I’m British, and therefore I have a strong, intimate connection to the weather. We’ve had a few warm, sunny days here recently, and while everyone says they like the sun, the first thing we all end up saying is "We need some rain." Because we’re British, from an island green of land and grey of sky (and also grey of housing estate, but let’s not go into that now). We still talk about the Great Storm of 1987 (which was only a few days before Black Monday – that was a bit of an apocalyptic week).
So it’s in this context that we’re due for forty days of rain. For today was St. Swithin’s Day and, according to English weatherlore, if it rains today, it’s going to rain until St. Bartholomew‘s Day on August 24th; basically, it’s our version of Groundhog Day.
St. Swithin himself was Bishop of Winchester in the 9th century, a man given to building and restoring churches and inviting the poor to banquets. Upon his death, the story goes, he requested that he be buried outdoors; about a hundred years later a group of monks decided to move his body into a shrine, a move that was accompanied by torrential rain and that started the tradition that, if it rains on July 15th, it’ll rain for the next forty days (which is a good biblical number – that’s how long it rained for in the story of Noah, by the way).
(Well, that’s one of the origin stories at least; another is that the tradition was prompted by a downpour on St. Swithin’s Day in 1315, but that’s less fun. And this article from the Times suggests a link with the jet stream’s impact on weather patterns, which is even less folkloric, if more scientific…)
So St. Swithin entered English folklore, going on to give his name to an anti-Thatcherism comic by Grant Morrison and a song by Billy Bragg. He’s also entered that strange netherworld of ecclesiastical mythology, where you’re never quite sure what’s a genuine relic of Christianity or a reinterpretation of a pagan past, or something else entirely. Perhaps the big daddy of all those stories is the idea that Jesus, as a boy, visited the British isles with Joseph of Aramathea; probably complete cobblers, of course, but it’s an idea that’s had something of a hold on the English imagination, informing the wider mythology of Glastonbury and the mystical tradition of William Blake (I dispute that Jerusalem is a hymn, because its theology is random at best, but it’s a fantastic call-to-arms to build a better world – once again, Billy Bragg’s got in on the act…)
So there you have it – St. Swithin’s Day is a very English thing, all weather and religious/mystical traditions and historical randomness. Does it really have any impact on our lives in the 21st century? Well, who knows, but I’d argue that it’s a part of England’s natural character all the same.
And in honour of that fact… I may buy an umbrella.