was a blood-relative of his. Within two years, however, he retreated to that same monastery, and by the grace of God became a monk, continuing there until he departed this life. Blessed is Almighty God, Who humbles the proud while exalting the humble to high estate, and corrects the sinful while always preserving the good who hope in Him.
“Again, there was a certain poor peasant, awfully hunch-backed and bent over in consequence, to whom it was revealed in a dream that he would obtain bodily health and recovery from his crippled state at Swithun’s sepulchre. And so he arose joyfully in the morning, crept on two crutches to Winchester and sought the saint as he had been instructed, praying for his health on bended knee. Then he was healed by the holy bishop, so that no trace of the hump which had oppressed him could be seen. At that time the monks did not know about St. Swithun, thinking that some other saint had healed the man. But the peasant said that it was Swithun who had healed him, for he knew best about the matter.
“A certain man was afflicted with a very distressing disease, so that he could hardly open his eyes or utter a word, but lay in torment thus, despairing of his life. Then all his friends wanted to carry him to the New Minster, to [the relics of] St. Judoc, so that he could recover his health there. But someone told them that it would be better to take the sick man to the Old Minster, to Swithun’s grave. This they did, and that night they kept vigil at the grave with him, praying to Almighty God to grant the sick man health through St. Swithun. The sick man also watched until daybreak. Then he fell asleep, and it seemed to all of them as if the tomb was rocking, while to him it seemed as if someone was dragging one of his shoes off his feet. Suddenly he awoke, healed by the holy Swithun. They looked carefully for the shoe, but no one could find it. So they returned home with the man who had been healed.
“Through the power of God eight sick men were miraculously healed at the holy tomb before the body was removed from it.
“After these signs, King Edgar desired the holy man’s exhumation, and told the venerable Ethelwold to translate it with great pomp. Then Bishop Ethelwold, accompanied by abbots and monks, took up the saint and and bore him into the church of St. Peter. There he remains in honour, working miracles. Then within three days four sick men were healed by the holy man; and there were few days within the next five months in which at least three sick people were not healed – sometimes five or six, or seven or eight, ten or twelve, sixteen or eighteen. Within ten days two hundred men had been healed, and so many within twelve months that no one could count them. The cemetery was filled with cripples, so that the people could hardly get into the minster. And within a few days they were all so miraculously healed that one could not find a sick man in the whole of that vast crowd.
“At that time there lived in the Isle of Wight three women, two of whom had been blind for nine years, and the third had never seen the light of the sun. With some difficulty they obtained a dumb guide and came to the saint, and watched there for one night, and were healed, both the blind woman and the dumb guide. Then the boy told the sacristan, saying that he had never been able to speak before, and asking for the appointed hymn of praise to be sung.
“At about the same time a certain bondwoman was caught and sentenced to be flogged for some very minor fault. She was put in custody until the morning, when she was to be severely beaten. All night she lay awake, weeping and calling on the holy Swithun to help her, the wretched one, praying that through the power of God he would deliver her from the cruel stripes. When dawn broke, and they began to sing the Praises, the fetters on her feet suddenly fell off, and she ran, with hands still bound, to the church and the blessed saint, in accordance with his will. Then her lord came after her and freed her, loosing her bonds, for the sake of St. Swithun.
“A certain nobleman had lain crippled by paralysis for many years, being unable to move from his bed. Then he said that he wanted to travel to Winchester, if only in his horse-litter, and pray for his healing. While he was saying this to his servants and friends, he was cured. Nevertheless, he made his way to the saint on foot, travelling in front of the company for the whole journey, and earnestly thanked the saint for his recovery.”
On one day, twenty-five men suffering from various diseases came to the saint, imploring him to help them. Some were blind, some lame, some deaf and some dumb. They were all healed at the same time through the saint’s intercession.
There was a certain very rich nobleman who went suddenly blind. He travelled to Rome to pray to the holy Apostles for a cure. For four whole years he stayed in Rome, but was not healed. Then he heard of St. Swithun, and of the miracles he had wrought since the nobleman had left England. Travelling back in haste, he came to the holy man and was healed there, returning home with perfect sight.
“Another man,” continues Abbot Aelfric, “had been blind for seven whole years. He had a guide who led him everywhere. One day he went out, but the guide became angry and left him. At a loss how to return home, the blind man cried out to god and St. Swithun in great anguish. He was immediately healed and returned home joyfully without a guide, for which his relatives thanked God fervently.
“Then the venerable and blessed Ethelwold, who was the bishop of Winchester at that time, commanded all the monks who were living in the monastery to go in procession to the church and praise the saint with hymns, and in this way to magnify God because of the great saint every time a sick man was healed. This they did immediately, and sang the Te Deum so often – sometimes three, sometimes four times in a night – that they came to hate getting up to do this, as they wanted to go on sleeping. At length they gave up the chanting altogether, for the bishop was busy with the king and had no means of knowing that they were not chanting the Te Deum continually. Then St. Swithun himself came, wonderfully adorned, to a certain good man, and said: ‘Go now to the Old Minster and tell the monks that God very much dislikes their murmuring and sloth, for they see God’s wonders among them every day but will not praise Christ with chanting as the bishop told the brethren to do. And tell them that if they do not sing the hymn, immediately the miracles will cease. However, if they sing the Te Deum every time a miracle is performed and a sick man is healed, then so many miracles will be wrought among them that no one will be able to remember so many miracles having been wrought in his lifetime by anyone. Then the man awoke from that joyous sleep, lamenting that he could no longer see the bright light which he had seen around St. Swithun. He arose, however, and went quickly to Bishop Ethelwold, and told him all that had happened. Ethelwold then immediately sent from the king’s court to the monks, and told them to sing the Te Deum as he had commanded, with the warning that anyone who neglected this would heavily atone for it by seven days’ continuous fasting. From that time they always observed this custom, as we ourselves have very often seen; for we have not infrequently sung this hymn with them.
“A certain man was unjustly accused of stealing, and sentenced to having his eyes put out and his ears cut off. He was immediately seized and the sentenced carried out. Then the blood ran down into his head so that he could not hear, and he continued blind and deaf for seven months. Until, that is, he went in faith to St. Swithun, and sought out his relics, and prayed to him that he would at least receive his hearing; for he did not believe that he would ever recover his sight. And he said that he had been unjustly punished in this way. Then through Swithun’s intercession a wonder of God was wrought in that man so that he saw clearly with perfect eyes, although they had been thrust out of their sockets and one ball removed entirely, while the other hung down his cheek. He was also granted good hearing – he who had formerly possessed neither eyes nor hearing.
“However, we should understand that we should not pray to God’s saints as to God Himself, for He alone is God and above all things; but we should truly pray to the saints to intercede with the omnipotent God, Who is their Lord, that He may come to our aid.
“Once some men were keeping vigil beside a corpse in the customary manner, when a fool, as if in jest, told them with unseemly laughter that he was Swithun. ‘You may know that I am in fact Swithun who work these miracles, and it is my will that you bring your candles to me and prostrate yourselves, and I shall grant you your desire.’ He foolishly blasphemed in this way for a long time until the suddenly fell to the ground, silenced, and as if dead. Immediately they carried him home to his bed, where he lay for a long time, confessing that he had presumptuously spoken foolish words, and asking forgiveness from the saint. And by the saint’s intercession he was healed…
“A certain nobleman’s servant had a sudden fall from his horse, so that his arm and left leg were broken. And he was so crushed that he immediately thought that he would die. He had been previously very dear to his lord, and the lord was in great sorrow for his servant, and besought the Almighty from his inmost heart to help the man through the great Swithun. And he also appealed to Swithun, crying out in sorrow: ‘O holy Swithun, pray to Jesus that He may grant life to this sick servant. If He does this through you, I shall be more faithful to the living God all the days of my life.’ Then the servant arose, made whole through St. Swithun. Then the lord rejoiced, and with faith gave praise to God.
“A certain old nobleman in the Isle of Wight had lain bedridden for some nine years, and could not leave his bed without being carried. Two shining saints appeared to him in a dream and told him to run with them quickly. The sick man said: ‘How can I run with you when it is nine years now that I have been unable to rise from this bed alone, without men’s help?’ Then the saints said: ‘If you go with us now, you will come to that place where you will receive healing.’ Then he was very glad, and wanted to go with them; and when he found himself unable to travel with them, they flew through the air and carried him until they came to a solitary field with brightly blooming flowers. And standing in the field was a church made of shining gold and precious stones. And St. Swithun stood before the altar, dressed in shining Eucharistic vestments, as if about to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Then Swithun said to the sick man: ‘I tell you, brother, from this time forth you must do evil to no man, nor curse any man, nor speak evil of any man, nor be malicious, nor agree with murderers, nor connive at wicked robbers and thieves, nor join in evil deeds, but rather, as best you can, help the needy with your own goods. Then you will be healed by the power of God.’ Then the sick man reflected that he did not wish to do evil except to those who had done evil to him, and that he wished to do good to those who had done good to him. But St. Swithun knew the reasoning of his heart, and said to him cheerfully: ‘Brother, I tell you, you must not do what you are thinking and harm any man, even if he harms you, but imitate your Lord, Who would not curse those who put Him to death, and commanded His followers to pray for their enemies. In the same way Paul the Apostle says to all Christians: ‘If your enemy hungers, feed him, or if he thirsts, give him to drink.’ Then the bedridden man said to the bishop: ‘O sir, tell me what kind of man you are, since you are so well able to discern the thoughts of men.’ Then St. Swithun said: ‘I am he who has just recently come,’ as if he said: ‘I have just recently been made known’. ‘What is your name?’ asked the man. ‘When you come to Winchester, you will know my name,’ replied the saint. Then the man was immediately brought back to his bed, and awoke from sleep, and told his wife the whole of the vision he had seen. Then the woman said to him that it was Swithun who had instructed him and whom he had seen looking so glorious in the church. ‘It would be very good if some men carried you to church,’ she said, ‘and if you prayed to the saint to cure you.’ Then they immediately carried him from his bed to a church in the Isle of Wight, and he was instantly healed. And he went home whole and on his feet – he who had been carried on a bier to the church. After that he went very quickly to Winchester and told the venerable Bishop Ethelwold how he had been healed through St. Swithun. And Landferth the foreigner wrote it down in Latin…
“A certain Winchester man became angry with his serf because of some carelessness, and put him in fetters. He sat in the hated bonds for a long time until, with the aid of a staff, he hopped out on one foot and with tears prayed to St. Swithun. The bolt immediately shot out of the fetter and the serf arose, freed by the saint.
“We cannot write,” concludes Aelfric, “nor recount in words, all the miracles the holy Swithun wrought by the power of God in the sight of the people, both on prisoners and on the sick, to manifest to men that they, like Swithun who now shines out through his miracles, may be counted worthy of the Kingdom of heaven by good works. Both walls of the old church were hung, from end to end, with crutches and the stools of cripples who had been healed there. Even so they could not put half of them up…”
Early in the eleventh century, St. Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been bishop of St. Swithun’s see in Winchester, translated the precious head of the saint to Canterbury. An arm was given to Peterborough Abbey.
Another great miracle took place in the middle of the eleventh century, as Canon Frederick Busby recounts. Queen Emma, the mother of King Edward the Confessor, had been accused of unchastity with Bishop Alwyn of Winchester. In order to prove her innocent she was obliged to undergo the ordeal of walking over nine red-hot ploughshares placed on the pavement of the nave of the Cathedral. The Cathedral annalist says: ‘The new was spread throughout the Kingdom that the Queen was to undergo this ordeal; and such was the throng of people who flocked to Winchester, that so vast a concourse on one day was never seen there before. The King himself, Saint Edward, came to Winchester; nor did a single noble of the Kingdom absent himself, except Archbishop Robert, who feigned illness and, being inimical to the Queen, had poisoned the King’s mind against her,’ so that if her innocence was proved he might be able to make his escape without difficulty. The pavement of the church being swept, there were placed upon it nine red-hot ploughshares, over which a short prayer was said, and then the Queen’s shoes and stockings were drawn off, and laying aside here mantle and putting off her veil, with her garments girded closely about her, between two bishops, one on either hand, she was conducted to the torture. The bishops who led here wept, and, though they were more terrified than she was, they encouraged her not to be afraid. All persons who were within the church wept and there was a general exclamation: “O, St. Swithun, St. Swithun, help her!” The people cried with great vehemence that St. Swithun must hasten to the rescue. The Queen prayed: St. Swithun, rescue me from the fire that is prepared for me. Then followed a miracle. Guided by the Bishops she walked over the red-hot ploughshares, she felt neither the naked iron nor the fire…
St. Swithun’s feastdays are July 2 and July 15.
Holy Father Swithun, pray to God for us!
(Sources: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; Abbot Aelfric, Lives of the Saints, Early English Texts Society, no. 76, 1881; Frederick Busby, Saint Swithun, Winchester, 1971; “Swithun and Scandinavia”, in Winchester Cathedral: Record 1972; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1978, p. 365; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swithun; http://www.orthodoxengland.bt/internet.co.uk/servswit.htm)