Gathering up Swithun’s fragments

by
25 March 2009

David Keys traces the journey of St Swithun’s skull from Winchester to Normandy

Relic hunted: the skull of St Swithun as it is kept in Évreux Cathedral JOHN CROOK

Relic hunted: the skull of St Swithun as it is kept in Évreux Cathedral ...

NEW MATERIAL has emerged about one of Britain’s best known saints, St Swithun (of rain-lore fame). Almost 500 years after his skeletal relics disappeared at the Reforma­tion, his skull surfaced on the other side of the Channel, in Évreux Cathed­ral in Normandy, some years ago. Now some historians hope that Winchester — the cathedral that once housed his remains — might rebuild the lost shrine where his relics were once kept.

Analysis of a series of carved Pur­beck marble fragments found in the Cathedral Close has, over recent months, allowed medieval art ex­perts to complete a computer recrea­tion of the 15th-century shrine, which could be used to reconstruct it.

ST SWITHUN was Bishop of Win­chester in the ninth century, shortly before the reign of Alfred the Great, when the city was the principal town of Wessex. Little is known of Swithun’s life. He died in 863, and would have sunk into obscurity, had it not been for the vision of a later Bishop of Winchester, Æthelwold, who was consecrated 100 years later, in 963.

Æthelwold, encouraged by King Edgar (whom he had tutored) and Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canter­bury, wanted his cathedral to return to the perceived simpler values of monasticism — in line with the Benedictine reforms that were reaching England from Continental centres such as Fleury and Ghent. He replaced the secular cathedral canons with Benedictine monks.

Æthelwold needed a persona to embody the spirit of his new cathedral priory — his predecessor Bishop Swithun was possibly chosen in order to appease the dis­possessed canons somewhat, as Swithun had been a secular rather than a monk.

Swithun’s bones were exhumed and placed in a gold and silver reliquary. They became the focus of considerable veneration — so much so that, in 1005, the Bishop of Win­chester, Ælfheah (known today as Alphege), decided to take the saint’s skull with him when he was pro­moted to the see of Canterbury.

At Winchester, the reliquary (which contained the now headless collection of bones) was given pride of place on the high altar when the cathedral was rebuilt by the Nor­mans in the late 11th century.

A century later, and 100 miles away in Canterbury, Ælfheah’s suc­cessors, who had no links with Winchester, had lost interest in the skull. Some­how, it ended up at Évreux. It is pos­sible that Giles, the Bishop of Évreux, was given it as a diplomatic gift in 1172 when he was in England for the ceremonial coronation of Henry II’s son, “Henry the Young King”, as co-ruler of England.

Some sources suggest that it was Giles who placed the crown on Henry’s head. St Swithun’s skull would have been seen as an appro­priate thank-you present — espe-cial­ly as the coronation took place in Winchester Cathedral.

Back in Winchester, the relic (minus skull — and an arm bone that a monk had carried off to Stavanger in Norway, whose cathed­ral is dedicated to the saint) had become an import­ant and lucrative attraction. In the late Saxon period, Swithun was credited with the power to help restore cripples and give sight to the blind. There is little evidence that his cult flourished so vigorously after the Norman Conquest, despite periodic attemps to promote it.

Much later, in the 15th century, the Chancellor of England, Edward III’s grandson, Cardinal Beaufort, who was Bishop of Winchester, ap­pears to have left posthumous instruc­­tions that a grand new shrine should be built to house Swithun’s remains. Beaufort chose to be buried in a lavish chantry chapel next to the saint. St Swithun’s new shrine was duly inaugurated in 1476, and demolished in the Reformation some six decades later.

In Évreux, anti-clerical actions during the French Revolution robbed the skull of its precious-metal rel­iquary. Meanwhile, Winchester had no idea where Swithun’s skull had ended up — until a member of the congre­ga­tion from Winchester Cathed­ral found a reference to it in a 19th-century book on French cathed­rals. He visited Évreux, but did not manage to see the relic.

Enquiries were made. Contact be­tween Winchester and Évreux was established, and Winchester Cathed­ral’s archaeologist, Dr John Crook, went over to Évreux to see the relic for himself.

IN recent years, Dr Crook has gradually been discovering and ident­i­fying fragments of the monumental shrine from 1476, which had been re-used over the years in a garden wall, an outbuilding, and other structures. Two postgraduate students from the University of Bam­berg have scanned the fragments and created a three-dimensional compu­ter model. It is these fragments that the cathedral could use in a recon­struction.

But, of course, St Swithun’s wider fame is the tradition that the weather on St Swithun’s Day (15 July) will be repeated for the following 40 days. The idea may have been transferred from two first-century Roman saints, associated with similar beliefs, who were revered in Anglo-Saxon Eng­land, and whose feast day was the same as the date of St Swithun’s death (2 July: 15 July is the date of the trans­lation of his bones to the cathed­ral).

The new research is likely to broaden Swithun’s appeal by placing him in the wider ecclesiastical, poli­ti­cal, and social context of his time.

David Keys is the archaeology correspondent of The Independent.

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)